BOSTON — Over the past two postseasons, the Boston Celtics have repeatedly responded well after losses. They have also repeatedly struggled in close situations late in games.
In control for significant portions of Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals against the Miami Heat on Friday night, the Celtics appeared poised to even this series at a game apiece, but another late-game meltdown has them staring at an 0-2 deficit as this series heads to Miami for Game 3 on Sunday night.
“At the end of the day, we have a real, real decision to make,” Celtics forward Grant Williams said. “And that decision is going to be, are we going to come back and really set the tone for the rest of this year and really make a statement, or are we going to come out and lay down?
“And I don’t think this team is built for laying down.”
Whether or not the Celtics are ready to lie down, they find themselves in a massive hole after Jimmy Butler and the Heat once again took them apart in the closing moments of the game.
In the fourth quarter of Game 1 on Wednesday night, the Heat held Boston scoreless for over four minutes and forced three turnovers — including two traveling violations by Jayson Tatum — inside the final three minutes.
In Game 2, after Williams had a dunk with 3 minutes, 52 seconds remaining, the Celtics didn’t make a field goal the rest of the night, missing their final four shots and committing two turnovers. They essentially had a third turnover on an over-the-back call against Al Horford and saw Tatum nearly lose the ball multiple other times in the closing minutes.
That allowed Miami to close the game with a 24-9 run over the final 6 minutes, 37 seconds. Butler scored nine of his 27 points in the fourth, and Bam Adebayo — who had 22 points, 17 rebounds and nine assists — had eight points, eight rebounds and four assists in the fourth, including a pair of massive offensive rebounds in the closing minutes.
“This is a series of discipline and mindset,” Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla said, “and there were times throughout the game where we weren’t the more disciplined team.”
For the Celtics, that is a familiar refrain. Against the Heat in Game 7 of last year’s conference finals, Boston nearly coughed up a double-digit lead late. The Celtics have repeatedly struggled in these situations at plenty of other points over the past couple of seasons, as well.
Not surprisingly, there was no shortage of answers for what went wrong after this one.
“We just got to stay poised,” said Jaylen Brown, who had 16 points but shot 7-for-23. “I think we get sped up at times. Two, we just play basketball. In those moments we got to come alive. It seems like we let the game slip away from us when we are in those situations.”
Tatum, who had 34 points but had five turnovers and missed all three shots he took in the fourth quarter, said, “We got to execute better. We have had double-digit leads in both games and a turnover has changed the momentum or offensive rebounds led to a three has changed the momentum. So those plays right when we’re up 12, when we could go up 15, 16 … they go on an 8-0 run and now it’s at four, and now the momentum has shifted.
“So we’ve been up and we got to do a better job of making those, I would call them winning plays, in those situations.”
There were times, as Tatum pointed out, that it looked like this night would go differently. Boston went on extended runs in both the first and second halves to build double-digit leads on multiple occasions Friday. Mazzulla made several notable adjustments that worked well, from plugging Grant Williams into the rotation to going away from a two-big lineup by starting Derrick White over Robert Williams in the second half.
But Boston struggled to hit shots, going 10-for-30 from 3-point range. The Celtics are 29-30 across the regular season and playoffs when they shoot under 40 percent from long range, compared with 36-2 when they shoot 40 percent or better.
Combine that with another bout of struggles late in a close game, and the Celtics are now 11-4 over the past two playoffs when playing after a loss. Friday’s defeat snapped a streak of 16 consecutive games in which a team that lost Game 1 at home had won Game 2.
Now trailing 2-0 in the series, Boston heads to Miami knowing it will have to win four of the next five games — three of which are in Miami — to return to the NBA finals for a second straight year.
“Just got to come out fighting,” Brown said. “Both of these two games they have been able to come out on top, but who is to say we can’t come out on top in the next two games? We just got to come ready to play basketball.
“We can’t lose our confidence. It’s the first to four. … It should make for a better story.”
This story originally appeared on ESPN