Celtics

Chad Finn: Celtics-Heat has become a war of attrition, but don’t count Boston out just yet

Each side has lost key players to injury, and while the Celtics are down, they're far from out.

Jim Davis/Globe Staff
Jason Tatum took a stinger to his shoulder with in the final minutes of a Game 3 loss. Jim Davis/Globe Staff

Maybe this is how it’s going to be. Maybe the winner of these fascinating, brutal, unpredictable Eastern Conference finals will be determined not by which team is better – three games and two Heat wins into this series, it’s obviously a minute difference, anyway – but which one is healthier.

Which, if that’s the case, means that Game 7, should we get so far, is liable to be a last-man-standing one-on-one matchup between, oh, Boston’s Juwan Morgan and Miami’s Omer Yurtseven. Make it, take it, game to 11 by ones, winner gets the Warriors or Mavericks in the NBA Finals.

All right, maybe it won’t quite get that desperate, but the physicality of this series (and perhaps the ridiculous, taxing every-other-day schedule, after the Celtics had all of one day of rest following the seven-game series with the Bucks) has begun to lead to injury and at least temporary attrition.

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The Celtics played Game 3 Saturday night – a 109-103 loss in which they effectively showed up at 9:15 p.m. for an 8:45ish tip, fell behind by 26 points, punted the ball away more often than Ray Guy – without center Robert Williams, who was out with knee soreness.

Williams missed four games in the previous round with pain in knee, and his absences are understandable given that he required surgery for a meniscus tear in late March. Caution is the best approach, at least early in the series, but is he ever deeply missed. Fingers crossed that the Celtics have him for Game 4.

The Heat’s Bam Adebayo ransacked the Celtics for 31 points, 10 rebounds, and 6 assists in Game 3, and tormented Williams’s stand-in Daniel Theis, who started but played just 11 minutes after coach Ime Udoka got a look at how that was going to go. Forgive Udoka, for he was a Sixers assistant coach when Adebayo shredded Theis in the bubble two years ago.

For a time, it seemed like the Celtics were going to create an individual comeback story that would be remembered forever, if only they could have completed the comeback to win. (They did cut the margin to 93-92 with under 3 minutes left, and it felt like they were going to win, but they could not stop turning over the basketball and the Heat went on a 7-0 clinching run.)

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A minute into the third quarter, Marcus Smart rolled his ankle while battling the Heat’s Kyle Lowry for a rebound. Smart writhed on the parquet in pain, the ESPN microphones picking up his wails of pain. Replay showed his ankle turned almost 90 degrees. It was easy to believe Smart was done, and in all probability so too were the Celtics’ championship aspirations.

But then, hope. A couple of minutes later, ESPN showed Smart jogging lightly in the hallway. He nodded, then headed down the tunnel to an explosion of cheers. It was impossible not the think of Paul Pierce rising from the wheelchair – OK, unnecessary wheelchair, stay with me here – in Game 1 of the 2008 NBA Finals, or Larry Bird returning to save the day in Game 5 of the Celtics’ 1991 first-round series against the Pacers after he’d smashed his face on the floor. When Smart buried a 3 to cut the Heat lead to 72-62, the guttural roar of the Garden crowd may well have shaken the trains in North Station below off their tracks.

The hope proved false. The Heat built their lead back up to 15 by the end of the quarter. The Celtics kept chipping away in the fourth despite a debacle of a performance from Jayson Tatum, who, despite having intramural-looking, 37-year-old P.J. Tucker guarding him, shot 3 of 14 and turned the ball over six times. Tatum had his own injury to deal with  – Udoka said it was a “stinger” to his shoulder – with a little more than 5 minutes left.

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It was not a good sign that the Celtics might have played their most inspired ball of the night during the minute-and-a-half when Tatum was out, with Jaylen Brown tearing off six of his 10 straight points in his absence. Brown was one of the Celtics to escape the night without obvious injury, and he had a dazzling game in some aspects (40 points, 11 for 11 shooting on 2-pointers), but he had one assist to seven turnovers, and the Heat are repeatedly taking advantage of his careless ball-handling. I’m going to need the entire summer to make sense of this performance out of him.

We’re a few paragraphs past due in noting that the Heat are dealing with injuries too, and perhaps the most important one of all. Jimmy Butler left the game with knee soreness early in the third quarter and didn’t return. It’s a tribute to the balance and savvy of the Heat that they prevailed after losing their best player halfway through the game, but they also did come very close to blowing a 26-point lead. If Butler is impaired going forward, the Celtics must take advantage of it better than they did in Game 3.

One other Heat injury actually worked in their favor. Tyler Herro suffered a quad injury, which may or may not have impacted a subpar performance (4 of 15 shooting, zero of 6 from 3). He’s a streaky scorer but a liability on defense, and his injury opened up an opportunity for Victor Oladipo, who relentlessly hounded Brown defensively, coming up with four steals in 20 minutes of action.

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There was one more significant injury in Game 3 – to the Celtics’ pride. The Heat came focused and angry after getting smoked in Game 2, and to use Udoka’s term, ‘’punked” them on their home court. The tone was set on the very first possession, when Tatum whined about a call, was late getting back, and Max Strus buried a 3.

Tatum is a great player, just a few games removed from dropping 46 points on the road against the defending champs in a win-or-go-home game. But the antics with the officials are well past tiresome.

So, on to Game 4. It’s the Celtics’ turn to be ticked off, to even this series and defend not just their own territory, but their reputations. Their roster isn’t entirely healthy, but it could be worse, and what do you expect at this point of the postseason anyway?

If they can get their attitudes back to decent health, I still like their chances.

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