BOSTON — Miami Heat point guard Kyle Lowry made a statement in first possession of the match.
He caught a rebound from the Boston Celtics’ miss and quickly hoisted the ball over the court to try an open 3-point shot by Max Struth.
So the avalanche for the generally stubborn Celtics defense has begun. Miami’s dominating first quarter on Saturday provided enough cushion to withstand Boston’s fierce comeback and the emotional game return of the Celtics players who appeared to have suffered serious injuries. However, it was the return of the two hit stars that made Miami’s 109-103 victory possible in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals.
The first star was Lowry, who missed most of the playoffs due to a hamstring injury. The other was Bam Adebayo. seemingly dropped out of the series. Adebayo’s 16 goals in the first half equaled his own total in the first and second legs. He finished Game 3 with 31 points, 10 rebounds and 6 assists. Miami leads the series 2-1.
Adebayo said of Miami’s loss of 25 points in Game 2: “You know, they beat us like we stole something. Then everyone will wake up.”
This was undoubtedly a strange series. In the twelfth quarter, the Heat outperformed the Celtics only twice, but leads the series 2-1 overall. Those two branches defined the series. The first was in the third quarter of the first leg. Beat the Celtics 39-14.. The other was Saturday night’s opening frame with Heat leading 39-18. This matchup features wild swings and unusually poor defenses from both teams, which are generally regarded as strengths.
“Either way, the margin of error is so small that you just have to go through all the emotions and ups and downs,” said Hits coach Erik Spoelstra.
Heat had a new strategy for Game 3. Move faster.
Miami pushed the ball back in the first half, beating the Celtics defense in a row. It got the Celtics into trouble with no time to adjust. For Adebayo, sometimes that meant getting a pass at half-court and then immediately sprinting down the court and going into the basket against the slow Al Horford.
“I’ve seen Bam play that way a lot, but tonight was special,” Strus said. “It was huge for him to go that step because of all the noise and all the criticism he received.”
For Lowry, pushing the ball meant receiving an inbound pass after the Celtics basket and tossing it onto the court at striker Jimmy Butler for an open layup in a row.
But it wasn’t just a quick break. When Adebayo received the ball from the post, he grabbed the ball and immediately pivoted into the paint without waiting for the defender to react. It was the way Heat was not used to playing. During the regular season they league bottom.
Heat leads a whopping 26 points in the first half. They went into halftime until 15.
Heat helped force a quick break by forcing 23 turnovers. The Celtics ball handlers couldn’t find room to dribble because their heat defense was so good at getting the ball out. Boston’s Jalen Brown, one of the NBA’s best slashing guards, repeatedly missed the ball to Victor Oladipo, who scored a four-stealth from the bench. There were also Lowry and Adebayo. four steal each.
“We made them so easy in that regard,” said Celtics coach Ime Udoka. “Obviously if you get stopped or score a basketball you can’t get out and run that far, but scoring 33 points in 24 turnovers is hard to overcome.”
With seven turnovers, Brown kept at least some umpire responsibilities, despite Boston allowing 30 free throws to Miami’s 14.
“You send me a lot of stuff tonight, especially when I’m driving and arriving in the basket. I always feel like I have two hands in my hand,” Brown said. “I never answer a phone call that checks by hand.”
Heat ruined the dramatic storytelling for Celtics. In the third quarter, Celtics guard Marcus Smart, who won Defensive Player of the Year, was sent off after suffering a horrendous injury to his right leg while trying to rebound. He collapsed to the floor, writhing in pain, and with help he went from the floor into the locker room.
Minutes later, he reappeared from the tunnel and entered the game with the deafening roar of the Celtics crowd. He immediately made a corner three-point shot, reducing the hit deficit to 10. Then came the dramatic moment in the fourth quarter when Boston’s best player Jayson Tatum also grabbed his right shoulder and fell to the ground. Like Smart, he had to get help from the floor. But he also reappeared after a while.
The Celtics appeared to be gearing up for a Storybook comeback. They attacked the goal fiercely, and the stadium full of fans in green T-shirts is choking. With 2:40 left, Brown’s 3-point shot reduced Heat’s lead to one in a game Boston never won. Almost certainly, all the production was made for a Hollywood movie starring Matt Damon and Ben Affleck.
Rescue plans for Miami came in the form of undrafted third-year guards Struss, taking minutes from undrafted guards Duncan Robinson and Tyler Hero. He dominated the Celtics crowd with his 3-point shot in Brown’s jumper. Lowry marked the start of the game with a period to provide help on the stat sheet and extra help on the hurdles.
“At the timeout, Kyle said let’s do a pindown for Max,” Strus said. “Let’s open him. So when he said that, I had all the confidence that I could go one step further in the world and shoot.”
Health will be a determining factor going forward in the series. Butler missed the second half of Game 3 with a knee injury. The Celtics missed their starting center, Robert William III, due to a swollen knee. He is considered routine. Udoka said Smart rolled his ankle after the game and Tatum had a thorn in his shoulder.
“I assume they’ll be fine.” Udoka said.
Similar to what he looked like when he won the 2019 Toronto Raptors championship in 2019, Lowry was a defensive pest with aggressive play and calming influence. He had 11 points, 6 assists and 4 steals. He wasn’t always pretty, but it worked. He said he felt “okay” after the game, even though he struggled to find a rhythm.
“No matter what happens, in the end, if you play hard with all your heart, you have to be happy and live by the results. That’s what we do,” Lowry said.