Celtics

Celtics vs. Heat Game 2: Three keys to the game as Al Horford, Marcus Smart return

The Celtics are getting some much-needed reinforcements on Thursday.

Robert Williams
Robert Williams' involvement will be key to the Celtics' success. Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

The Celtics have several reasons to believe they can even their series against the Heat in Game 2 on Thursday, especially if they can avoid a third-quarter collapse like the one that doomed them in Game 1.

The big reason, of course, is the return of Marcus Smart (mid-foot sprain) and Al Horford (a mysterious trip into health and safety protocols, which ended after just a one-game absence). The Celtics looked more than a little out of sync in the second half without their traditional starting lineup, and while Derrick White brings a lot to the floor, the Celtics’ net rating plummeted throughout the year without Smart and Horford available.

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The biggest difference will be on the defensive end, where — as Nekias Duncan noted on Twitter — the Heat targeted Payton Pritchard ruthlessly, forcing the Celtics into uncomfortable switches on Jimmy Butler in particular. Butler made them pay with a bruising 41 points and a post-game directive to keep the physical play coming.

“I like physicality,” Butler said. “I want to run into people and see who falls down first. I want to see who quits first.”

Say whatever you want about Marcus Smart, but you can bet he won’t quit because of physicality.

Butler’s switches won’t be as easy in Game 2. While White is out (and best wishes to he and his wife as they welcome their first child!), Smart’s presence will make an enormous difference. With Smart, the Celtics can much more comfortably switch whenever necessary. Butler got hot and stayed hot, but the Celtics will have better matchups for him now. In Horford, the Celtics also have another big defender who can crash the glass and defend Bam Adebayo (although Grant Williams performed that role admirably and will continue to be called upon).

Offensively, Smart learned how to be a calming floor general throughout the season and even proved capable of punishing smaller guards in the first two series. Horford, meanwhile, is a perfect zone breaking 3-point shooter and can find slots in the Heat defense.

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The Heat will have counters too, but the Celtics should be much less easy to bully, and the Heat can chalk much of their Game 1 victory up to being muscular bullies in the third quarter. They will probably have to try to find a different way to win on Thursday.

Here are two more keys to the game.

Keep Robert Williams involved

The Celtics scored 42 points in the paint in the first half on Tuesday, which is an unsustainable total against a titanium defense like Miami’s. Still, they can attack better than they did in the second half.

A big component of their paint touches is their ability to beat defenders, force rotations, and free Robert Williams around the basket. Williams grabbed a tough, contested offensive rebound for his first basket, but he caught a pair of lobs from Tatum in the first half when Tatum beat his defender. Having Williams as a release valve turns the Celtics into a very difficult problem to solve for opposing defenses — even if you deter Tatum, Brown, or Smart rumbling to the rim, you still have to prevent Williams’ flying-death-from-above lob dunks.

Williams is opportunistic, feasting on defenses that step up to contain ball-handlers. The Heat are pretty good at deterring, but Williams’ size, athleticism, and positioning can be a game-breaker at times, especially if Miami continues to let Adebayo defend on the perimeter. The Celtics could really use a more extended game from Williams as he rounds back into shape.

Limit careless turnovers (by being aware of Butler)

Jimmy Butler plays a swashbuckling brand of basketball — he talks trash, backs it up, and gambles a lot. It’s easy to see why he can be a polarizing player in locker rooms, and it’s equally easy to see why he’s such a perfect fit for Heat Culture (which, like it or not, is a real thing).

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Gambling can get you in trouble, but the Celtics couldn’t make Butler pay on Tuesday — he finished with four steals and three blocks in his masterpiece Game 1 performance. The Celtics have to be far more precise as passers, and they have to be aware of Butler’s presence because he’s a risk-taker.

“Jimmy plays the passing lanes — he’s known for it,” Grant Williams said after shootaround on Thursday. “He’s a guy that gambles and goes for steals. So understanding that he’s in a high quadrant, you have to be aware of him going away, just leaving his man and making a play. So some of it is just feeling out the game and understanding it.

“You can’t press too much about those turnovers because it’s not a natural occurrence. It’s not something that you expect to happen again. So for us, it’s just a matter of executing on the offensive end and making it easier on everyone else.”

Game 2 tips off at 8:30 p.m. on ESPN.

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