Erik Spoelstra had his team fully expecting that Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals would be extremely difficult, that the Miami Heat were going to have to take the best shot that a desperate bunch of Boston Celtics could muster.
He was wrong.
It was a Heat romp — and a team that had to pull off a frantic rally just to make the playoffs is now one win from the NBA Finals.
Gabe Vincent scored a career-high 29 points, Duncan Robinson added 22 and the eighth-seeded Heat rolled past the Celtics 128-102 on Sunday night. Miami leads the series 3-0, with a chance to finish off a stunning sweep on Tuesday night at home in Game 4,
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“That was a solid, mature, professional approach,” said Spoelstra, now on the brink of a sixth trip to the NBA Finals as Miami's coach. “There's a lot of pent-up stuff here and we're getting closer, but we still have to finish this off.”
Caleb Martin scored 18, Jimmy Butler finished with 16, Bam Adebayo had 13 and Max Strus added 10 for Miami. Every team in NBA history that has won the first three games of a best-of-seven has ultimately prevailed; the Heat are 8-0 in that situation.
“The rim was as big as the ocean for everybody,” Adebayo said, after Miami shot 57%.
Jayson Tatum scored 14 and Jaylen Brown added 12 for the second-seeded Celtics, who won three times on Miami’s floor on the way to winning last season’s East finals — but simply never had a chance in this one and basically emptied the bench for the fourth quarter.
“I just didn’t have them ready to play,” said Boston coach Joe Mazzulla, who has been the subject of tons of criticism in this series — and will surely face more going into Tuesday. “Whatever it was, whether it was the starting lineup or an adjustment, I have to get them in a better place, ready to play. That’s on me.”
Grant Williams and Payton Pritchard each added 12 for Boston.
“To their credit, they’re playing well above their means,” Brown said. “They’re ballin’ right now and I’ve got to give them respect. Gabe Vincent, Martin, Strus, Duncan Robinson, guys that we should be able to keep under control are playing their (butt) off.”
The NBA Finals start June 1, and the way things are going, that might mean the league is about to go a few days without games. The Western Conference finals could end Monday; Denver leads that series against the Los Angeles Lakers 3-0. And now, the East finals could end Tuesday.
“It's the first to four games,” Vincent said. “We're not satisfied with three.”
There’s never been a season where both conference finals ended in sweeps; it happened in 1957 in the division finals immediately preceding the title series, when Boston beat Syracuse 3-0 and St. Louis beat Minneapolis 3-0.
Of all the 3-0 series leads in NBA history, this one might be the most unexpected — a No. 8 seed in the Heat, a team that struggled just to get into the playoffs, a team that was less than 3 minutes away from being eliminated in the play-in tournament, getting past top-seeded Milwaukee in five games, then fifth-seeded New York in six, and now on the brink of denying the Celtics a second consecutive East crown.
And the Heat let Boston know how much they were enjoying this one.
Mindful that Boston’s Al Horford directed a timeout signal toward the Miami bench during Game 1 when the Celtics were on a second-quarter spurt to build a comfortable lead, Butler did the same to Horford as the Heat were running away in the third quarter of Game 3.
Besides, the Heat rallied to win Game 1 anyway. There was no rally required in Game 3 by the Heat. There was barely one attempted by the Celtics, for that matter.
“I don't even know where to start,” Brown said. “It's an obvious letdown. I feel like we let our fan base, organization down. We let ourselves down. And it was collective. We can point fingers, but in reality, it was just embarrassing.”
Boston got within 61-49 when Marcus Smart had a three-point play on the opening possession of the second half. The rest was all Miami, which immediately answered with a 28-7 run to open a 33-point lead at 89-56, which had the building rolling. The lead was so big, and there was so much time left, that the sellout crowd of 20,088 actually was subdued a bit by the time it was over.
They might have been yelled-out. Or maybe they were saving it for hockey on Monday night, when the Florida Panthers — another No. 8 seed on a magical playoff run in South Florida — will try to take a 3-0 lead in their East finals series against the Carolina Hurricanes.
“We’ll decompress tomorrow,” Spoelstra said, “but we’ll really get our minds right to finish this thing off.”
Celtics: Robert Williams made his first shot, meaning he made 12 straight to start the series. He missed his second attempt. … The Heat encourage fans to wear white to playoff games, and Tatum also arrived in an all-white suit.
Heat: Robinson made five 3-pointers and now has 124 in his Heat postseason career, passing LeBron James (123) for the most in Miami history. … Butler’s steal with 7:17 left in the first quarter was the 2,000th in Heat postseason history. … Vincent's previous career best was 28, set in a Jan. 12 win over Milwaukee.
Miami’s Kevin Love checked out 4:47 into the game after what the Heat said was an undisclosed ankle injury. He went to the Heat locker room for evaluation, returned to the bench area later in the first half, but did not return to the game.
“The lack of mental toughness. It’s embarrassing … that was an embarrassment for the Celtics.” — TNT’s Charles Barkley at halftime, with Boston trailing 61-46 and after being down by as many as 22 points.
Joe Mazzulla’s roller-coaster season is at its lowest. And with the Boston Celtics now on the brink of elimination, the first-year coach is blaming himself.
The Celtics are in the sort of trouble that no team in NBA history has escaped, trailing Miami 3-0 in the Eastern Conference finals after a 128-102 Heat romp on Sunday night that might not have been even as close as the score would make it appear.
“I think the most important thing is just sticking together, and then I have to be better,” said Mazzulla, the NBA's youngest coach at 34. “I’ve got to put them in better positions. I’ve got to get them ready to play. I have to have the game plan ready for us to be physical and to execute, and it’s important that we stick together.”
It has been a disaster of a series for the Celtics. They’re letting the Heat shoot 52% from the field, 48% from 3-point range — compared to a 29% effort from deep by the Celtics — and the dam might have broken in Game 3. After Games 1 and 2 were decided late in Boston, with the Heat finding a way both times, this one was never in doubt.
“I just didn’t have them ready to play,” Mazzulla said.
That’s quite an indictment, especially after how the last eight months or so have gone for Mazzulla. He wasn’t supposed to coach the Celtics this season, getting the job on an interim basis out of necessity once Ime Udoka was suspended. The regular season was one success after another; the Celtics removed the interim tag just past the season’s midpoint, he coached in the All-Star Game and finished third in the Coach of the Year balloting.
But this series has made all those good moments seem long forgotten. He took criticism for not using a timeout in the third quarter of Game 1 when Miami scored 46 points to completely turn around that contest. He’s taken heat for not being fiery enough, as well, though players said the problems shouldn’t all be on the coach.
“I think it’s a collective effort,” Celtics forward Jaylen Brown said.
Celtics center Al Horford also had Mazzulla’s back, insisting there’s more than enough blame to go around right now.
“At the end of the day, that falls on each player,” Horford said. “We know what we have to do. We knew the magnitude of this game. As a player, I take responsibility because we didn’t have what we needed to have. That’s what that is.”
The phrase in sports parlance is “losing the locker room.” For a coach, that is often extremely damning — and means either players aren’t motivated, aren’t prepared, or just aren’t listening anymore.
Whether that’s happened or not isn’t clear, and really doesn’t matter. In a city that saw the Red Sox make history from coming from 3-0 down in the AL championship series against the New York Yankees in 2004, the Celtics now need the same miracle.
“I have to be better, figure out what this team needs to make sure that they’re connected, they’re physical and they’re together by the time we step on the floor,” Mazzulla said.
Can it happen?
“I’m not sure,” Mazzulla said.
He’s got until Tuesday night to figure it out.