- ESPN.com NBA writer since 2010
- Covered Cleveland Cavs for seven years
- Author of two books
BOSTON — Midway through the third quarter Monday night as the Celtics were pushing their lead to as much as 32 points, Rudy Gobert couldn’t resist.
“This Boston defense is tough” the Utah Jazz center tweeted.
This was both innocuous and accurate at a time when the Celtics were smothering the Miami Heat and rewriting a slew of records on their way to a 102-82 victory that tied the Eastern Conference finals at 2-2.
But Gobert, it sure seemed, was subtweeting. He had a point, though maybe not his preferred one.
Gobert was noting the Celtics looked great on defense even though Defensive Player of the Year Marcus Smart was out with an ankle injury.
Gobert, a three-time DPOY, appears to still be salty that Smart beat him out for the award.
What Gobert was saying without saying, though, is the Heat were powerless to score against Boston in the half court, Smart’s absence notwithstanding.
The Heat are hurting at the moment and they look like they’re going to need some help to take two out of the three games left to reach the Finals. Be it the injury gods, the Celtics themselves, or some yet to be discovered offensive savior.
They don’t see it this way, at least publicly. They projected a strong and satisfied front after the loss, looking forward to going back home for Game 5 with home-court advantage.
“This is part of the playoffs, there are these extreme highs and lows,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “We’ve proven that we can find solutions offensively in a lot of different ways.”
Spoelstra is speaking the truth. The Heat have shown throughout the season they can manage adversity. They were walloped with injuries and constantly changing lineups, yet in the end still had the No. 1 seed in the East.
Spoelstra was once again a Coach of the Year candidate for his ability to consistently piece together a functional engine. The situation Miami is in at the moment, though, is a real test of that track record.
Three of their most important offensive players are dealing with bothersome injuries. Tyler Herro, the Sixth Man of the Year, missed Game 4 with a groin injury and is having trouble running without pain. Jimmy Butler is playing through inflammation in his right knee and looked to have issues with getting lift and separation, and shot just 3-of-14.
After getting to the line 26 times in the first two games, Butler has been there just twice in the last three halves as the knee issue has flared up. Kyle Lowry is still coming back from a hamstring injury and is just 5-of-17 shooting in the two games since returning to the lineup.
There is just one day’s rest between games in the conference finals — it has long been such for television purposes, the effect of the quality of play notwithstanding — and three hours of flying on the off days. The injuries don’t have much time to heal.
“No excuse for how I played tonight. It don’t got nothing to do with my knee,” Butler said, despite what the results showed. “I’ve just got to be better. I will be better. I’m not too worried about it.”
Said Heat star Bam Adebayo: “Injuries is a part of this, it’s a part of playoffs. You learn to adapt … you’ve just got to find a way to win.”
This attitude under the circumstances is part of the Heat’s long-standing mantra: “We have enough.”
That has been Spoelstra’s guiding principle when faced with adversity through the years, and it remains so now. But against this Celtics’ team and this defense, which has been the star of their playoff run and impressive enough for an expert such as Gobert to offer approval, the Heat’s optimism is a harder sell.
When the Heat pulled out the surprising Game 3 win on Saturday, they were aided by a load of Celtics turnovers that fueled offensive chances, leading to an astounding 33 points. Even then, the game wasn’t decided until the final minutes.
The Celtics shut off that spigot on Monday; they turned the ball over just three times in the first half and gave up just seven points off turnovers for the game. With Butler slow, Lowry slower and Herro in courtside couture, that wasn’t survivable.
Miami started the game incredibly 0-of-14 from the field and only marginally improved from there, finishing at just 33% shooting.
Derrick White, in the starting lineup for a third time this postseason in place of Smart, was spectacular in protecting the perimeter for Boston, notching three steals. Jayson Tatum, Al Horford and Robert Williams III combined for eight blocks.
And everyone wearing green and white was locked in on the game plan, which included keeping bodies in front of Adebayo and forcing midrange shots. Miami had a measly eight points in the paint in the first half — when the game was decided.
Spoelstra, as is his nature, batted the worrisome situation away and termed it temporary.
“We are not making any excuse,” the coach said. “We can do it in the mud. We can win it ugly. We can win it when the floodgates come open hitting 3s. We can do it with Jimmy taking over a game. We can do it when he’s facilitating. We have the mental fortitude and the collective toughness to be able to embrace what we have. It’s just a very competitive, good series.”
This Heat team has thrived all season on disrespect. At the start of the playoffs, sportsbooks had them as low as fifth in the odds to win the East despite their top seed. Adebayo was furious he didn’t get recognized in the top three for Defensive Player of the Year — Gobert took the last finalist spot. The Celtics were the significant favorite coming into this series, but the Heat have yet to trail.
Doubting them here could indeed be a mistake. But there are red lights all over the dashboard now, and pulling this out might take something special.
“This is what you want,” Spoelstra said. “We’ll take this hit. We’ll do this together and then we’ll get back to Miami and we’ll get ready for Game 5.”
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