MIAMI — There’s an old sportswriting adage that if you try to say too much, you end up not saying anything at all. Narrow your focus to one or two specific points. A central theme. Go from there.
But in the case of the Miami Heat’s 128-102 blowout win over the Boston Celtics in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals on Sunday, there’s no way to narrow down what happened. The Heat destroyed Boston in every single aspect of the game.
Shooting. Defense. Aggression. Execution. Hustle. You name the basketball facet, and Miami dominated it. The Heat are now up 3-0 in this series, the same advantage Denver owns in the West. Which is to say, our Finals matchup is basically set. No team in history has recovered from a 3-0 deficit to win a playoff series.
The Heat, who were the league’s fourth-worst 3-point shooting team, according to percentage, during the regular season, entered Sunday night shooting 43% as a team from beyond the arc in this series. Boston, on the flip side, was shooting 31 percent. That trend continued, with Miami draining 46% of its 3s through the first three quarters to Boston’s 19% for a 21-point advantage from beyond the arc.
That wasn’t an accident. This is not shooting luck. Miami is generating great drive-and-kick looks. They are relocating and beating the Celtics down the floor in transition. Gabe Vincent scoring 29 points on 11-of-14 shooting, including 6 of 9 from deep, feels like an outlier, and it is. But Miami’s process created those good looks, and the rhythm they’ve steadily gained throughout these playoffs is contagious. Give them credit for that.
“That was a solid, mature, professional approach,” Miami head coach Erik Spoelstra said after the game. “We’re getting closer but we still have to finish this off. You can tell… how much this means to everyone. We were able to get the game on our terms and sustain it. We’ll decompress [Tuesday] and get our minds right to finish this thing off.”
Boston’s fourth-quarter offense was a major problem in the first two games. It didn’t matter in Game 3. The Heat were up 30 at the end of three.
I sat next to a Boston reporter during the game, and it’s funny how everyone looks at what’s happening on the court through their own window. I heard a lot of “the Celtics are so stagnant” and “they can’t generate any offense” as if the Celtics were, and have been throughout this series, beating themselves. Boston isn’t blameless here, but let me tell you: Miami deserves the lion’s share of credit for these Boston shortcomings.
The reason, or at least the biggest reason, that the Celtics look so stagnant is that Miami is cutting off everything defensively. Boston can’t get past the initial defender, and when even a semblance of downhill leverage is created, Miami sinks down off the wings to close down driving lanes and then flies back out to shooters in the blink of an eye. It is a defensive masterclass.
Many people are shaking their heads at what the Heat are doing right now, as if it’s a fluke. If you’re one of those people, ask yourself, if you removed the seed numbers in front of these teams, would you still say this is a fluke?
Forget the seeds. This isn’t a normal playoff landscape. It’s as equitable as it’s been in some time, and the Heat are built to succeed in the playoffs. Everyone can shoot. Everyone can defend. They have a superstar and a versatile big man. They have depth. Cohesion. They are rock solid with their defensive rotations, ball swings, and all the little things that add up this time of year. They have a Hall of Fame coach.
The Celtics will look at this like they failed themselves, as all teams do when they lose, and there’s some truth in it. Boston was a mess down the stretch of Games 1 and 2, and if they get even one of those, this is still a series. Jaylen Brown is being outplayed dramatically by Caleb Martin. Joe Mazzulla looks like a rookie head coach in many ways.
But Miami is to credit for turning Boston pretty predictable. The Celtics tried to put the ball in the hands of Tatum early in Game 3 because he’s the best player and because Miami is shutting everything else off, but with the entire defense focused on Tatum at the top of the key, and wing defenders ready to sink down, he wound up running into a sliding glass door that just kept closing every time he tried to move forward.
“The belief is real,” Bam Adebayo said. “And we’ve got a will to win.”
Tatum wound up with 14 points on 6-of-18 shooting, including 1 of 7 from deep. If you wanted to say the Heat were fluky and only surviving on the heroics of Jimmy Butler, well, Butler didn’t even have a big game on Sunday. He finished with 16 points on 13 shots. Miami still rolled.
There comes a point in time when you just stop trying to discredit something and acknowledge what is happening. The Miami Heat are happening. They are for real. Everyone, especially the Denver Nuggets, better get used to that idea.