8 takeaways as Celtics drop catastrophic Game 3 loss to Heat

The Celtics are about to be eliminated. They look ready for the season to be over.

Celtics Heat
The Celtics took on the Heat in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals on Sunday. Jim Davis/Globe Staff

The Celtics dropped one of the worst losses imaginable on Sunday, falling to the Heat 128-102 in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals. They now trail the series 3-0.

Here are the takeaways.

1. Barring one of the most miraculous turnarounds in NBA history, Game 3 marks the de facto end of a bizarre road for the 2022-23 Celtics.

We will get to everything that went wrong — and there was a lot of it — but we should start by trying to contextualize the historic beatdown the Heat just administered. They looked better in the opening minutes. They couldn’t miss in the first half. The Celtics came out of the break down 15, but they shattered quickly and the game got out of hand.


The Celtics, who were gifted what appeared to be an ideal path to the NBA Finals, are about to be eliminated from the playoffs. Worse: They look ready to be done.

It’s worth remembering that the Heat did this to the Bucks as well. Something clicked into place in Miami just as the playoffs began and turned a bunch of players who managed just 44 regular-season wins into sharp-shooting superstars. Maybe the Heat Culture people are on to something.

But the Celtics are on the verge of falling in the conference finals yet again. Most teams by definition don’t make the conference finals, and the Celtics get there often, but don’t be surprised if changes are in order. Sunday’s game — especially given the two games that preceded it — will leave a bad taste in the mouths of a lot of people in the Celtics’ front office.

2. Let’s talk about what went wrong. It’s hard to pick out what specifically doomed the Celtics in a cacophony of failures, but we can start with the 3-point shooting. The Celtics finished 11-for-42 from deep as a team, but those numbers are a little overly friendly thanks to the bench. Jayson Tatum was 1-for-7, which somehow was better than Jaylen Brown at 0-for-7. Marcus Smart and Malcolm Brogdon were both 0-for-3. For the series, the Celtics are now shooting roughly 29 percent.


The Celtics win when they make 3-pointers and generally lose when they don’t. That’s often the case across an NBA that is increasingly dominated by 3-point shots.

If you want a simple answer as to why the Celtics are losing, that might be the best you get. The Heat are getting wide open looks and knocking down 3-pointers like the 2014 San Antonio Spurs, and the Celtics are doing the opposite.

3. The failures of Tatum and Brown will follow them into the summer. Neither player played in the fourth quarter, which may have helped limit their turnovers to three apiece. Both tallied just two assists. Brown in particular looked mystifyingly shaky, but Tatum was little better. Early in the game, he tried a spin move against Jimmy Butler, and the Heat star slapped the ball away as if Tatum was a freshman competing against the varsity.

Tatum talked extensively throughout the year about the pain of losing in the Finals. The Celtics don’t look like they need to worry about that this year.

4. Joe Mazulla was heavily criticized for not doubling Jimmy Butler, but doubling Butler (16 points, 5-for-13 shooting) wouldn’t have changed Sunday’s outcome in the slightest. Gabe Vincent went 11-for-14 from the floor. Duncan Robinson is now a point guard, apparently. Caleb Martin, meanwhile, is prime Duncan Robinson. Robinson, Martin, and Vincent combined to make 15 3-pointers, which was nearly three times as many as the Celtics’ entire starting lineup (six).


Mazzulla said after the game that he didn’t have the Celtics ready to play and took the blame for the loss, but that simply doesn’t ring true. If the Celtics — who have been here before and won — truly weren’t ready for a must-win Eastern Conference finals game, that’s a failure the players deserve to hold for the summer.

5. The Celtics’ two hardest playing players in the second half were Grant Williams and Robert Williams. Neither played in the fourth quarter, because there was no point to anyone in the rotation playing in the fourth quarter (Marcus Smart got a little run, as if Mazzulla was close-but-not-quite ready to admit defeat).

6. The Celtics took 11 of their 17 free throws in the fourth quarter. Whether that was a failure of the Celtics themselves (which is what the eye test would suggest) or a failure of the officials (what Celtics players who complained throughout the game certainly seemed to think) is a little unclear.

7. You can’t sum up a playoff series with one play, but Bam Adebayo certainly tried to in the first half.

8. How will the Celtics even get themselves ready for Game 4? The Heat clearly smell blood. The Celtics visibly quit, to the point that even TNT broadcasters who want people watching noted that they looked finished.

Maybe the Celtics surprise us. Maybe something happens in the middle of the game that galvanizes them. Maybe a Heat player slips up and offers a quote that wakes something up in the next two days.


But the far, far more likely outcome is that we only have 48 more minutes of Celtics basketball to watch before they are eliminated. If Sunday’s game was any indicator, an elimination might be a mercy.

Game 4 tips off at 8:30 p.m. on Tuesday.


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