Celtics head coach Ime Udoka once again pushed all the right buttons — before, during and after Boston’s 127-102 win over the Miami Heat in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals.
One such example occurred in the first quarter Thursday night, when the Heat came out blazing, knocking down four 3-pointers in the opening four-plus minutes to build an early double-digit lead. The Celtics’ sluggish start forced Udoka and company to regroup, as Boston could ill afford to dig itself into a deeper hole while trying to bounce back from a Game 1 loss plagued by a nightmare third quarter.
“Just wake up,” Udoka told reporters after the game when asked his message to the team following Miami’s 18-8 start. “We were slow to react for the first few shots, switching too low on their shooters, and that’s something we didn’t do a great job of last game. We understand who they are and who their scorers are and who their shooters are and how we need to switch accordingly and according to their personnel.
“Just a simple message that we need to wake up and react a little bit quicker. Al (Horford) gave up one, as well, and Jaylen (Brown) was too low on one, so cleaned that up pretty quickly and finished off the quarter well.”
A little verbal motivation wasn’t the only tool Udoka used to turn the tide in Boston’s favor. He also made a tangible change midway through the first quarter that proved extremely beneficial for the Celtics.
After a couple of buckets by Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum — as well as some good fortune in the form of missed free throws and layups by P.J. Tucker — Udoka called upon Grant Williams to replace Robert Williams III. The latter obviously is an integral piece of Boston’s lineup, particularly on the defensive end, but the former was better equipped to combat what the Heat were throwing at the Celtics in that moment.
Grant Williams scored his first bucket — a 2-pointer assisted by Tatum — a mere 16 seconds after entering the game, cutting Boston’s deficit to three points. He later knocked down two shots from beyond the arc as the Celtics finished the quarter with a 35-24 lead, a cushion that ballooned to 70-45 by halftime.
“Spaced the floor well. We got to attack some matchups that we wanted to and space out (Bam) Adebayo and Tucker and some of those guys,” Udoka said of the Celtics’ lineup once Grant Williams joined the mix. “Obviously with Rob in there, he has his things that he does well, but he has some limitations, as well, as far as spacing the court. We saw success against Milwaukee and Brooklyn doing that with Al (Horford) and Grant lineups, where they can space it out and we can attack multiple ways. So create a lot of open shots, a lot of open 3s, and he got going but also opened up the lanes for our drivers.”
Grant Williams, the hero of Boston’s series-clinching win over the Milwaukee Bucks in Round 2, totaled 19 points and four rebounds in 32 minutes Thursday.
Of course, it’d be hyperbolic to say Grant Williams — or the decision to insert Grant Williams — singlehandedly changed the complexion of Game 2, and by extension the series. But it’s certainly reflective of a greater strength: the Celtics’ ability to adjust on the fly.
Whereas one matchup might require elite rim protection from Rob Williams, another might play into Grant Williams’ versatility. And it’s incumbent upon Udoka, more than anyone, to identify and implement the necessary changes — something he’s done admirably throughout the playoffs.
“Coach Udoka has done a good job with us all year, really, just kind of establishing an identity, who we want to be, what we’re about,” Al Horford told reporters. “And we’re going out there and we’re doing it and we’re enjoying doing it, and guys — we’ve done it so much that it’s kind of muscle memory at this point. We’re getting out there, we’re doing it, we’re executing, and everybody is buying into it.”
The Celtics received a boost in Game 2 thanks to the return of Horford and Marcus Smart, two veteran leaders who missed Game 1. But their availability wasn’t known until hours before tipoff. And the C’s also entered the pivotal showdown without Derrick White, who flew back to Boston earlier in the day for the birth of his child.
Between such lingering lineup uncertainty, a Game 1 loss still fresh in their minds and a shaky start to Game 2, the Celtics very easily could have stumbled into an insurmountable situation. Instead, they kept their composure, made tweaks and executed at an extremely high level to even the series, which now shifts to Boston for Game 3 on Saturday night.
Credit everyone, but especially the head coach.