The Boston Celtics hit back on Saturday, leading wire-to-wire in a 117-106 victory over the Miami Heat that cut the gap in the NBA Eastern Conference finals to two games to one.
Jaylen Brown scored 26 points and Jayson Tatum added 25 points and 14 rebounds for the Celtics, who avoided falling into an 0-3 hole from which no NBA team has rallied to win a best-of-seven playoff series.
After their 17-point lead slipped away in a game-two loss on Thursday – the second straight game they surrendered a double-digit lead in defeat – Celtics players could be heard exchanging heated words in their locker room.
But they were all on the same page on Saturday, displaying a sense of purpose in the NBA’s quarantine bubble in Orlando, Florida, and maintaining their poise as the Heat narrowed a 20-point fourth-quarter deficit to five with less than a minute to play.
Marcus Smart, a perfect 10-for-10 from the foul line, produced a string of clutch free throws and the Celtics hung on for the win.
“Down 0-2 in the series, we played some games we thought we should have played better,” Brown said. “We wanted to make it an emphasis to come out tonight and play 48 minutes, and we did.”
Center Bam Adebayo led the Heat with 27 points, 16 rebounds and three steals. Rookie Tyler Herro scored 22 points for Miami and star forward Jimmy Butler scored 17.
But Boston outscored Miami 60-36 in the paint and held the Heat to 38.8 percent shooting from the floor.
“They came out, Boston did, with great force in this game,” heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “You do have to credit them for that. “They sustained it for the better majority of the game. We were on our heels most of the game.”
The Celtics were buoyed by the return from injury of playmaker Gordon Hayward, who played 30 minutes off the bench and scored six points with five rebounds and four assists in his first game in more than four weeks.
“The first five minutes I was gassed,” admitted Hayward, adding that he was feeling it in the right ankle he sprained in game one of the Heat’s first-round series against Philadelphia.
Hayward left the bubble to rehabilitate the injury, returning and going through quarantine before he could return to the court.
Boston led 31-22 at the end of the first quarter, and were up by 12 early in the second before the Heat surged back.
Miami, led by Herro’s 16 points in the period, twice cut the deficit to three points before the Celtics reasserted themselves to take a 62-50 lead into halftime.
“There’s some great guys in that locker room,” Brown said of the Celtics’ unity. “A lot of emotion, a lot of passion, but we’re a family and we’re here for each other.
“We exemplified that when we came out together and stayed together during some tough moments. They made a big run I think at the end of the second quarter, Tyler Herro made some big plays.
“We didn’t hang our heads, we kept our will high and persevered to win this game.”
Celtics coach Brad Stevens acknowledged that his team was challenged emotionally by the two tough defeats in the first games of the series.
Game three, he said, “was more about what are we going to show ourselves to be.
“The first time we were pushed to more emotions that challenged us, we got better,” Stevens said. “And that’s encouraging.”
The Celtics will try to level the series in game four on Wednesday. Brown could barely wait.
“Looking forward to the next game,” he said. “We all are.”
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