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Wednesday, May 24, 2023

Celtics Come Alive in Second Half of Game Four, Avoid Being Swept by Heat

The Boston Celtics trailed 61-52 early in the third quarter of game four at Miami, and it looked like they were less than 24 minutes away from being swept--but Boston led 81-71 after a 29-10 run in the next seven minutes, as the Celtics won 116-99 to save their season and force the Heat to travel to Boston to play game five. Jayson Tatum scored a game-high 33 points--including 25 in the second half--while also leading both teams with 11 rebounds and seven assists. Tatum shot 14-22 from the field, including 11-15 in the second half. Jaylen Brown had a solid game (17 points on 7-16 field goal shooting, four rebounds, four assists), and four other Celtics scored between 11 and 16 points: Derrick White (16), Grant Williams (14), Al Horford (12), and Marcus Smart (11).

Jimmy Butler led the Heat in both scoring (29 points) and rebounding (nine rebounds), but he shot 9-21 from the field, including 1-5 in the fourth quarter when he scored just five points. The Heat won the rebounding battle 44-39, but shot just 34-78 (.436) from the field, including 8-32 (.250) from three point range. The Heat committed 16 turnovers resulting in 27 Boston points, while the Celtics had 10 turnovers resulting in 14 Miami points. Although the final numbers illustrate succinctly how the Celtics were more efficient overall and how the Celtics won the possession game, for the first 26 minutes or so the Heat had the upper hand and looked very much like a team capable of finishing off the Celtics: in the first half, the Heat outshot the Celtics .526 to .450 while committing seven turnovers compared to the Celtics' eight turnovers. On multiple possessions, Heat players made straight line drives to the hoop without encountering any resistance, while the Celtics struggled to generate high percentage shots. 

What changed? The "experts" will no doubt talk about "adjustments" but--as Lakers' Coach Darvin Ham mentioned regarding the Western Conference Finals and as Jeff Van Gundy has noted for many years--most often the best "adjustment" is nothing more complicated than playing harder at both ends of the court. Instead of jacking up low percentage, rushed shots, the Celtics attacked the paint to create open three point shots. The Celtics rely heavily on three point shooting--ranking second in three point field goals made and attempted, and sixth in three point field goal percentage--but perimeter shooting will not take a team very far unless it is supported by a foundation of tough defense at one end of the court and strong paint attacks at the other end of the court. 

It is sad that with the Eastern Conference Finals still being contested there are Boston media members calling for first year Boston Coach Joe Mazzulla to be fired. The 34 year old Mazzulla is the NBA's youngest head coach, Tatum is 25 years old, and Brown is 26 years old; it is more than a little premature to write off any of those guys, regardless of the outcome of this series. Even if one insists that Mazzulla is being outmaneuvered by Heat Coach Erik Spoelstra, it should be remembered that Spoelstra is a two-time championship winning coach while Mazzulla took over the Celtics with no opportunity to run a full training camp or even hire his own staff. Whatever Mazzulla's stamp on this team will be, he has not yet had the chance to make it--but by leading the Celtics to a 57-25 record and two playoff series wins already he deserves to be afforded some time to prove what he can do.

No NBA team has ever come back from a 3-0 deficit, and the Celtics are still a long way from becoming the first team to accomplish this feat--but game four at least showed a blueprint for how the Celtics could do this: Eliminate careless turnovers, exercise good shot selection, and play with high energy on defense. Those three bullet points may sound obvious, but what matters for this series is that (1) the Celtics failed to do those three things on a consistent basis in the first three games and (2) the Celtics demonstrated in game four that doing those three things is well within their capabilities. Most teams that trail 3-0 are fundamentally inferior to their opponents, but that is not the case here; there is no unsolvable matchup problem that the Heat pose for the Celtics, so the series boils down to mental toughness and game plan discipline. The Heat are smart, tough, and well-coached, but the Celtics did not have to do anything incredible or unsustainable to win game four, so the formula that worked once could work again.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:20 AM



At Wednesday, May 24, 2023 8:29:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yeah, in general the reason no team has ever turned it around from 0-3 is not that it is impossible to do it, but that no team that is capable of turning it around from 0-3 would find itself down 0-3 in the first place.

It has happened multiple times in the NHL, but hockey is low scoring and thus much more prone to random fluctuations -- a team can lose three in a row due to bad luck, then still win four in a row in a way that is nearly impossible in the NBA where you have a hundred scoring possessions each game and thus stochasticity plays much less of a role.

But the Celtics just went to the finals last year, have been to the ECF regularly, and are a very solid team while the Heat are not even at full strength and were the 8th seed. So this whole series has been very weird to watch -- how did this happen?

At Wednesday, May 24, 2023 9:04:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I agree that, in general, an NBA team capable of coming back from a 3-0 deficit would not fall into that hole in the first place, and I also agree with you regarding why it is easier for an NHL team to come back from a 3-0 deficit.

Boston-Miami has been a very strange series. The favored team has not suffered injuries, suspensions, or any other situation that would explain a sudden drop off in play--and the underdog team has suffered injuries to two rotation players, including their third leading scorer in the regular season.

I picked Boston, and I am not one of those people who changes his prediction after every game. Statistically, Boston has a very slim chance of winning the series now, but Boston seems better positioned to win this series than any team I can think of that had a 3-0 deficit, with the possible exception of the 2003 Portland team that fell behind 3-0 to Dallas only to win three straight to force a seventh game.

At Wednesday, May 24, 2023 11:51:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

trust Butler and Spo more than their counterparts when the chips are down. they only need to win 1 of 3 remaining games and have shown they can win at TD. coin flip odds (for each game) would imply 12.5% chance for Boston now; maybe it's 20% due to home court, but I wouldn't go higher than 20-25%. I give Heat at least 75% odds to win series, probably 80%

At Wednesday, May 24, 2023 1:31:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

At the same time, the odds of Miami winning 3 games and 3 games in a row for this series would be like 2-3%. Obviously, Miami is still sitting very well, but Boston is still definitely the better team.

At Wednesday, May 24, 2023 5:23:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

How is Boston the better team in a matchup where they're down 3-1? -- Earlier Anonymous

At Wednesday, May 24, 2023 9:55:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Forgive me if I don't get too jazzed about one win in a Scott "The Extender" Foster game.

If Boston can win Game 5 then maybe they showed us something and there's reason to hope.

At Thursday, May 25, 2023 8:41:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


In game four, Boston committed more fouls (24-18) and shot fewer free throws (28-18) than Miami while outshooting Miami from the field .512 to .436, so the implication that Foster "extended" the series by making calls favorable for Boston is unsupported by evidence.

At Thursday, May 25, 2023 10:22:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anonymous, if you believe solely based on series record, then no use discussing. Has Miami played better than Boston in the 4 games that they played during this series? Yes. But, I don't subscribe to that theory that Miami is necessarily a better team overall or that theory in general in sports. The better team/player in sports obviously doesn't always win. No #8 seed in NBA history has actually been the better team than the #1 seed who they've beaten, when this has happened. Miami beat Milwaukee, but was Miami actually a better team? Is Atlanta better than Miami, since they beat Miami in the play-in game? Or vice versa? It's been a bizarre playoffs so far, but there's reasons why Boston finished 13 games higher than Miami during the regular season and Miami was one game away from not even making the playoffs. But, Boston has been struggling and Miami somehow has turned the proverbial switch and is playing out of their minds even after losing 2 rotation players in the playoffs.


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