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The Celtics find themselves in another win-or-go-home spot on Sunday.
Boston fell to Miami in Game 6, 111-103, at home on Friday night, blowing an opportunity to close out the series at home and play in a Game 7 for the second straight round.
As both teams make the trek back down to South Beach and prepare for Game 7, here are eight things to know about the all-decisive game.
The biggest mystery of the 2022 Eastern Conference finals has been wondering who will be available for each team during the series. Three of the Celtics’ starters (Al Horford, Marcus Smart, and Robert Williams) and a key role player (Derrick White) have each missed a game at different points of the series.
However, it appears Boston’s in a relatively good spot on having its key guys available. Smart, who suffered an ankle sprain in Game 3, is listed as questionable for Game 7 but played the last two games. Williams, who has dealt with left knee soreness since he had surgery on a torn meniscus in March, is also questionable. He’s played in the last three games, though, and has seen his minutes increase over the last two games, playing 27 minutes in Friday’s game.
The Heat, on the other hand, have had several players on the injury report throughout the series. Tyler Herro (groin), Kyle Lowry (hamstring), Max Strus (hamstring), P.J. Tucker (knee), and Gabe Vincent (hamstring) are all questionable for Game 7. Of those players, only Herro didn’t play in Game 6. He also missed Games 4 and 5. Miami’s gone 1-2 in the three games without Herro, who won Sixth Man of the Year this season.
Jimmy Butler isn’t on the injury report. The Heat star missed the second half of Game 3 due to knee inflammation and didn’t look 100 percent in Games 4 and 5 before scoring 47 points in Game 6.
One of the most clichéd sayings in sports is “The game will come down to who turns over the ball less.” That actually might be the case for the 2021-22 Celtics, though.
In the Eastern Conference finals, high-turnover games have correlated with losses for Boston. In Game 1, it turned the ball over 16 times — with half of them coming in the third quarter, which Miami won, 39-14 — leading to a 118-107 loss. In Game 3, the Celtics turned the ball over a whopping 23 times, which is the most they’ve committed since the second game of the regular season. They lost that game, 109-103. Boston’s turnover problem reared its head again in Game 6 as it committed 17 turnovers in a 111-103 loss.
The Celtics’ star duo has been a big reason for those turnovers. Jayson Tatum committed seven in Game 1, six in Game 3, and seven again in Game 6. Jaylen Brown committed seven in Game 3 and four in Game 6. He also committed four turnovers in the first half of the Celtics’ Game 5 win, which was a big reason why they trailed, 42-37, at halftime in that game.
In the three games Boston’s won this series, it turned over the ball just nine times in two of those games and turned it over 15 times in the 93-80 Game 5 win.
Celtics coach Ime Udoka is certainly hip to the fact that his team has struggled with turnovers too much this postseason.
“Yeah, it’s kind of indicative of how our nights have been in this series when we don’t take care of the ball,” Udoka told reporters after Game 6. “A lot of careless ones, unforced, and that got us behind. Obviously, dig ourselves out of a hole from the get-go, got it back to 29-22 [in the first quarter] but weren’t playing our best at all. And throughout the game any time we got within striking range, it felt like (we had) a poor decision, whether it was a turnover and they got out and scored. So kept it at a five to seven-point margin. So had chances and didn’t take advantage of them.”
A big reason why the turnovers are such a killer for the Celtics is that their opponent could use whatever easy points they can get. In this series, the Heat have just an 87.3 half-court offensive rating, down from the 97.6 half-court offensive rating they had in the regular season, per Cleaning The Glass.
Miami’s had some particularly woeful moments on offense since the middle of the series, when Herro went out. In Game 4, it scored just one point in the first eight minutes of the game. When the Celtics were able to mostly keeps things in control in Game 5, the Heat’s half-court offensive rating was 58.8, per Cleaning The Glass.
The Heat actually won the half-court offensive rating battle in Game 6, 102-92. That came on the heels of Butler making several tough jumpers, with nine of his 16 makes coming from outside of the restricted area. Miami also made key shots, draining going 6-for-13 on shots attempted (4-for-8 from 3-point range) with less than four seconds left on the shot clock.
Boston’s dominated the first quarter in two of its three wins this series. In Game 2, they outscored the Heat, 35-24, going 12-for-19 from the field (9-for-11 from deep) and committed just three turnovers. They weren’t as prolific offensively in the first quarter of Game 4, going 9-for-22 from the field. But they committed just three turnovers in that quarter, which helped them get off to a 29-11 lead.
On the flip side, the Celtics lost two of the games in which they lost the first quarter — including Game 6, when the Heat held a 29-22 lead after one.
Udoka emphasized the need to get off to a hot start in Game 7.
“A lot has to do with our starts and having to play catch-up the whole game,” Udoka said on Saturday when asked about playing poise consistently. “We understood the situation Miami was in last night and didn’t play our best basketball in the first quarter defensively and offensively. Playing behind the eight-ball most of the game. Although we got the lead late or tied it quite a few times, it felt like we were always in an uphill battle, shooting ourselves in the foot.
“We’d like to get off to better starts, put some pressure on the opponent when they’re in that situation, similar to what we did against Milwaukee in Game 7. That’s our mindset coming in. Obviously, going into [Miami], we want to start better. We have confidence in going down there winning, too, but we have to get ourselves off to better starts, get ourselves easy baskets, and not give them life early in the game.”
The Celtics’ young star has already been tested in do-or-die games four times in his five-year career. He’s shown up in all four of them.
Tatum’s scored at least 20 points in all four games, averaging 24 points, 5.3 assists, and 7.8 rebounds in Game 7s. He’s gone 3-1 in such games, with the one loss coming to LeBron James and the Cavaliers in Game 7 of the 2018 Eastern Conference final.
Despite the shaky second-half performance in Game 6, Tatum is confident going into Game 7.
“Scale of 1 to 10? 10,” Tatum said when asked about his confidence level following Friday’s loss. “I mean, it shouldn’t be any less than that, right? You know, it’s the last game. That’s what it’s all about. It’s a 10 out of 10 in my confidence level and the group.”
“I mean, it’s no secret. It’s Game 7, trip to the NBA Finals, a lot on the line,” Tatum added. “A couple of us have been in this situation before, so we know what’s at stake. We know how much this means to everybody. We know that going into the game.”
Two weeks ago, Celtics backup forward Grant Williams became a household name among NBA fans when he scored 27 points in Game 7 against the Bucks. He made seven 3-pointers in that game, tying the record for most 3-pointers made in a Game 7.
Williams hasn’t been that elusive offensively though against the Heat. He’s averaging 8.3 points per game in the series and has made just seven 3-pointers through the first six games. He got into foul trouble too in Game 6, something he has to avoid in Game 7 considering Robert Williams’s injury situation.
After turning the clock back against the Bucks, Al Horford hasn’t had many great moments offensively against the Heat, either. He scored just three points in Game 4 and three points again in Game 6. The veteran center is going through a tough time right now though after his grandfather passed away on Thursday.
Robert Williams was one of the bright marks for the Celtics in Game 6. He scored 10 of his 12 points in the third quarter of the loss, electrifying the TD Garden crowd several times with alley-oop dunks. His minutes have gone up in recent games, so he could be a possible threat to turn Game 7 in the Celtics’ favor.
Derrick White arguably had his best game since coming to Boston in Game 6, scoring 22 points and having five assists off the bench. His offense was much needed, as Marcus Smart has gone just 5-for-20 from the field with seven assists in the last two games after missing Game 4 due to an ankle sprain.
Tatum and Brown certainly have the offensive firepower in them to lift the Celtics to a win in Game 7 (they did that in the second half of Game 5), but it’s likely they’ll need someone else to pitch in.
Boston is set to play in an NBA-record 35th Game 7 on Sunday. The Celtics have a great record in such games, going 25-9 all-time.
However, they haven’t fared as well on the road in Game 7s recently. The Celtics haven’t won a road Game 7 since 1974, losing all four road Game 7s they’ve played since then.
One of those road Game 7 losses came 10 years ago in the same round against the Heat. After losing Game 6 at home with a 3-2 lead, the Celtics were extinguished by LeBron James in the Heat in Game 7 of the 2012 Eastern Conference final. Now, Boston has a chance to flip the script and get revenge against Pat Riley and company.
The Celtics have been regulars in the Eastern Conference finals recently. They’ve made it here in four of the last six years, but they haven’t won it once.
Let’s be real though, the Celtics probably shouldn’t have won in either of their first two trips. LeBron James and the defending champion Cavaliers were way too much for them in 2017. The run to the 2018 Eastern Conference finals was a pleasant surprise, but again, James was too much for the rookie Tatum and second-year Brown to go against.
Tatum and Brown have only grown since then though. In 2020, when Tatum was named an All-Star for the first time, the Celtics found themselves in the Eastern Conference finals against the Heat in the Bubble, holding a better record. Tatum and Brown emerged as a star duo during that run and Smart was proving himself to be a key part of the core as the Celtics looked poised for a Finals berth. But they failed in clutch situations in multiple games against the Heat. The Celtics actually outscored the Heat in that series, but lost in six games.
A second-half resurgence, led by Tatum’s ascension to becoming an MVP candidate, brought the Celtics back to the Eastern Conference finals stage in 2022. A lot of what happened in the 2020 Eastern Conference finals has transpired in this year’s version. Miami pulled through in clutch moments in Games 3 and 6 while all three of Boston’s wins have come by at least double-digits.
By many metrics, the Celtics have been the best team in basketball since 2022 began. For much of this series, they’ve played better than the Heat. There’s no doubt that this is their best chance to reach the Finals for the first time in 12 seasons. That’s why it would be such a shame if their failures in the clutch moments were once again their downfall and the reason why they head home a round earlier than many think they should.
Sure, Tatum’s only 24, and Brown’s just 25. And while this group has been given multiple opportunities to reach and win the NBA Finals, there’s no certainty that those opportunities will exist in the future.
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