LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — For the past two days, the basketball world waited to see how the Boston Celtics would respond to both collapsing down the stretch for a second straight game to open the Eastern Conference finals and the emotional outbursts in the locker room that followed.
But after the Celtics got themselves back into their series against the Miami Heat with a 117-106 victory on Saturday in Game 3, Boston said its response is proof that there is more than enough resolve within this team for it to turn this series around and win it.
“There are some great guys in that locker room,” Celtics guard Jaylen Brown said after leading Boston with 26 points, 7 rebounds, 5 assists, 3 steals and 1 blocked shot in 42 minutes. “A lot of emotion, a lot of passion. But we’re a family. We’re here for each other at the end of the day. We exemplified that when we came out together. We stayed together during some tough moments.
“But we didn’t hang our head. We kept our will high and persevered to win this game.”
Boston didn’t do much persevering in Games 1 and 2. The Celtics held a 14-point lead early in the fourth quarter of Game 1 and a 15-point lead in the third quarter of Game 2, only to give both of them away as they dug themselves a massive hole.
Still, the Celtics could take solace in the fact that they controlled large portions of those games. They then proceeded to come out and do the same thing in Game 3, except this time they managed to close the door on Miami, despite a brief scare when the Heat got within five points inside the final minute.
The difference? In Game 3, rather than falling into large stretches of passive play, as it did in the first two games, Boston was relentlessly aggressive in attacking the paint. Doing so produced a ridiculous 60-36 margin in points in the paint in Boston’s favor, allowing the Celtics to dictate the tempo of the game and keep the Heat on their heels.
“Our whole team was aggressive,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “Our whole team played with the right mentality.”
That mentality was lacking in the first two games, which led to frustrations bubbling over in the locker room afterward, notably with Marcus Smart being heard among several players yelling at one another. But after the Celtics spent last season as a disjointed group that went through numerous locker room spats during the season, this version of the team has had practically no such moments.
After the Celtics responded with an impressive performance Saturday, the players shrugged off the idea that there would be any long-term issue as a result of this moment of turbulence.
“It’s been normal,” said Jayson Tatum, who had 25 points, 14 rebounds and 8 assists in 41 minutes. “Anybody that’s played sports, played in a team game, we’re not supposed to be happy being down 0-2. If you are, then you don’t care. We care about this.
“Basketball is a game of emotions. So we want guys to be frustrated, be upset, to care. It’s nothing personal. We just have to figure some things out. It’s nothing more than that.
“You’re supposed to talk it out, figure it out and come together for the next game. Leave what happened in the past in the past because you can’t change it.”
One thing that did change — and helped Boston change the tenor of this series — was the return of Gordon Hayward nearly five weeks after he suffered a Grade 3 right ankle sprain in the fourth quarter of Boston’s opening victory of the playoffs over the Philadelphia 76ers. Despite the time he missed, Hayward’s presence paid immediate dividends for the Celtics, even if his numbers didn’t pop off the stat sheet.
Of far more importance than those raw statistics — six points on 2-for-7 shooting to go with 5 rebounds, 4 assists, 3 steals, 1 block and 1 turnover — was the fact that Hayward was able to play 31 minutes and provide the stabilizing presence that he brought to the Celtics all season.
That allowed Stevens and the Celtics to go back to the formula they wanted to employ throughout the playoffs: playing each of their five main perimeter players — Hayward, Tatum, Brown, Smart and Kemba Walker — more than 30 minutes each game and filling in around them as necessary.
“It meant everything,” Tatum said of Hayward’s return. “Obviously, we played a while without him. And I’ve said it before: crazy that anyone would think we’re better without him. We’re so much better when he’s out there and so much more dynamic, so much more versatile when he’s out there.
“It felt great to have the full team back. He played great in his first game, and he’s going to continue to get better, get his feel back. So to have him back is everything.”
Hayward will also be back, presuming health, for the remainder of Boston’s postseason run. At the start of the bubble, the expectation was that Hayward would leave the Celtics to go home to be with his wife, Robyn, for the birth of their fourth child. But after he left for a few weeks because of his injury, he decided that he won’t be leaving again.
“I think that obviously wasn’t in the plan, getting injured, going back to Indianapolis for treatment,” Hayward said. “I trust those guys with everything back there. Obviously, a little bit lucky that Robin was there already in Indy, so I got a chance to be at home and get great treatment, but that wasn’t in the plan.
“Robyn could be having a baby at any point in time, so I think it’s probably something that I’ll be here, and by the time I get back, I might miss the birth if she just goes in and rushes into the hospital. So we discussed it, we prayed about it, and I think it’s probably best if I stay here and help our team.”
Hayward helped in a big way Saturday as the Celtics managed to get their season back on track. The team didn’t have practice Friday or shootaround Saturday. After Game 2, Brown said he couldn’t wait for Game 3 to start.
Over the following 48 hours, he admitted, he didn’t get much sleep. There was too much adrenaline flowing, and he was eager to get back at it. When he and the Celtics got their chance, they took advantage of their opportunity to make this a series.
“I was so antsy to get and play basketball,” Smart said. “I don’t think the last two games exemplified what this team was about, so I couldn’t wait to come out and be the best version of myself and try to add to a win.
“I’m glad to be part of this team and this organization, and I’m proud of how we responded.”