Celtics, led by Jayson Tatum, refuse to let Heat disrupt their game

Celtics, led by Jayson Tatum, refuse to let Heat disrupt their game

BOSTON — When Sam Hauser shot 1-for-18 a few weeks ago, Boston Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla was excited for him. This was a moment to savor, a failure that was an opportunity for growth.

“I texted him after the 1-for-18 game and said, ‘The ultimate compliment is you got to miss 12 3s in an NBA game, that’s a huge positive. You have to look at it that way,’” Mazzulla said.

It can be easy to crater when you’re a shooter off the bench for a 64-win team. And as the Miami Heat were scoring right through Hauser in Sunday’s Game 1 of their first-round playoff series, he was bricking wide-open 3s. The Celtics were finding ways to work past Miami’s zone defense late in the first quarter, but Hauser was leaving them empty-handed. The Heat, without the injured Jimmy Butler and Terry Rozier, had nearly erased the early lead Boston carved out with its 14-0 run to open the playoffs.

Then Hauser came back on the floor for the start of the second quarter and buried four consecutive 3-pointers. The Heat never got back to within single digits in the Celtics’ 114-94 win to open the postseason. By the end of the run, Hauser went from scoreless to the game’s high-scorer.

“(Hauser was) extremely important. Sam is a big reason we extended the game in that second quarter,” Jayson Tatum said. “They cut it to three or four. Sam hit three or four 3s. You’re going to need things like that to be successful in the playoffs.”

Miami is a rhythm disruptor. The Heat know Boston has more talent, so they have to find ways to break the connections between the Celtics on the floor to mitigate Boston’s advantage.

“I think we have to take that moment when they started to make that comeback (and) use that as that driving force for us going forward,” Kristaps Porziņģis said. “They can make shots, they can throw some punches back too, and they’re dangerous, too. So we cannot just take it for granted and be like, ‘OK, we’re going to just be able to walk past them.’”

When Boston goes to the second unit and calls on Hauser and Payton Pritchard, Miami has to expose their shortcomings to have a chance in this series. The momentum was going away from Boston in the stage of the game where their zone-busting offense was predicated on getting Hauser wide-open 3s.

But Hauser stuck with it and was rewarded. It was easy to keep shooting when Tatum was finding him repeatedly en route to a first career playoff triple-double.

“I think it’s a huge credit to (Tatum), this game, how we all played as a team because he got everybody feeling good early on, and that was a perfect game from him,” Porziņģis said. “Obviously he will say that he can play better, and he can. But overall, I think that was a beautiful performance.”

The first half exemplified all the principles Mazzulla has preached all season. A sizable 3-point attempt margin is going to win out over time. Winning can be just as harmful as losing without awareness of the moment. Miami worked to muck up the game, like it has in these teams’ past two Eastern Conference finals battles. But the Celtics have, finally, managed to remain steady this season.

“This is the playoffs against a good team. We’re not supposed to blow them out,” Tatum said. “It’s not going to be easy. No lead is necessarily safe. Don’t panic in a sense when they go on a run and hit shots. Just continue to play the right way.”

The boxscore was like a Mazzulla fever dream for most of this game. In the first quarter, Boston went 4-for-13 from 3, but the Heat were just 1-for-3. Boston ended up tying a franchise-high with 22 made shots from downtown. Even when Bam Adebayo worked Porziņģis in the post, or Jamie Jaquez Jr. steamrolled to the rim, the math tilted in Boston’s favor. Miami was mostly getting 2s, while Boston committed to its deep shooting and steadily opened up a lead every time Miami tried to get close.

The question for Boston was whether clinching the top seed in the league so early in the season led to any malaise. There might have been a moment when Miami reminded the Celtics they are in a series, regardless of how banged up the Heat may be. But the Celtics were ready for their wake-up call and answered the way they have all season.

“I thought we kept a level of poise, and even after some of those runs, just getting to our space. You could always tell if you manage a run well by the shots you take on the other end,” Mazzulla said. “I thought we took really good shots even throughout most of that run.”

Inevitably, there was another test of poise. While Sunday was an ideal start to the series for Tatum, it could have all unraveled when Miami’s Caleb Martin knocked him out of the air late in the fourth quarter.

When Tatum hit the deck, there was a big thud that sent a shockwave of fear through TD Garden. Boston’s previous season ended in the same spot, against the same team, nearly a year ago when Tatum sprained his ankle in the opening minute and limped through a Game 7 Miami largely controlled.

But this time, the suspense lasted a second, as Tatum popped back up and walked away from the scene while Jaylen Brown mean mugged on his behalf. And while everyone in the building may have been holding their breath at that moment, Mazzulla was hyped.

“I was waiting to see what he was going to do,” Mazzulla said. “I was kind of excited about the whole situation, so I enjoyed watching it.”

Mazzulla loves the clashes and the frenetic energy that comes with those moments. Can that spark continue to be channeled into something productive? For Tatum, he knew he had nothing to gain and everything to lose. The game was a wrap if he kept his emotions in check, so it was no wonder he kept waving the fracas off as he walked away.

“It’s a physical game, playing against a physical team, s— going to happen,” Tatum said. “It’s not the last time my body will get hit like that or fouled in this series. So, I wasn’t hurt. You get hit like that, you just get up, and I knew we was in the bonus. So I knocked the free throw down.”

It’s a Celtics-Heat series. Somebody is going to hit the ground at some point. Players are going to get separated. Nobody drove the physicality from Miami’s end more than Adebayo. This might be Porziņģis’ first trip beyond the first round in his career, and everyone is waiting to see how his body will hold up to the demands of extended playoff basketball. Adebayo put that to the test right away.

So when Porziņģis was asked if he took the Adebayo matchup personally, he said it’s simply just business.

“I don’t care about him. I care about our team and what we’re trying to achieve,” Porziņģis said. “This is not one-on-one, me against Bam. This is Celtics against the Heat, so we’ll make sure that’s our focus.”

Boston didn’t win this game through one player making an outsized impact. Against a shorthanded Heat team, they won’t need anyone to pull off a career night. They just need to keep doing what they’ve done all year.

“We set the stage for the rest of our path,” Porziņģis said.

In their first test of the playoffs, they took care of business, per usual.

(Photo: Winslow Townson / Getty Images)

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