Six days before the Boston Celtics won Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals on the road, they desperately needed to win Game 4 at home. They trailed 2-1 in the series, and they were coming off a disheartening loss in which Miami Heat star Jimmy Butler didn’t play a minute in the second half.
During coach Ime Udoka’s pre-game press conference last Monday, a reporter asked about an unusual stat that had turned into a talking point: the Celtics had outright lost only two quarterbacks in three games. Udoka said the important thing wasn’t exactly how many 12-minute periods they lost, but “being consistent and not falling off a cliff like we did in those two quarters when our attack does not sink”. Boston had allowed 39 points in the third quarter of the opener, and they gave up the exact same number in the first quarter of Game 3.
“More than anything, we like to keep teams in the mid-twenties per term,” Udoka said.
The mid 20s. That, in the 2022 NBA, is an absurd goal. This is a league in which the Oklahoma City Thunder, its worst offensive team, averaged 103.7 points per game, or about 26 points per quarter.
For the Celtics, however, it turned out to be reasonable. In their four wins over Miami, their defense has allowed 26 or fewer points in 13 of 16 quarters. One of the other three came in Sunday’s 100-96 clincher – the Heat scored 32 points in the second quarter of Game 7, thanks to Butler’s outburst and Boston sending them over the throw line again and again frank. The other two were fourth quarters of blowout victories.
Of the 28 quarters that made up the series, Miami only managed more than 26 points nine times, including those two trash-laden periods. The Heat are also an elite defensive team, and they had a chance to overcome that, until the last minute, but their offense – above average in the regular season – has all too often turned Thunderesque.
“We just couldn’t control the game,” Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said. “A lot of that was in Boston. We just kept grinding and gave ourselves a chance at the end. We just couldn’t make enough plays in the game. It felt like the most of the game we were grinding from an eight to 10 point deficit.”
That’s what the Boston defense does. In the second round against the Milwaukee Bucks, it was just as stifling: another seven-game series, 19 more quarters in which the Celtics allowed 26 points or less, four more wins in which the opponent did not erase this number only three times. The Bucks scored 99.4 points per 100 at half court in the regular season, which ranked sixth in the league, according to Cleaning The Glass, and only scored a horrid 81.9 per 100 at half court against Boston. (For reference, Oklahoma City and the Detroit Pistons finished the season tied for last at 88.6 percent.)
In the Heat’s four losses in the Conference Finals, they scored 85.2, 65.7, 58.8 and 75.9 points per 100 half-court games, respectively. Just before kick-off on Sunday, ESPN released footage of Udoka in the locker room telling the Celtics not to let Miami get easy buckets early on, to be disciplined, take care of the ball and protect the defensive glass. Throughout the playoffs, when Boston avoided silly tricks and forced their opponent to try to score against a set defense, they always thrived, home or away.
In Game 7, the Celtics “hit all the targets we wanted,” Udoka said. They finished with 13 turnovers, and only three of them led to a Heat transition opportunity. They won the rebound battle and gave up just nine second-chance points. Miami shot 6 for 30 from 3-point range. After cutting Boston’s lead to three with about 11 minutes left, the Heat missed nine straight shots, going scoreless for more than four minutes.
“Defense is our identity,” Udoka said. “He’s been there and held us, got us through the tough times when the attack wasn’t clicking. Games where the attack isn’t clicking at the level it should, we can always count on that. And that was the case tonight. We had big leads, we cut them and we kept stopping when we needed to.”
On perfect defensive possession in that stretch, Miami’s Kyle Lowry spent most of the 24-second clock looking for an advantage, eventually giving Victor Oladipo a chance to attack the basket on a dribble. When Oladipo took off, however, Al Horford was there with him. Oladipo attempted a reverse layup, but Horford blocked it with his left hand and got the rebound immediately:
Miami stopped after that and then looked for an early attack. Bam Adebayo handed it to Butler, but with Jaylen Brown going underscreen and Horford in a pinfall, Butler decided against attacking just yet. Adebayo put on another screen, Butler dismissed it, and Brown stayed with him on his drive, then stayed on his pump fakes. This forced Butler into a desperate and hotly contested jumper:
A few minutes later, the Heat threw a play out of bounds for Max Strus. It worked, I guess, in the sense that it was able to generate a 3-point pointer. But watch Tatum go over him, stay tied down and contest the shot, then watch how far Strus is from the basket when he enters his shot – it’s a deep, difficult and uncomfortable look:
Horford spoke proudly after the Celtics game chasing shooters around the perimeter. He said it was difficult to guard Strus and called Lowry “very sneaky”. When Miami’s offense is at its best, it attacks you with a mix of lag hunting, transition play, movement and shooting. For much of Game 7, it felt like the only thing that worked for the Heat was Butler’s hero ball. If Butler couldn’t create anything, a possession could end with, say, Derrick White passing to Lowry and forcing a horrible turnover 3:
In such a tight series, the Heat will surely wonder if the play and shooting of Tyler Herro, who only played seven minutes in Game 7 and missed the previous three games with a groin injury , could have made the difference. Boston would have harassed him on the other end, though, as he doesn’t believe in letting poor individual defenders off the hook. If a good offensive player hurts your defense, helping the Celtics establish their defense, then how much is that player really helping your offense? These are the kinds of insane questions Boston forces opposing teams to consider.
Throughout the playoffs, it’s the same story for the Celtics: they’re terrifying defensively, and while they’ve had setbacks, slip-ups and sloppy stretches, they tend to find themselves before it’s over. be too late. That was true in every first-round game against the Brooklyn Nets — one of the closest sweeps in NBA history — and it was true in the next two series.
“It’s tough to win in this league, especially in the playoffs,” Brown said. “Any night things can turn out differently, but a good team is capable of reacting. A good team is capable of giving their best every night. There were a few games that we missed, and instead from wearing it as luggage, we wore it as a badge of experience to help us prepare for the next game.”
For Brown, Game 7 was “the biggest test, not just of the year, but of our careers.” And now that they’ve succeeded, their reward is even greater. For months, the Celtics were the most evenly balanced team in the NBA, and against Miami they showed they were more than happy to win games in the mud. The Golden State Warriors are pretty evenly balanced themselves, however, and the trio of Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson have already scrambled some superb defenses. The Heat have skilled improvisers in Butler and Lowry, and they kind of look like warriors in the way they try to free their shooters and get out of the post, but no one does Golden State things with the speed, the shooting and the pure condemnation of Golden State.
In the Finals, that mid-to-low 20s goal might actually be absurd, even for Boston. The way the Celtics see it, however, they should be stronger than ever, precisely because of what they just survived.
“I’m very confident,” Udoka said. “I know it’s another tough challenge. I think Miami will help prepare us for some of the off-ball action and shooters that they have. But we know they’re a top team, a team. execution, which has a ton of great shooters, great players overall, guys I know well. And we’re up for the challenge.”