MIAMI — Coming out of halftime, the Celtics needed something to change if they were going to save their season. But after a few minutes, it was clear that wasn’t happening. Jaylen Brown was trapped in the corner, another turnover was coming and things were about to slip through their grasp.
Then suddenly, a sixth Celtic strolled onto the court. There was Joe Mazzulla, calling timeout in the middle of a possession.
It was a true aberration, as the coach who has held the timeout to let his team work through their problems for so much of the year burned one just to stop a single play from going south.
Mazzulla had seen how letting turning points guide themselves could get the momentum spinning in the wrong direction. One more spiral could spell the end.
“Just wanted to make sure we got a good shot on that, and I felt like the possessions before that didn’t go well defensively,” Mazzulla said. “But we were still playing with a good sense of pace, but we obviously lost the advantage, and wanted to reset a little bit. We had lost a 50/50 ball to start the quarter that I think that we just had to nip that in the bud and took an opportunity to do that.”
But as Mazzulla gathered his thoughts during the timeout, Marcus Smart took his seat. He’s been this franchise’s leader for years, the compass that guides them when they seem lost.
He had seen his teammates look tired, hesitant and even intimidated at times in this series. After Miami spent the first 3.5 games making the Celtics uncomfortable, seeing Brown trapped in that corner, it was time to flip the script and fight back.
“(I was) just telling them keep going. This is a pivotal point for us right now,” Smart said after the Celtics’ 116-99 win in Game 4. “We’ve got to turn it up a little bit more. If you’re tired, come out of the game. Get somebody else in there that’s fresh and that can keep it going. But we’ve got to continue to go and do whatever it takes to win this game tonight.”
As the Celtics walked back out on the court, Mazzulla put the ball in Smart’s hands. If he is going to be the spearhead of the offense, as Tatum and Brown still struggled to find their way, it was on him to turn things around.
Smart started to slowly bring the ball over to Brown to run the same action they’ve seen fail a million times. But then suddenly, Smart spun off Jimmy Butler and burst into the lane. He kicked it to Al Horford, who swung it to Derrick White, and the Heat didn’t even bother contesting. The next play, Horford stripped Max Strus as Brown and Tatum took off sprinting past Butler, enabling Boston to take the lead, and it never looked back.
Everything about what this team does and how it plays changed from that moment. The key third-quarter adjustment was to finally run shooters off the line, something The Athletic broke down before Game 4. Caleb Martin continued to torch them in the first half, so they decided it was time to close out hard and change his sense of rhythm.
“This team beats you by playing harder than you and knocking down those threes and opportunities,” Grant Williams said. “So we just have to maintain our poise, maintain our perspective just understanding that no matter what’s going on, just make that extra effort.”
Miami prefers those soft closeouts on Martin because he thrives taking the little pump-fake 3s he was burying in Game 3. The Heat’s shooters are conditioned to lock in on the rim and launch with confidence as a defender is charging at them.
It was time for the Celtics to take away that first shot opportunity and then send another contest to ensure Miami’s floor spacers had to become playmakers instead. That’s when their offense started to fold and Boston’s became easier.
“Exactly that. We brought the pressure to them,” Smart said. “We weren’t playing off our back foot, like we have been in this series. We were the aggressor on both ends, and we just wanted to continue that. Once we started running those guys off the three and making them make plays, everybody just did a good job of rotating and helping each other out, and then that allowed us to get out and run.”
This was the formula Mazzulla has been preaching, whether the team has succeeded or struggled this year. After the players commiserated over their defensive identity vanishing this week, the second half of Game 4 epitomized what has defined that defense for years.
“I think today was our best defensive game, just how we were moving, how we were rotating,” Tatum said. “We tried to make guys uncomfortable, and we were just there for one another. It’s not going to be perfect. You’re going to get beat. You’re going to go for a pump fake. But it just felt like we were all connected, especially in that second half defensively, just rotating, helping, things like that.”
After Malcolm Brogdon said Monday that the Celtics’ defensive identity had waned, Mazzulla said their connectivity never waned in Game 4. By going all-out to stop the ball, everyone knew they had to follow suit and then recover. There was no more hesitation.
“Their backs are against the wall, so you know they are going to play desperate,” Bam Adebayo said. “They are going to try to figure out ways to disrupt our game flow. But the biggest thing about us, we know we’ve got to retaliate.”
Then the Celtics became wiser on the offensive end. They can only create so many transition opportunities, but they had to recognize what parts of their offense weren’t working and redirect them elsewhere.
Brown’s shot is still gone, but he at least accepted that in the second half. There was a crucial moment when he turned down another baseline pull-up and kicked the ball out to a shooter for an easy assist. After spending the first half trying to score over traffic and ignoring his shooters again, it was nice to see Brown using his threat as a scorer to make the easy pass.
“Smart was in my ear, letting me know where the game is at,” Brown said. “Just keep being aggressive, keep making the right plays. It ain’t always got to be you putting the ball in the basket; that helped us win tonight. So just continue to make the right plays, and the game will open up for you, and that’s what Smart does is just being a leader, be vocal, and we found a way to win.”
Boston struggled so much with Miami’s zone because the Celtics were only seeing two pathways most of the time. Either draw a trap and lob it over the top to a roller, or swing it around to get a shooter in the corner. But Boston has struggled to hit those corner 3s, so it had to find a better way to get the ball back out of there. That’s where Brown came in.
“Yeah, the way they play defense, the way they play zone, the way they try to hide matchups, they try to make sure they keep their primary defenders up higher and try to hide their lesser defenders,” Brown said. “It’s been taking us a little while to kind of figure it out. It ain’t always going to be you scoring the ball normally because they’re not guarding us normally.”
Then as Brown’s playmaking took off, Tatum was finding his tempo getting to his shot. He was attacking earlier in the clock while his teammates were still getting set, hampering Miami’s ability to trap him and force him into an awkward shot or turnover. Those floaters in the lane gave him the confidence to start burying pull-up 3s and everything snowballed from there.
“The great scorers, they are going to figure it out at some point. You have to try to make it as tough as possible,” Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said of Tatum. “He had some good, clean looks, in transition, open 3s, end-of-possession stuff. But there’s no easy way, particularly when you get to this point. You’re not expecting a great player like Tatum to have multiple off-nights. You have to do things that will exceed it.”
Tatum’s back, Brown seems to be finding some sort of offensive role, and Miami is on the back foot. The Heat will find some adjustments to counter Boston’s aggressive contests and show more discipline closing out to Horford, White, and Grant Williams now that they’re back in rhythm shooting the ball.
This was a critical turnaround just in time, but Mazzulla can’t call a timeout every time he sees something wrong. The idea of an 0-3 comeback seemed unlikely coming into the game, but the Celtics that showed up after the timeout looked like they could waltz to the NBA Finals. Boston’s rarely showed the ability to do things consistently, but something looked unlocked within them in Game 4.
“We want to come back to Miami,” Brown said. “If that happens, I feel like we’ll feel good about ourselves. The next one should be fun. It should be a big one, and we’ve got to come ready to play.”
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(Top photo of Marcus Smart: Megan Briggs / Getty Images)