Urgency. Aggression. A sense of purpose … and a sense that they were out of mulligans.
The Boston Celtics blew away the Miami Heat in Game 4 of their Eastern Conference championship series Monday night at TD Garden. The 102-82 win that wasn’t even that close erased the memories of Saturday’s debacle of a Game 3 loss, evened the series at 2-2 and made the next five days of Beantown pro basketball a best-of-3 series for a spot in the NBA Finals.
Two of those prospective games will be played in Miami, starting with Game 5 Wednesday night. If necessary, Game 7 is back in South Beach this Sunday, which means to get back to the Finals for the first time in a dozen years the Celtics will have to have found a style of winning that travels.
The best part of Monday’s runaway win was not the 18-1 blitz out of the gates, nor the 29-11 opening quarter or the fact that the huge lead meant meaningful rest for a hobbled Rob Williams.
No, the best part was that Boston may have found a formula that will work, home or away.
It all began with Jayson Tatum, the 24-year-old all-star who sometimes plays like one of the best three players on Earth and sometimes, well, he doesn’t. Too often which of those Tatums is on the floor is determined by whether or not his 3-pointers are falling, yet Monday night he shot 1-of-7 from long distance and still turned in one of his best career home playoff efforts.
Why? Because he attacked the rim.
Tatum was never afraid to play downhill basketball on this night and he flummoxed the Heat defense as a result. Would you believe that the 16 free throws Tatum took were his most ever in a Boston playoff win? It’s true; He took 17 in a loss to Brooklyn last year, but otherwise seldom hits double digits from the charity stripe.
He made 14, which was as many as he made in Games 1 and 2 combined, and tied his most ever in a Celtics playoff victory.
“We knew how important this game was,” Tatum said. “We had to come out with a different sense of urgency on the floor.”
Yes, the modern NBA is a “three and D” league. Boston was pretty wretched from behind the arc Monday (8-for-34). Yet the Green led by 30-plus points for most of the evening, something that ought to be a lesson as they hop on the plane for Miami.
It’s not that they shouldn’t hoist up the trifectas – they’re averaging 38 attempts a night in these playoffs, with 14 makes. Sometimes they make a lot more (see Game 7 against Milwaukee). Others they make a lot lesser, sulk and typically lose.
Being able to attack the bucket for some points in the paint when shots aren’t falling can prevent the sort of long scoring droughts that burned Boston earlier in this series.
“It was being aggressive,” Tatum said. “Whether it was myself or my teammates, it was having a different burst of energy and it led to free throws and finding guys for open shots.”
Jaylen Brown seemed to learn this lesson first, but it was Tatum who fully embraced it Monday night in a 31-point, 8-rebound effort that included five assists and two blocks.
“(Miami) is really crowding our guys on the perimeter,” said head coach Ime Udoka. “Sometimes you just have to break the play and go downhill. Jayson did that from the start. “
Note that in every game of the Eastern Conference finals so far, Boston has made more than 20 trips to the free throw line. They nearly tripled Miami’s attempts Monday (38-14) and have 49 more for the series. It’s happening because Boston is playing the more aggressive brand of basketball against a throwback Heat team constructed by (and in the image of) the always gritty Pat Riley.
We already know the Celtics are the best defensive team in the NBA and that defense travels. Downhill, in the paint, free throw producing basketball also travels, and if Boston embraces that it’s hard to see them losing two of the next three games.
Yes, these Eastern Conference Finals have been a series of blowouts traded, with neither team taking a gut punch just yet. Yes, Miami probably felt like a split in Boston was a job well done and was overcome early by Celtic desperation … they will certainly not buckle so early on their own floor.
Health could be a factor, too. Just a few minutes of Rob Williams nullified a Bam Adebayo who terrorized Boston in Game 3 … too many minutes of Daniel Theis may make everything discussed to this point moot.
What of Marcus Smart (who missed Monday with an injury) on the Green side, and Jimmy Butler and Kyle Lowry for Miami? If this series goes the distance, it’s advantage whoever has more men left standing.
But four years to the day after Boston’s last East Finals win at TD Garden in a series against Cleveland that it lost because of Game 7 offensive stagnation, the players who were basically children that day looked all grown up.
There’s no substitute for the kind of energy a team gets when a leader, and a star, like Tatum takes over by going to the rim. From here, it seems all Boston has to do to get to the Finals is take that style to Miami, in order to take it to the Heat.
You can contact Matt Williams at MWilliams@salemnews.com and follow along on Twitter @MattWilliams_SN