The Miami Heat dominated the Boston Celtics in the third quarter of Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals (ECF) and drew first blood to go up 1-0 in what started as hard-fought competitive series. Led by Jimmy Butler's epic 41 points, 9 rebounds, 5 assists, 4 steals, and 3 blocks, it was a tale of two halves for the Heat.
A forgettable first half but a memorable second half
The Heat got off to a slow start and were visibly bothered by the Celtics' switch defense. Boston's height significantly touted the Heat in the first half as they converted 15 out of their 19 points in the paint, which added up to 42 points — just two points shy of their postseason record in one half. Celtics' superstar Jayson Tatum was unguardable in the first two quarters, scoring 21 out of his 29 points thanks to a bunch of Kobe Bryant-esque tough baskets.
But as the second half approached, Miami turned on their defensive intensity spearheaded by Bam Adebayo and Butler as they went on a 22-4 run. After a remarkable 42-point half, the Heat limited the Celtics to shoot just 2 out 15 from the field (13.3%) in the third quarter, which is their worst quarter over the last four seasons. Boston was just 1-12 on contested shots in the second half after knocking 15 out of their 31 contested baskets in the first half.
The credit goes to Butler, who turned up the pace after two momentum-shifting back-to-back steals that led to easy transition baskets. Butler's dominant stat-line of 40+ points, 5+ rebounds, 5+ assists, 4+ assists, and 3+ blocks puts him in the same category as LeBron James as the only two players to put up this kind of numbers in Playoffs history.
"Jimmy Butler is an elite competitor. Some guys are here to play basketball. He is competing to win," Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra said.
Aside from Butler's dominance and Adebayo's spectacular defensive performance, credit also goes to Spoelstra for adjusting in the second half. In the fourth quarter, the Heat ran 10 pick-and-roll sets where Celtics' Payton Pritchard was the screen defender. In those 10 pick-and-roll actions, Miami scored 13 points on seven successful attempts. That adjustment was a massive part of why the Heat drew first blood in the series.
Don't panic yet, Celtics fans.
The Celtics, who also dropped Game 1 in their matchup against the Milwaukee Bucks last round, can still bounce back. They were without two key starters in Game 1, specifically Marcus Smart (right foot injury) and Al Horford (heath and safety protocols), who would have easily made a difference. They also turned the ball over 16 times (8 of them in the third quarter) and allowed Heat's Tyler Herro and Max Strus to catch fire in the second half.
"Having Marcus and Al might have helped because they settle us down, but it wasn't really just that. And it wasn't our young guys, Payton and Aaron, but it was our veterans Jayson and Jaylen who let it get away from us," Celtics head coach Ime Udoka said post-game, calling out his All-Stars.
If the Celtics can clean up their mistakes, they should look better than they did in Game 1. The key for them is to make sure Tatum continues his first-half performance and for Jaylen Brown to get more aggressive and find his shot. Aside from turning the ball over, the Celtics must avoid fouling too much, giving up easy baskets in the paint, and staying composed when the Heat go on a run.
Game 2 will be an exciting match, to say the least. How does Udoka adjust? Can Butler continue playing like an MVP? How do the Celtics hide Pritchard's defense? Which role player will step up for both teams? All of these questions will be answered on Thursday.