Maybe the Boston Celtics should argue some more?
With their season on the brink and questions lingering about an overheard locker room outburst among players, the Celtics sustained their strong play for longer in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals than they had in Game 2, beating the Miami Heat, 117-106, on Saturday to reset the series, 2-1.
Longer, mind you, not the entire game. Once again, Boston collapsed late in the second half and almost blew a 20-point fourth quarter lead, which the Heat cut to 5 in the final minute. Had the Celtics lost this one, it would have been the first time in N.B.A. history that a coach — in this case, Brad Stevens — sent himself into orbit. But this time, the Celtics lead was too big for Miami to overcome. The Heat never led in the game.
This contest had extra intrigue after the Celtics coughed up another lead in Game 2, a loss that put them down 0-2 in the series. Multiple reporters at the N.B.A. campus at Walt Disney World in Florida said they heard angry shouting coming out of the Boston locker room, specifically Marcus Smart, after that game ended. The outbursts fueled talk that the Celtics — the favored team in the series — were on the verge of imploding, just like the No. 1 seeded Milwaukee Bucks, who fell to Miami.
But Stevens — outwardly always unflappable — said after the game that the intrasquad jousting was not indicative of any larger chemistry issues with the team and that there wasn’t anything extra he had to do.
“There’s no special talk, no special things, no rah-rah speeches,” Stevens said. “It’s who you have in the locker room and are they committed to each other. Everybody gets pushed to emotions in sports. That’s why I was curious to see what would happen tonight, but I didn’t have much doubt.”
And certainly, feuding teammates have found success, like the Kobe Bryant-Shaquille O’Neal-era Los Angeles Lakers.
But the kind of postgame meltdown that spilled out into the public on Thursday was unusual for a team that has prided itself on how much more fun they have had this campaign, compared to last year’s sludge of a season. In September, before the season, Smart said, “It’s ridiculous the camaraderie we have now.”
As the season progressed, that attitude continued. It almost became a running joke among fans how happy this team seemed together. Kemba Walker, in particular, seemed to exude joy constantly. Smart told The Times in March, “I haven’t seen him frustrated. I haven’t seen him anything but smiling.”
Whatever happened in the locker room, play improved on Saturday. They looked like they were having fun again — at least, for 44 out of the 48 minutes or so. Four players scored at least 20 points: Smart, Walker, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum. Tatum had. the strongest game: 25 points, 14 rebounds and 8 assists. The Celtics shot 48 percent from the field.
“It was probably blown out of proportion,” Brown said after the game. “Like, we are in a bubble. There’s a lot of grown men. There’s a lot of passion and emotion going on. But at the end of the day, we’re a family. We represent this organization. We represent each other and we won’t ever let anything come in between that.”
It helped to have some much needed personnel help. Gordon Hayward made his return to the court after missing a month because of an ankle sprain. He played 31 minutes and admitted his conditioning was off. He scored 6 points, grabbed 5 rebounds and dished out 4 assists. Hayward only shot 2-7 from the field. But this was an example of impact going far beyond the box score.
Hayward is a playmaker on a team with minimal playmaking off the bench. He helped solve the Heat’s zone defense which had flummoxed the Celtics in the first two games of the series with his deft passing.
“It meant everything,” Tatum said after the game. “Obviously, we played a while without him, and I’ve said it before, it’s crazy that anybody would think we would be better without him. We’re so much better when he’s out there.”
It should be noted: Hayward is going through a period of upheaval in his life both on and off the basketball court. Even in normal circumstances, it would be disruptive for anyone to be isolated on a campus just to play professional basketball. Yet on top of that strain, Hayward briefly left Florida to rehabilitate the ankle and see his wife, Robyn, who is expected to give birth any day to the couple’s fourth child.
When Hayward returned to the campus from Indianapolis, he lost time off rehab because of the mandatory quarantine. Hayward said Saturday that if his wife goes into labor he would remain with the team for the duration of the playoff run.
“We discussed it, we prayed about it, and I think it’s probably best if I stay here and help our team,” Hayward said on Saturday.
Hayward’s return and the Celtics win puts a new complexion on the series, which resumes Wednesday.
On one hand, the Celtics almost lost a large lead for the third straight game, which speaks to how resilient the Heat are, and the quality adjustments they make throughout the course of four quarters.
On the other hand, Miami came out flat for the third straight game. There’s only so many times you can get away with that against good teams deep in the playoffs, particularly one with more developed talent. In theory, that is. The Heat shot uncharacteristically poor from three — 12-44 for 27.3 percent, while during the regular season, the Heat shot 37.9 percent — which made them the second best 3-point shooting team in the league.
“We’ve never given up,” Jimmy Butler, the Heat star, said. He scored 17 points and grabbed 8 rebounds. “But I think it gets old, playing from behind, consistently, especially against a great team like Boston and what they bring to the table. ”
This series is on its way to going deep: The first two games were decided by a combined eight points. Game 3 was an 11 point margin. The matchup has been so tightly contested that after Saturday’s game, the Celtics are actually outscoring Miami in the series, 332-329, despite needing one more win to tie the series.