Their most emotional night of the season behind them – every team has some scarring, said Brad Stevens – the Celtics came out in even-tempered, efficient form Saturday night.
Gone were the runs on turnovers, the blown leads and, especially, confusion against Miami’s 3-2 zone. Jaylen Brown attacked the rim in a 26-point, 11-for-16 performance that exposed soft spots in the zone, and Gordon Hayward stepped on the floor for the first time since Game 1 of the first round.
The playmaking forward played a big role against the zone in the Celtics 117-106 Game 3 win over Miami, cutting the Heat’s Eastern Conference Finals lead to 2-1.
Jayson Tatum scored 25 points and put together another dominant all-around night, also with 14 rebounds and eight assists. Hayward settled in as a facilitator and did a little of everything, carding six points, five rebounds, four assists and three steals and, somewhat astoundingly, 30 minutes.
This being the Heat, though, the Celtics did not escape with comfort.
Brown’s offensive foul – he swung the ball and caught Duncan Robinson in the jaw with an elbow – was ruled a Flagrant 1 foul. Robinson, with the Celtics leading 109-101 with 1:03 left, uncharacteristically missed his first free throw and made the second. Miami retained possession and with 55.9 seconds left, Bam Adebayo split the lane for a dunk, cutting the Celtics edge to five points.
But Marcus Smart drew the foul and hit twice for a 111-104 lead. Tyler Herro unloaded a wild 3-point air ball and Smart, fouled, hit twice more for a 113-104 lead. Herro missed again but Adebayo rebounded, drew the foul and hit twice. Smart, fouled again, made two more. In all the Celtics guard hit eight straight free throws down the stretch.
The Celtics put together their best third quarter of the playoffs, pushing out as far as a 21-point lead, and recovering once Miami cut that edge down as close as nine points with an 11-1 run.
The Celtics, with a three-point play and two free throws from Tatum – the latter triggered by a Hayward steal and outlet – to push back out to a 15-point edge (89-74) by the start of the fourth.
Brown, dominant player over the first three quarters, started the fourth with 24 points. Three-pointers from Hayward and Tatum – the latter from deep – gave the Celtics even more spark early in the quarter and a 19-point lead.
Daniel Theis, again in foul trouble, checked out with his fifth foul with 7:28 left – Jimmy Butler made the Celtics pay with two free throws – but Smart muscled his way to a three-point play for a 100-80 lead.
Miami answered though, with a Robinson cutting the Celtics lead to 14 points. But Kemba Walker drove for a 104-86 Celtics edge, though Miami came back yet again behind a big Robinson 3-pointer, cutting the Celtics lead to 10 (104-94) with 3:27 left on two Jae Crowder free throws.
But Hayward drove, kicked out to Walker in the left corner for a 3-pointer, and when Adebayo scored, Smart drove for a 109-96 lead with 3:03 left.
Robinson hit his fourth 3-pointer, cutting the Celtics lead to 109-101 with 1:03 left.