If there is a spirit animal for Celtsis Marcus Smart.
He’s just an emotional key for us,” head coach Joe Mazzulla said of Smart’s opening theft that led the team to their first points. “When he’s blocked and plays on both sides of the ball at a different pace, it gives us our identity and our lives.”
Minutes later, Smart was hitting three-pointers back-to-back as Boston led the first timeout at 10-5 and the team didn’t look back. They registered two three-pointers, three layups and dunks in the first five minutes, and forced four losses along the way 110-97 big win in Boston.
“I wanted us to start early,” Smart said of his race starting. “I wanted to come in early and give my team energy, especially playing against a team like Miami.”
For the second game in a row, the Celtics looked like the team to close the game 76ers in round 2 with a deadly combination of outside shooting and suffocating defense in two potentially closed games.
In Games 6 and 7, Boston hit 30-of-68 from behind arc and completely eliminated James Harden and Joel Embiid with back-to-back choke effective saves under 95. The team that won the second most regular season games and presented the second most successful Offensive and Defense in the league, at best he showers opposing teams with an avalanche of 3 and keeps them going with D.
TNT TV and the national media have been pumping that stat up ad nauseam for the past two weeks: The Celtics are 31-1 (6-1 in playoffs) when shooting over 40% from behind the arc. This is not surprising given that Boston averaged second most three-point attempts, closely behind Golden State soldiers for 42.6 per night.
In the first three games of the series, they posted a disastrous 31 out of 106 (29.2%). In their two wins in games 4 and 5 facing eliminations, they flipped the script and hit 34 of 84 (40.5%).
And while the shootout contributed greatly to Boston’s success, so did the return of their defense. Against the Hawks, the Celtics rode this side of the ball, allowing Atlanta to score 119+ points four times, for a 114.3 defense rating. With Philly backed by those two aforementioned monstrous defensive performances in games 6 and 7, they were stingy at 107.9 points for 100 possessions.
Miami is a different story. In the first three games, the Heat hit nearly half of their three-pointers, and that tidal wave was a big part of their 3-0 lead. Since then, not only has the water found its level, but the Celtics have staved off the summer break with a resurgent defense. They returned back-to-back scores of 107.2 and 108.6 points (minus Game 5 garbage time) for 100 possessions, respectively.
For those who believe Boston could make an unprecedented run to be the first team to break a 0-3 deficit in the standings NBA Playoffs, the much-needed return of their dominant defense gives them some leeway if their shot doesn’t fall in Miami on Saturday night. In the regular season, the Celtics had an 11-4 record in games where they shot less than 40% of 3, but held teams to a sub-110 offensive rating. Mazzulla emphasized the importance of togetherness and connectivity, which was more evident in their defense in the last two games.
Worryingly, two of those regular season losses were at the hands of the Heat. The first was Game 2 of the miniseries in Boston, where the Celtics lost 120-116 in overtime. The second was a January coup in Miami without Jaylen Brown and Al Horford, which they lost 98-95. The past can often be a prologue, but those defeats and even the first three games of the Eastern Conference Finals seem so far away now. Currently, the Celtics are playing at the highest level on both sides of the ball.
Smart joked that Miami “sneaked up” to Boston to start the series. There is no stealth for the Celtics now. They’re not looking steal plays South Beach like a stealth cat burglar. NO? NO. Considering how they play, this is pure bully, kick sand in the eye and take what is rightfully theirs.