‘No choice but to be tough’: Why Boston’s Game 2 response shouldn’t come as a surprise
- ESPN.com NBA writer since 2010
- Covered Cleveland Cavs for seven years
- Author of two books
MIAMI — The Boston Celtics are a team of long-distance runners.
For years, former Celtics president Danny Ainge employed a consultant that would identify draft picks and free agents’ “brain types” under the belief that certain personality traits made for better players. Ainge and that system are gone, but the Celtics — be it by meticulous scouting, good fortune or, more likely, a mix of both — have a collective personality type.
It was proven again Thursday night when they bounced back for a 127-102 Game 2 victory over the Miami Heat to square the Eastern Conference finals at 1-1.
This was the fourth time this postseason — third on the road — that the Celtics responded to a loss with a win, defeating teams by an average of 17.3 points in those games, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.
That’s on pace to be the fifth-highest margin of victory after a loss in a single postseason all time, among teams to play in at least three such games. The four teams ahead of the Celtics all won the title. (This season’s Miami team is sixth on the list.)
Since late January, when this team found its stride, Boston is now 10-1 coming off a defeat. And the loss has an asterisk; it came on a night when the Celtics rested their starters.
This particular group seems predisposed to this sort of resilience. It is in its nature. Collectively, the Celtics are like a great marathoner, whose mental acuity and guile often equals or even exceeds the physical gifts.
Their coach, Ime Udoka, has a level-headed demeanor but has worked to instill confidence in his team throughout the season. Though he isn’t afraid to challenge or flat-out call out his players, he does it without relying on emotion. Last week, when the Celtics looked to be in serious jeopardy in Milwaukee down 3-2 to the defending champion Bucks — a team that had won eight straight closeout games — Udoka maintained an unassuming confidence.
He believed, correctly as it turned out, that his trailing Celtics were actually in a fine position and relayed that to his team, which responded by winning a massive Game 6 to even the series. He did so again before Game 2 this week, focusing on a handful of positives that he identified from the Game 1 loss, including that Boston won three of the four quarters.
They won all four quarters Thursday, the victory aided by historic shooting. The last time the Celtics shot more than 50% from the field, 50% from 3-point range and 90% from the foul line in a playoff game was in 1987. That Larry Bird/Kevin McHale-led team took six 3-pointers that night. In Game 2, the 2022 model took 40. Great shooting makes everyone look good but the confidence Boston played with wasn’t just good fortune.
“We didn’t play as poorly as last game showed,” Udoka said. “We saw a lot of positives and areas we could attack.”
Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, the team’s two stars, are both immensely confident. Most NBA players are, but Boston’s duo has the benefit of also being even-keeled.
Tatum, for example, had the same posture following his 4-of-19 shooting game in a disastrous Game 3 against the Bucks as he did when he scored 46 points to survive that series’ Game 6. After a poor second half in Game 1 against the Heat — he had six turnovers in the third quarter alone — Tatum started Game 2 with an explosive 20-point first half.
“I think the sign of a good team is how you respond after losses, especially the tough ones,” Tatum said after finishing with 27 points. “It shows the character of the group.”
Brown had one of the worst playoff games of his career in the series opener against the Bucks but followed that up by scoring 25 points in the first half of Game 2. He has been a consistent producer from that moment and has even started a routine of getting on the court for extra work three hours before every tip to work on his shooting. After missing 10 free throws over the previous three games, he’s worked diligently on them and went 3-of-3 on the night.
Marcus Smart is a voracious competitor. More emotional than his laid-back teammates and head coach, he lets it drive his play. He has played through injury throughout the postseason, and in Game 2 he came back after missing the first contest because of a sprained foot to score 24 points along with 12 assists against only one turnover, a vital difference after turnovers crushed the Celtics in Game 1. The reigning Defensive Player of the Year also hounded Jimmy Butler, holding him to just five shot attempts on 37 plays, per ESPN Stats & Information.
In a good illustration of how Smart operates, he started the game making just one of his first 10 shots. He then made seven of his last 10.
“I’m the youngest of four boys,” Smart said. “My whole life, I’ve got to fight … you ain’t got no choice but to be tough.”
The same rings true up and down the roster. Veteran big man Al Horford is Boston’s steadiest presence. Reserves Grant Williams and Payton Pritchard, both undersized and overlooked in various ways in their young careers, bring a mix of energy and relentlessness. After a poor showing in Game 1, Williams had 19 points off the bench in Game 2. Pritchard, after being attacked by the Heat on offense in Game 1, scored 10 points and competed hard on defense, leading to a team-best plus-39 performance.
The Celtics are not the perfect team; they have weaknesses and have shown they can be driven to the brink of elimination. But good luck actually taking four out of seven, which the Heat will now have to do without home-court advantage to win the series.
The way this group is wired, it almost seems as if they embrace a loss. And when you understand their personalities, that logic starts to shine through.
“I think we just had a better presence about ourselves,” Tatum said. “They kicked our butt last [game], and we just wanted to respond.”
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