Al Horford and the Boston Celtics understand the challenge that remains is just as prevalent, and understand how the odds remain stacked against them. They expressed just that after a series-extending victory against the Miami Heat in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals on Tuesday night.
But Boston nevertheless displayed a level of confidence following its 116-99 victory in South Beach.
“We feel like we found some good things here tonight, backs against the wall,” Horford told NBC Sports Boston’s Abby Chin immediately the game. “I feel like like we kind of found what it takes for us to be the best version of ourselves.”
What might that be?
Well, it’s fair to think Horford’s sentiment is multi-faceted. There were a few different positives that came out of Boston’s win, after all.
Boston moved the ball much more effectively in Game 4, and it allowed the offense to get better shots both in transition and in the half court. Sure, the Celtics still had some lackluster stretches when Miami dropped into its 2-3 zone. But with Jayson Tatum playmaking in the second half and the group making the extra pass, Boston looked much better on the offensive end. Shots falling from long range, especially given that the C’s had made just 29% of their 3-point attempts in the first three games, played a key factor, too. “The biggest thing is the ball movement, you see our game tonight, the ball wasn’t sticking so much,” Horford told Chin.
The Celtics were at their best in the third quarter, and it started on the defensive end. It was their best defensive stretch all series. The Heat turned the ball over 16 times and had eight of their shots blocked in the contest, including a few memorable swats by Derrick White, Grant Williams and Tatum. Boston also forced Miami’s role players into more difficult looks than earlier in the series when Heat reserves looked like the Golden State Warriors. “I think today was our best defensive game, just how we were moving, how we were rotating. We tried to make guys uncomfortable, and we were just there for one another,” Jayson Tatum told reporters, per ASAP Sports. “But it just felt like we were all connected, especially in that second half defensively, just rotating, helping, things like that.”
Celtics first-year head coach Joe Mazzulla had arguably his best game of the season. Mazzulla, who has been criticized consistently for his unwillingness to use timeouts at impactful moments, did just that Tuesday night. It played a pivotal role in Boston’s third-quarter run, which saw the Green eliminate a nine-point deficit before taking a nine-point lead — an 18-0 scoring stretch. Mazzulla’s memorable timeout came with Jaylen Brown seemingly seconds away from a costly turnover. “I thought that was a good decision,” Brown told reporters, per ASAP Sports.
Mazzulla’s timeout halted a broken play and ultimately led to a 3-pointer from White on the ensuing possession. The Celtics never trailed thereafter. He impressed in a few other moments, too. Getting Tatum back into the game early in the fourth quarter just as Miami cut Boston’s lead to five points helped stop the bleeding with Jimmy Butler on the bench.
Contributions from role players
Horford had noticeably struggled during the first three games of the series. Marcus Smart hadn’t been overly effective after a 10-assist first half in Game 1. The same could be said about White while Williams didn’t even take the floor in the series opener. The fact Boston received pivotal contributions from those players — they were a combined 13-for-28 from 3-point range — in a must-win contest was certainly a step in the right direction. Boston’s role players were overshadowed by Miami’s in the first three matchups. It’s a key reason behind the Green’s series deficit. But perhaps water will find its level after Game 4.
Game 5 between the Celtics and Heat is scheduled for Thursday night at TD Garden. Tip off is set for 8:30 p.m. ET.