Heat take 2-0 series lead over Celtics in Eastern Conference finals: How Miami’s intensity wore Boston down

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BOSTON — Going nose to nose with Jimmy Butler has not worked out well for the Celtics so far in this series.

Boston was still up by seven in the fourth quarter of Game 2 in the Eastern Conference finals when Grant Williams began jawing with Butler. The exchange was so intense, their foreheads were touching.

There’s quite a bit more distance between the Miami Heat and Celtics now, though. Butler scored nine of his 27 points in the fourth quarter, including the tying and go-ahead buckets over Williams, and the Heat won 111-105.

“You’ve got to win skirmishes,” said Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, who later added: “I love that that gnarly version of Jimmy, but you get that regardless. I just think people now are paying a lot more attention to him now.”

The Heat – seeded eighth entering the playoffs – were already just the fifth team in NBA history to begin a postseason with wins in Game 1 on the road in three consecutive series. They are now improbably in position to end this series at home and punch their first trip to the finals since 2020. Game 3 is at 8:30 p.m. Sunday in Miami.

Miami is the first road team to win the first two games of a playoff series since Dallas took the opening two games over the Clippers in a 2021 first-round series.

Good news for the Celtics there. The Clippers came back to win that series in seven. Also, Boston came back from an 0-2 hole after dropping those games at home, in a 2017 series against the Bulls. Butler was on that Chicago team. The odds for a Boston comeback are long, though. Teams to go down 2-0 in the conference finals are 6-56 in those series.

Caleb Martin was great for the Heat off the bench, notching a playoff career high with 25 points. Bam Adebayo contributed 22 points, 16 rebounds and nine assists, and Duncan Robinson added 15 points off the bench.

The Celtics led by as many as 12 points in the fourth quarter. They were led by 34 points from Jayson Tatum, who did not score a field goal in the fourth quarter but converted five foul shots toward the end. Jaylen Brown added 16 points but shot 7-of-23. Boston actually led by 12 in the first half as well, and
committed 15 turnovers for the game that cost the Celtics 20 points.

“They played zone, but I thought we played at a better pace,” Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla said. “I thought Jayson just made the right play, got the ball where it needed to go, whether it was him or others. When we didn’t turn it over, I thought we got good looks.”

Williams did not play in Game 1 on Wednesday and barely played at the end of Boston’s semifinal series against Philadelphia, but he returned to the rotation for nine points off the bench – and a tangling with Butler that proved costly.

After the nose-to-nose flare up, which followed a good jumper by Butler over Williams, Butler scored on him and then mimicked that Williams was too small. Butler’s 17-footer with 2:58 left tied the game at 100, and he put Miami up with a 12-footer at the 2:33 mark.

“Yes it did,” Butler said when asked if the spat with Williams fueled him. “That’s just competition at its finest.”

The Heat closed the game on a 24-9 run. Gabe Vincent’s foul shots put them up four with 19.3 seconds left, and, after a missed Tatum 3, Max Strus put the game firmly out of reach with two more foul shots.

Vincent, Strus, Robinson, and Martin were all undrafted out of college. They’re all two wins from the NBA finals.

“That storyline is over,” Spoelstra said. “Those guys have proven themselves as contenders and winning players.”

The Athletic’s instant analysis:

Celtics’ fourth-quarter collapse

The Celtics looked to be in great shape when they took a 12-point lead early in the fourth quarter but the Heat responded quickly. Martin, who grabbed the momentum for his team a number of times throughout the game, drove to the hoop for a bucket and Robinson drilled two 3-pointers in a row.

Miami dominated the rest of the game. Butler hit some big buckets, including one over the top of Williams shortly after the two went forehead to forehead talking trash. Adebayo owned the glass and the Celtics offense just disappeared over the final minutes.

It was a stunning home collapse to leave Boston in a 2-0 series deficit. — King

Heat’s intensity takes Celtics out of their comfort zone

The Celtics had the Heat right where they wanted, then the spark was lit. Joe Mazzulla changed his rotations to bring in Williams for extended minutes, who helped bring back consistent physicality on defense that had vanished during the disastrous third quarter in Game 1 and hit some crucial layups in crunch time to keep Boston ahead.

But then he literally butted heads with Butler and that set Miami superstar off, who proceeded to bury shot after shot over Williams to erase Boston’s 12-point lead in crunch time. The Celtics missed a bunch of wide-open 3s and couldn’t get the stops they needed, then Mazzulla elected not to call a timeout down four with about 20 seconds left.

That led to a wild Tatum 3 that missed and put Boston in a disastrous spot down 2-0. That was another prime example of how the Heat’s intensity can take the Celtics out of their comfort zone and upend their entire approach to the game. — Weiss

(Photo: Nathaniel S. Butler / NBAE via Getty Images)

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