May 22—The Boston Celtics are playing with fire. And at this point in the season, that's not something they can afford to do.
Pretty much every dreadful detail stemming from Saturday evening's head scratching performance against Miami in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals was avoidable. The sluggish and sloppy start, the costly turnovers (Boston inexplicably had 23), the missed free throws, the inability to make intelligent decisions down the stretch ... all of it.
Now, instead of taking command of this best-of-7 series and regaining home court advantage, Boston is in danger of letting the golden opportunity of a Finals berth slip away.
The Celtics are a better team than the Heat; I firmly believe that. They're bigger, stronger and more capable defensively. They have more star power at the top and certainly boast a better home court advantage — or so one would think.
But just as they did at times in the second round against Milwaukee, they seemingly refuse to play up to their full potential for a full 48 minutes every game. We all saw what they're capable of in a Game 2 drubbing of the Heat on the road last week; so why can't they compete like that every time out?
Why is it that every time the Celtics look like the best team in the association they string together baffling stretches of abysmal basketball with a visible lack of effort and intensity? You can't lay down your guard against a gritty Miami Heat team. You just can't.
You could see the frustration on head coach Ime Udoka's face Saturday night. He knows better than anyone that when his team plays the right way, the way they've proven they can play time and time again, that they can beat anyone.
Grant Williams' lazy inbounds pass with 48 seconds to play in Saturday's loss perfectly summed up the Celtics' performance. Williams nonchalantly threw the ball into Marcus Smart, who had it immediately stolen by Kyle Lowry before the latter found a cutting Max Strus for a dagger layup.
Jaylen Brown, who nearly willed his team to a comeback win with 40 big points, turned it over seven times, including a number of key cough-ups in the second half.
And don't even get me started on Jayson Tatum. Boston's superstar, the same player who finished sixth in MVP voting, managed just 10 points on 3-for-14 shooting with six turnovers in Saturday's loss.
Don't get me wrong; the Celtics wouldn't be where they are today without Tatum running the show. But his unfathomable duds scattered throughout this playoffs are increasingly becoming a problem and realistically costing Boston games.
Tatum can have an off night shooting the ball; all good players do. But if he's not knocking down jumpers, he has to find a way to contribute in other areas. Get your teammates more involved, come up with a momentum-swinging steal or block — do something to make your presence felt when your team needs it most.
But when Tatum has an off night it's not just that; it's glaringly awful. Larry Bird would never allow himself to have a game like Tatum did on Saturday. Neither would Paul Pierce or Kevin Garnett.
Miami is a very good basketball team. With Kyle Lowry back in the fold, they're even better. But the Heat played the entire second half without their best player (Jimmy Butler) and Boston still couldn't shut the door on its home floor.
The Heat aren't going to stop coming at them. Yet all Boston has to do is match that intensity, match that physicality and we're looking at their first Finals appearance since 2010.
It's not over. Boston similarly dropped Game 3 against Milwaukee in the conference semifinals to fall behind 2-1 before ultimately knocking off the defending champs in seven games. But this time they'll have to win a potential Game 7 on the road against an equally hungry team, and games like Saturday simply can't happen again.
It's all going to come down to heart and consistency. A convincing win back at TD Garden Monday night will go a long way, but keeping their foot on the gas is more paramount now than ever.
Contact Nick Giannino at NGiannino@Salemnews.com. Follow him on Twitter @NickGiannino_SN.