5 takeaways from the Celtics’ Game 3 win vs. Heat

Marcus Smart (right) and Kemba Walker were on the same page in Game 3 Saturday against Miami.

Commentary

The Celtics defeated the Heat, 117-106, Saturday night in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals, moving the series deficit to 2-1.   

Here’s what we saw: 

Gordon Hayward returns.

Gordon Hayward made his first appearance of the series at the 5:06 mark of the opening quarter, and immediately made an impact with a terrific bounce pass to Daniel Theis. 

Yes, Hayward’s a great scorer, but he’s also Boston’s best passer, and the Celtics’ ball movement is immensely better with him on the floor. To put it simply, the Celtics find a much better rhythm when he’s on the court. Hayward was very good on the defensive end as well, using his length and versatility to help disrupt Miami’s dribble hand-offs. 

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“He is a stabilizing force for our team,” Brad Stevens said after the win. “He makes us better, that’s for sure.” 

Hayward finished with six points, five rebounds, four assists and three steals in the win. He said his ankle was sore and he was pretty tired following his first five-on-five action in over a month, but the Celtics will get some extra days rest with Game 4 being pushed to Wednesday.

In other Gordon-related news, ESPN’s Rachel Nichols reported during the game that Hayward does not plan to leave the bubble when his wife Robyn goes into labor in the near future. He will stay with the team for the length of their postseason run. Hayward confirmed this during his post-game press conference. 

Boston’s “Best Five” lineup lived up to its name.

With the return of Hayward, Brad Stevens was able to go small and turn to his “Best Five” lineup, which consists of Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, Kemba Walker and Hayward. The group didn’t have a great showing against Miami during their seeding-game matchup, but that wasn’t the case when they closed the first half Saturday night. 

The small-ball lineup went on an 11-2 run to finish the final 2:39 of the half, helping turn the tide with good ball movement and stout perimeter defense. That defensive activity was combined with the Celtics’ ability to get out in transition, helping Boston take a 12-point lead into the break. The best-five lineup went 5-of-6 from the floor over that span. Miami struggled to defend the group during its short second-half stint as well. 

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Moving forward, Hayward provides Stevens with some added lineup flexibility, and this small-ball group headlines that advantage. As Hayward continues to get acclimated, look for the Celtics to turn to this group more and more when needed. 

Jaylen Brown was terrific. 

After the infighting that occurred following the Celtics’ Game 2 loss, Jaylen Brown told reporters that he was looking forward to Game 3, adding that the series was not over. He played like it Saturday night. 

Brown led Boston with a huge all-around performance, taking charge in their wire-to-wire win. He finished with 26 points, seven rebounds, five assists, three steals and one block in 42 minutes, shooting 11-of-17 from the floor. Yes, his box score looks great, and it is, but Brown’s activity on the defensive end played a massive role in the Celtics holding onto the lead from start to finish. 

When Brown is as effective and aggressive as he was Saturday, the Celtics are a tough team to beat. 

Points in the paint were huge for the Celtics.

Boston scored 60 points in the paint Saturday night; the most Miami has given up all postseason. With sharp ball movement, good off-ball positioning and constant dribble penetration, the Celtics got the ball inside, which did wonders for their offensive flow against this Miami defense. 

Brown helped lead the Celtics’ aggressiveness early and often. He constantly made a point to put the ball on the floor and get to the rim, something that was big in setting the tone during a must-win game. Brown was 10-15 inside the arc. 

The Celtics held onto a lead… barely. 

Boston entered the fourth quarter with a 15-point lead, but this time it was able to finish the job. It wasn’t pretty, however.  

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Up until the game’s final stretch, a major improvement for the Celtics was their response to Miami runs. That’s been a real problem so far in this series, but Boston made a good adjustment in Game 3. The end of the third quarter was a prime example. After Miami went on an 11-1 run, Boston was able to straighten out its defense and turn that into a few buckets before the end of the quarter. A minor response like that is huge in the grand scheme of a game. The Celtics hadn’t done those little things before Game 3. 

Miami did make a push at the end of regulation, cutting the game to five down the stretch. Stevens noted how big leads don’t exist against the Heat. 

“A 17-point lead on Miami is like eight,” Stevens said.

It might not sound like much, but the Celtics seeing themselves take a big lead into the fourth and hold it against this Miami team could go a long way for the remainder of the series. 

Boston and Miami meet for Game 4 on Wednesday night.

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