20 Second Timeout is the place to find the best analysis and commentary about the NBA.

Thursday, May 18, 2023

Heat Seize Control in Record-Setting Third Quarter, Take Game One From Celtics in Boston

Game one of the Eastern Conference Finals was going according to plan for the Boston Celtics--until suddenly it wasn't. The Celtics led the Miami Heat by as many as 13 points in the first half, and they enjoyed a 66-57 advantage at halftime. In the third quarter, Max Strus (13 points) and Jimmy Butler (12 points) matched the Celtics' output as Miami set a franchise playoff record for points scored in a quarter (46) while taking a 103-91 advantage heading into the final stanza. The Celtics cut the deficit to four points before falling, 123-116. 

Jimmy Butler can deny that "Playoff Jimmy" exists but--unlike other legends such as Bigfoot and the Loch Ness monster--we have indisputable video proof that "Playoff Jimmy" is real. Butler scored a game-high 35 points, dished for a team-high seven assists, grabbed five rebounds, and pilfered a game-high six steals. Cue up the clip of Butler screaming "Tobias Harris over me?!" while considering not just this Miami win over Boston but also Boston's demolition of Butler's former team, the Philadelphia 76ers. The 76ers are not better without Butler, and the Heat are certainly better with Butler.

Butler led the way at both ends of the court, but he had plenty of help, including Bam Adebayo (20 points, eight rebounds, five assists), Max Strus (15 points on 6-10 field goal shooting), Gabe Vincent (15 points on 4-6 field goal shooting), Caleb Martin (15 points on 6-11 field goal shooting), and Kyle Lowry (15 points on 6-12 field goal shooting).

Jayson Tatum led the Celtics with 30 points on 9-17 field goal shooting. He also had seven rebounds. Jaylen Brown added 22 points, nine rebounds, and five assists. Tatum and Brown combined to launch 38 of their team's 81 field goal attempts. Four other Celtics scored in double figures. It is difficult to rationally argue that Tatum and Brown disappeared, or that the Celtics did not get enough other players involved, but in a society that favors hot takes over logical analysis we will be fed a variety of overreactions. In the next 48 hours or so, we will be subjected to the following headlines/narratives, in no particular order:

1) Joe Mazzulla could not coach his way out of paper bag with a machete, a bazooka, or a nuclear bomb.

2) The Boston Celtics lack the necessary discipline and focus to win a championship.

3) The Tatum-Brown duo should be broken up.

4) The lead that the Celtics' lost proves that this team has deep, unsolvable problems.

It is amazing how much the "experts" can learn from just one playoff game in a seven game series! One might think that we will not know the narrative and the lesson(s) to be learned until after someone wins the series, but any "expert" will laughingly tell you how naive and foolish it is to think that way. Clearly, for every game there must be a coach who is an idiot, a team that is fatally flawed, and a pairing of star players that can never, ever work. After all, Tatum is 25 and Brown is 26, so if they don't win a championship this season their window is not just closed but sealed shut for eternity.

Side note: I will never understand why great NFL quarterbacks are praised for how many fourth quarter comeback wins that they have but NBA teams are criticized for coming from behind to win playoff series. Every comeback led by Tom Brady fueled his legend, but every playoff series comeback authored by Tatum's Celtics supposedly proves how flawed the Celtics are. I have yet to see anyone ask, "Why did Tom Brady's teams fall behind so many times?" Quarterbacks are praised for winning, but they get special praise for winning after they were losing.  

Obviously, it would have been better for the Celtics to win game one, and it is worth noting that game one winners generally advance--but game one winners that advance do so either because they are the superior team (regardless of whether their superiority was widely recognized before the series began) or because significant injuries tilted the outcome. Here, it is reasonable to believe that the Celtics are superior to the Heat, and that this superiority will be demonstrated over the course of the series; this is not the NCAA Tournament, which features flawed teams facing each other in a one and done format.

Butler and the Heat deserve full credit for another great win during an impressive 2023 playoff run, but their success in this one game is not a permanent blot on the collective or individual resumes of the Celtics.

Labels: , , , ,

posted by David Friedman @ 2:40 AM



At Thursday, May 18, 2023 9:00:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"2) The Boston Celtics lack the necessary discipline and focus to win a championship."

Feels like this is directed at me, but I dislike it being characterized as a hot take given that it's a belief I've had about this team for at least a year, and one I've been talking about here since the first round of these playoffs. It is not based on a single game or series but on a recurring pattern of behavior.

(My version is also not quite as dramatic as the quote, as I do not think that they can't win a championship, but that their slipshod focus and discipline is their biggest obstacle in doing so)

While I don't think it's a good idea to habitually get behind in football games either, I would note that there is a significant functional difference between getting behind in a football game and getting behind in a playoff series. Getting behind in a playoff series dramatically increases the number of minutes and miles needed to win that series, whereas a football game (give or take an overtime) is going to be about the same length every time out. You still have a week off before the next game no matter what, but in basketball every winnable game you give away is 2-3 days less rest your team gets during a grueling playoff grind.

Just last round we saw the Warriors suddenly front-rimming every three pointer they took despite being one of the league's best three point shooting teams (and despite the Lakers' defense being somewhat willing to concede good looks particularly to Thompson). It is likely their legs and jumpers might have been in better shape had they not needed to go seven games in the first round and been able to spend a few extra days recuperating.

More relevantly and troubling for their Celtics, their oldest player, Al Horford, started the playoffs shooting pretty well with 45%/36% splits through their first nine games, but has looked visibly gassed recently and is shooting just 26%/19% over their last five games while short-rimming a fair bit himself. Perhaps he will bounce back and average 40% from deep the rest of the series but it seems more likely to me that a man of his age and mileage will continue to struggle until he can get catch his breath.

The Celtics are still more talented than the Heat and can absolutely win this series but if it ends up taking them another seven games and they find themselves up against a well-rested Denver (or less likely, LA) team in the Finals, that lack of focus and discipline may still cost them. Likewise if the increased workload leads to an injury for any of their core players.

The Celtics have already played 14 playoff games. If we assume that this series and the Finals (giving the Nuggets some due credit) will both last at least six games, they are on pace for 25-27 total.

Most champs take around 21-23 playoff games to win the title. The last time a champion took 25+ games to win was the'08 Celtics (26), who had a similar bad habit of playing with their food. They arguably had a bit more talent/margin for error as a 66 win team with a deeper rotation, but they are still the most optimistic blueprint to follow for this team, I think.

Since 2000, only 2 other teams have taken 24 games: the '03 Spurs and the '19 Raptors. The Raptors benefitted from injuries to two of their Finals opponent's three best players and the Spurs benefitted from some internal discord from the more talented Lakers.

These Celtics will likely need similar out-of-their-control luck to help them join that list unless they can pick up the pace and make at least one of these remaining series shorter.

At Thursday, May 18, 2023 10:31:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Playoff Jimmy might be a very slight thing, but his per minute stats in the playoffs compared to the regular season are almost identical. He just plays a few more minutes/game in the playoffs compared to the regular season.

Boston definitely has some issues. They are still a good team, but not a historically great team by any means. They're playing with their food too much in the playoffs. The Heat barely squeezed into the playoffs. Boston needs to wake up. They were a bit fortunate to escape from the 2nd round, just 1 quarter away from losing in 6. Football is a lot different than basketball: more points awarded/score, players only play 1/2 game at most, and only 1 of 11 players playing at a time for their team instead of 1 of 5 in basketball. But maybe we shouldn't praise 4th quarter comebacks so much as those teams shouldn't be behind early so often if they were so good.

At Thursday, May 18, 2023 11:46:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I listed four types of narratives that I have read or heard many times and not just from one particular source.

The narrative about the Celtics is not presented from the "functional" standpoint you described. The narrative is presented from the standpoint that the Celtics fall behind in series too often to be a championship team, and my counterpoint is that football teams (and star football quarterbacks) are praised for the very kind of comeback wins for which the Celtics are criticized.

If the Celtics had lost the series to the 76ers then perhaps they could be criticized for falling behind, but the Celtics won the series. We will see what happens in the ECF, but I know that the "experts" are going to draw conclusions before the series is over.

I understand your point about the value of preserving older players and preventing injuries, but that is not the standpoint from which this criticism of the Celtics is being made. The championship character of the Celtics is repeatedly questioned, as if it is a mortal sin to not sweep every series.

At Thursday, May 18, 2023 11:56:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Bill Russell once made the observation that it matters not only how many points you score but when you score them. Butler seems to have a knack for scoring points in bunches when playoff games are up for grabs.

The Heat are obviously better now than they were when they barely made the playoffs, and it should be remembered that last season the Heat were the East's number one seed en route to making the ECF.

I understand the structural differences between basketball and football. My point is that if it is a sign of championship character to post comeback wins then that would be true in all sports, not just one sport. Why do people act like the Celtics have a character deficiency but that Brady has great character because he so often came from behind to win?

At Thursday, May 18, 2023 12:11:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Also, Butler's per minute playoff scoring this year is a career-high, and significantly higher than his regular season career-high, so it is not correct to say that his playoff totals are higher mainly because he is playing more minutes in the postseason.

Butler's FG% this postseason is also a playoff career-high. He is scoring more points more efficiently than he ever has.

At Thursday, May 18, 2023 12:13:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Russell might have a point to an extent. But whether you score 100 points in the 1st, and none after that; or you score 25 points each quarter, they're still both 100 points in the end. Breaking up your opps' momentum if they gain momentum is important though. But even if you aren't scoring much during that phase of the game, forcing your opps to score slower would still be beneficial. For example, forcing a 10-0 run over 5 minutes instead of over 2 minutes.

Butler might be able to do that somewhat. But, I'd counter the games wouldn't be up for grabs if he scored more before that. He is having a solid playoff run this year, but he wasn't doing much before he joined Miami. Yes, the Heat look better now during the playoffs but I'm not sure how much better. They've lost their 3rd best player and Oladipo, too. They just don't look that formidable to me, even at full strength. Miami deserves credit, but the East's top regular season teams just aren't playing that well in the playoffs so far.

I agree the great character thing should be the same across all sports, but also the character deficiency should be the same, too, whatever way a person leans. The bottomline is that the Celtics just aren't that great of a team, so there should be little surprise they struggle mightily sometimes. But, they're still good and are finding ways to advance, so far.

At Thursday, May 18, 2023 12:22:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

His playoff numbers are higher this year compared to his regular season career and playoff career. But, his per minute playoff numbers for his career remain almost identical to his regular season numbers for his career. If we say 'Playoff Jimmy' if a thing is at times, then we must also say the reverse of 'Playoff Jimmy' has been a thing during his career, too.

At Thursday, May 18, 2023 12:36:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


If two players each score 25 points in a game, but one scores 20 points while the game is up for grabs while the other scores 20 points in garbage time when the margin is large then those players' points are not of equal value. That is an extreme example to prove the larger point.

It seems that people do not understand the nature of competition, particularly at the elite level. The number one seeded team or a higher seeded team is not going to win every game without ever trailing. The team that wins a given game will not play perfectly for 48 minutes. Competition involves ebbs and flows.

I am not sure why are you so insistent on minimizing the quality and impact of Butler's play.

Also, you are incorrect that Butler's per minute numbers are "almost identical," unless you have your own special definition of that phrase. Butler's per minute playoff scoring this season is almost 15% higher than his per minute regular season scoring this season.

If your employer offered you a 15% raise would you consider that new number "almost identical" to your current salary? If a store raised prices by 15% would you consider the new prices "almost identical"? There may be a context in which 15% is not significant, but in most situations a 15% increase is significant.

At Thursday, May 18, 2023 1:39:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


To your point about the Celtics getting knocked for habitually coming from behind, I suspect that Michael Jordan might be admired even more if one or two of his six championships were won in a Game 7. But, as you've said before, we should credit his Bulls for not ever having allowed those series to go seven in the first place. Not that he didn't have Game 7 or Game 5 heroics in earlier parts of the playoffs.

At Thursday, May 18, 2023 3:28:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I never said anything of the like about your garbage time example. That's a different scenario I wasn't talking about. My hypothetical is basically the opposite of that. Obviously if the game has already been decided, garbage time numbers are probably mostly meaningless.

Nobody is saying Boston should be absolutely dominating everyone every game 48 minutes/game. But, they struggled vs the Hawks, who are the very definition of mediocre. The Sixers are a tough team, but the Celtics escaped that series. They gave away game 1 without Embiid, and were 4 1/2 minutes away from losing in 6. Now, they lose game 1 to the 8th seed missing 2 rotation players. Title teams have done similar things before and still won, but this is definitely worrisome if you're a Celtics fan.

I wasn't minimalizing Butler's current playoff run, in fact I said he's been solid. I was merely citing facts and don't buy the 'Playoff Jimmy' nickname as much as most.

I actually said Butler's numbers for the playoffs are higher than his numbers for the regular season, this year. But, I also said his career playoff numbers are almost identical to his career regular season numbers per minute, which is correct. This is one reason why I don't buy much into 'Playoff Jimmy' overall, though at times he has played great obviously.

At Thursday, May 18, 2023 3:56:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

you talk a lot about playing the paint. the Cs strength is 2 wings (and a PG, Smart), none of whom are not big men. what do they have in the paint? ... not a coincidence that they've lost 6 games so far in playoffs and lost in the finals last year. the Heat have Bam (and, at that, are a low seed). LA has AD and LBJ. Denver obviously has Jokic. who does Boston have in the paint? Horford is jacking up 3s on offense and not a huge factor on D. Williams III rarely cracks double digits in rebounds, is usually a triple single; not a key player on the team

At Thursday, May 18, 2023 4:19:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Yes, I would say that Jordan's teams should get credit for never being pushed to seven games in the NBA Finals while compiling a 6-0 Finals record. However, I would not say that teams that are pushed to seven games but survive and advance should be criticized.

At Thursday, May 18, 2023 4:36:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


As I said--anticipating your objection--my garbage time example is an extreme example to make a larger point: not all minutes and not all situations are created equal. In general, it is tougher to score in the final minutes of a close game than it is to score earlier in the game. I am the first to say that games are often decided in the first quarter and that the NBA is as much a first quarter league as a fourth quarter league--but I would also say that in the subset of games in which the outcome is in the balance late in the fourth quarter the fourth quarter scoring is harder to accomplish and therefore more meaningful.

I would be curious to know what Boston's critics believe would be a "reasonable" amount of games for the Celtics to play each playoff year. Very few teams have reached the Conference Finals five times in seven years, so my point is that when you look at the big picture the Celtics are consistently successful to a greater degree than most teams.

In general, nicknames and reputations are often exaggerated, but--at least regarding the 2020 playoffs and the 2023 playoffs--I think that there is something to "Playoff Jimmy."

The Celtics' offense is not paint-oriented both in terms of personnel and scheme, but their paint defense and their rebounding are both strong, and those are key elements to their success. If the Celtics had a consistent paint scoring threat they would be an even better team than they are.

At Friday, May 19, 2023 12:22:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

QBs don't play defense or special teams

At Friday, May 19, 2023 1:43:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Really? I had no idea.

QBs are the only football players who are ranked not only by their personal statistics but also by their won/loss records. It is considered a badge of honor for QBs to lead fourth quarter comebacks. No one ever suggests that if a quarterback were truly great then his team would lead for the whole game. So, if coming back is great in football, why is coming back in basketball considered a sign that the winning team lacked focus?

Instead of pointing out the structural differences between basketball and football--which are not relevant to my analogy or to the larger point that I am making--please explain why falling behind is a virtue in football but a sin in basketball.

At Monday, May 22, 2023 8:21:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

We're creatures who live day to day. The sun rises, the sun sets. You survive in the 4th quarter and you win on that day. You need 7 games and that means that, on 3 separate days, you were defeated. It's how we wired to perceive then differently. Plus the QB may not be at all to blame, if it's D and special teams that have created the deficit that he overcomes

At Tuesday, May 23, 2023 12:40:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


You wrote several sentences but still did not address the observation that I made: NFL QBs (or, if you prefer, NFL teams) are generally praised for fourth quarter comebacks, but NBA stars and NBA teams are generally criticized for falling behind instead of being praised for making comebacks.

At Tuesday, May 23, 2023 8:56:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

My post from yesterday did address that issue. I'll elaborate here. NBA stars/teams get HUGE PRAISE for buzzer-beaters to win game, which are analogous to NFL Q4 comebacks. In both instances, the players/teams win THE DAY (as stated in my post from yesterday). (Same with baseball "walkoff" hits.) By contrast, in a 7-game series, the winner went to sleep 3 nights as the losing team; there is something in human nature that wants to WIN THE DAY. A comeback on the same day is dramatic, in a manner that a multi-day comeback is not. It's why many people love the NCAA bball tourney (even though they don't care much about or love NCAA regular season hoops); you can't have a losing day. It's why people are obsessed with BOXERS being undefeated in fights -- but not rounds. As long as a boxer won every DAY he fought, he's placed on a pedestal (even if he lost some rounds). Sweeps (in 7-game series) are glorified, because the team went undefeated in the series. Again it's about human nature and the power of winning the DAY (not every minute or hour, not the 2-week span of a larger series, but the day).

At Tuesday, May 23, 2023 10:40:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Thank you for clarifying. There may be something to your point regarding how humans are inclined to perceive things.

Even if humans are naturally inclined to evaluate things on a day to day basis, I still find it odd that NBA teams are criticized for coming from behind to win playoff series. If the Celtics are swept in the 2023 ECF, I don't think that outcome validates criticism of their play in the series in which they came from behind to win: the wins showed character and grit, while this loss (if it indeed becomes a series loss to Miami) tells us something about both teams that does not wipe out the value of the Celtics' previous series wins. In other words, I don't think that the Celtics coming from behind to win other series foreshadowed the outcome versus Miami. Miami had the best record in the East last season, and beat the number one seed in the first round in 2023, so if anything what we are seeing now suggests that many of us--myself included--underrated the Heat prior to the 2023 playoffs. I am still mystified regarding why the Heat looked so ordinary for most of the 2023 season only to turn into (or turn back into) world beaters now.

At Tuesday, May 23, 2023 12:29:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree on a GENERAL level (there's nothing inherently bad with coming back to win a series), except that, based on talent level, this SPECIFIC Celtics team probably shouldn't have needed 6 to beat Atlanta or 7 to beat Philly -- again suggesting the Cs underperformed (or were inconsistent) in rounds 1 & 2 (regardless of round 3) ... It was more about quality of the C's competition than anything inherently wrong with needing extra games in a playoff series. (By analogy, celebration of a good NFL team's 4th quarter comeback to beat an 0-11 team might be tempered by questions about why they fell behind for 3 quarters against such a lousy team, whereas a 4th quarter comeback to beat an 11-0 team would be more easy to celebrate)


Post a Comment

<< Home