NBA playoff basketball is an exercise in advanced problem-solving, and the Boston Celtics came into Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals with some serious problems.
They blew double-digit second-half leads to the Miami Heat in consecutive losses, encountered far more trouble with the Heat's zone defense than any top-five offense should and let Miami wreak havoc in the paint.
If the first two games of the series were radical departures, then Game 3 was a bold correction for the Celtics, who overwhelmed the Heat 117-106 to narrow Miami's series lead to 2-1.
With an offense that has made movement, creativity and unselfishness its defining qualities, there is no good reason for the Celtics to stagnate against a 2-3 zone defense, even one as alert as Miami's. The Celtics feature the kind of personnel to beat a zone, with penetrators and playmakers all over the floor. Yet in the two losses, they abandoned their dribble attack, settled for contested jumpers and stood motionless in the half court.
In Game 3, Boston attacked the paint from the opening tip. Against the Heat's man-to-man defense in the first quarter, the Celtics punished the Heat with drive after drive, led by their pair of young, dynamic wings, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. When Tatum met resistance en route to the hoop, he kicked the ball out to Brown, who initiated a drive of his own. Tatum was Boston's primary distributor on Saturday -- he finished with a game-high eight assists, the result of his patience and his eagerness to make plays.
By halftime, it was clear that the No. 1 item on the Celtics' Game 3 to-do list was abusing Miami inside. On a controlled break, Brown hunted Duncan Robinson, dragged him down just beneath the basket for an early post-up and scored at point-blank range with an and-1. Marcus Smart got into the act as well, doing work down on the block. In the final tally, Boston racked up 60 points in the paint to Miami's 36.
"We just made the plays that were presented to us," Kemba Walker said. "Whenever we had opportunities to drive and kick, we did, and guys were just being aggressive."
Given the range of NBA offenses and their willingness to attempt 3-pointers at unbelievable rates, any zone defense will have to cover a ton of ground, which leaves holes for a smart offense to exploit. The Celtics can fire from distance, which was a detriment in the first two games as they tried to shoot their way over the zone. Once the Heat settled into a zone in Game 3, the Celtics targeted the soft spots and made quick decisions that stretched the Heat to their limits.
With each possession, the Celtics mounted more confidence against a zone that had tormented them. Their pick-and-roll attack and perimeter screening actions loosened the vise. Once they extended Miami's zone from corner to corner in the third quarter, Brown sneaked along the baseline to collect a feed from Smart for an easy bucket. A couple of minutes later, rookie Grant Williams found the dead spot in the zone for a layup. These are the kind of well-executed reads that define Boston in its wins -- and were sorely missing in its two losses.
Among the reasons the Celtics found more space and movement is the return of Gordon Hayward. A 6-foot-7 point forward who can pressure defenses off the dribble, sling cross-court passes and hit from distance, Hayward is a human zone-buster. Although the stat line (6 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists, 3 steals and 1 block in 31 minutes, including a 3-pointer during a Heat spurt) didn't reflect his contribution, Hayward's presence offered a glimpse of what he can bring the Celtics going forward.
"Gordon was great," Brown said. "Just having an extra guy who can make plays was huge for us. He had some big plays during this game, and he's only going to continue to go up."
With Hayward, Boston can play its "best five" of Walker, Smart, Tatum, Brown and Hayward. Having Hayward also will allow Stevens to shorten his rotation. Most of all, he empowers the Celtics to maximize their versatility on both ends of the floor. Heat big man Bam Adebayo will forever present issues for Boston -- as he does for most opponents -- but the Celtics have just enough size, speed and help instincts to keep things in order defensively.
The Celtics have a lot of guys who can initiate offense and a lot of guys who can finish -- a lethal combination. They'll have stretches when shot selection abandons them and times when they forget about the power of motion in the half court.
But Jimmy Butler might be right: When it comes to raw talent, there probably is a disparity that favors the Celtics. This matters only if the Celtics make it matter.