The Celtics’ awesome, excellent and hugely dominant defense renders the Heat inept in Game 4 of the Conference Finals

The Celtics’ awesome, excellent and hugely dominant defense renders the Heat inept in Game 4 of the Conference Finals

Get this: The Boston Celtics, who had the best defense in the NBA in the regular season, who frustrated Kevin Durant in the first round and Giannis Antetokounmpo in the second, who employ savvy, switchable defenders in every position, who needed a victory Monday to avoid falling 3-1 in the Eastern Conference Finals, absolutely stifled the Miami Heat in Game 4.

OK, well, not super surprising. Boston had shot itself in the foot by committing 19 live-ball turnovers in Game 3, and it had bounced back from each of its previous four playoff losses.

But this was no ordinary rebound. It was as complete a beating as you will see in a playoff game. The Celtics led 18-1 with three and a half minutes left in the first quarter and 26-4 at the end of the two minutes. The Heat missed 14 field goals before scoring their first. After three quarters, Miami had scored 52 points (or 74.3 per 100 possessions) on 36.5 percent true shooting and missed 14 of 20 3-point attempts.

Boston didn’t just make the Heat bewildered offensively. It made them look incompetent. And he did it without Defensive Player of the Year – Marcus Smart watched sideways, inactive with a sprained ankle.

After the 102-82 win, Celtics coach Ime Udoka said they “understood that we needed to be more aggressive and physical on the defensive side.” He added that Heat big man Bam Adebayo came on in the last game, and “guys are taking it personal”.

Udoka noted that none of Miami’s starters scored in double figures. If he really wanted to rub it, he could have mentioned that all five starters combined for 18 points on 7-for-36 shooting, two of them were scoreless and none of them spoke in the fourth quarter, since the outcome had long been decided.

Boston’s defensive masterclass began when Al Horford stayed with Adebayo through a cross screen, forced him out of the perimeter, then went down to a pick-and-roll on the game’s first possession. Traveling aid defender extraordinaire Robert Williams III swarmed Adebayo, forcing a fake pump, then Horford stripped him:

On the third possession, when Jimmy Butler went down against the fall, Williams’ assist forced a pass. Butler collected the ball in the corner on a dribble with PJ Tucker, then attacked Williams on a switch. This gave a turnaround jumper from outside the restricted area, on both Williams and Jaylen Brown:

Two days after scoring 16 points and shooting 4-for-7 from deep, Max Strus was one of the scoreless starters. That’s mainly because Derrick White, starting in place of Smart, harassed him around the screens, forcing him to take a difficult jumper, settle for a floater, or get rid of the ball.

The Celtics are known for switching, but they’ve always shuffled their covers to keep opponents guessing and avoid some matchups. Miami recognized it could get into the open space against the drop, but couldn’t take advantage of it consistently. He shot 6 for 28 from 2 points in the first half, and those were almost entirely wide of the rim.

Switching, both on and off the ball, was also relevant. If you just follow the ball on those two first-quarter possessions, you’ll notice Grant Williams stays ahead of Kyle Lowry and Butler, and then Payton Pritchard comes in with a steal; if you watch Pritchard all the time, you’ll see Boston pull him out of lags against Adebayo and Butler:

Everyone who took the field for Boston contributed defensively. Pritchard, listed at 6-foot-1 and 195 pounds, is often a pick-and-roll target due to his size, but he’s nothing if not feisty. At the end of the first quarter, he dismissed Gabe Vincent in transition, just like Horford did for Adebayo in the third:

Miami only managed two second-chance points in the first three quarters. “We felt like the last game they obviously destroyed us on the boards,” Robert Williams III said, “so we just wanted to increase the effort all around.” On the rare occasions the Heat managed to grab an offensive rebound, the Celtics continued to hustle, close, and cover each other. When coaches talk poetically about the importance of “multiple effort games,” here’s what they mean:

The only Miami player who managed to create an offense was Victor Oladipo, who finished with 23 points on 7-for-16 shooting. Boston didn’t respect him as a floor spacer, though, and they respected even less. Caleb Martin. Robert Williams III continued to cheat on both Tucker (the other scoreless starter) and Butler, and the groin injury that sidelined Tyler Herro hurt the Heat’s spacing with their game making. When Miami tried to reach the edge, bodies were everywhere:

While Jayson Tatum created advantages out of thin air, the Heat often executed a series of moves that added up to a big bowl of nothing. A first quarter possession ended with Vincent missing a corner 2 on the line over Tatum, another ended with Vincent missing a turnover jumper on Robert Williams III like Butler did earlier – it was even from the same place. Scorers tend to be aware of the extremely athletic rim protector when attacking the basket, but the Heat challenged him on several occasions, apparently because they saw no better option.

The most amazing thing about this rout is that the Celtics fell miserably (5 for 27 from deep over the first three quarters). It was not the first time, however, that their defense seemed like an unsolvable puzzle. Now two wins away from the final, Udoka said the challenge was to replicate that performance after a win, rather than “waiting for us to get down to gathering that energy”. Shots aren’t always going to land, but, from his perspective, if they take care of the ball and don’t allow for easy baskets, their defense will mentally wear down Miami.

It seems simple enough. For this team, maybe it is.

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