Celtics set the tone with defense in Game 1 win over Heat, but see room for improvement

The juices were flowing early in Game 1. The Boston Celtics started the game with a Jayson Tatum miss and an offensive rebound that led to a Jaylen Brown three. On their next possession, Brown got the ball again, spun the baseline around Jamie Jaquez Jr. and threw a thunderous blow.

TD Garden erupted.

A 9-0 run to start the game forced Erik Spoelstra into an early timeout. As shot after shot fell for Boston, the crowd grew louder and louder. But their shots early in the game were not the cause of the attack.

It was their defense.

While the Celtics offense was humming, everything the Heat got on the other end was difficult. Bam Adebayo was forced to take contested middies, Tyler Herro jacked up step-back threes from two feet behind the arc, and Jaquez drove into a contested paint and got blocked along the way.

Joe Mazzulla has emphasized the importance of keeping teams in 25-point quarters throughout the year. In Game 1, the Heat scored 21, 24 and 14 points in the first three frames respectively.

“Yeah, I mean, it’s just the process. Those are just a set of numbers, and it’s just a process to get them,” Mazzulla said. “Keeping them out of transition, keeping them off the glass, keeping them at the free-throw line, (and) having good offensive execution. So again, it’s about doing the simplest things under higher pressure, and that’s the key to winning.”

2024 NBA Playoffs: Miami Heat vs. Boston Celtics

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Through three, the Heat had just four fastbreak points, four offensive rebounds and six free throw attempts. Meanwhile, Boston shot 33/69 (47.8%) from the field and 19/43 (44.2%) from deep.

The Celtics’ defensive dominance was a team effort, but Jrue Holiday stood out. He made Tyler Herro’s life impossible by preventing him from getting to his spot and pulling up. Herro finished the night shooting 4/13 from the field with two turnovers.

“Jrue’s ability to just stick to a game plan while using his instincts is huge for us,” Mazzulla said. “And so he did a great job of that the whole game, staying with him and making it difficult. And we need him to keep doing that. With his efforts we got off to a good start defensively.”

Miami’s 14-point third quarter was the highlight of Boston’s efforts, as the Heat shot just 6/21 (28.6%) from the floor and 2/14 (14.3%) from range.

Their rotations were crisp, their communication was beautiful and their closeouts were near perfect. Even when they made a mistake and allowed an open three to Nikola Jovic with about four minutes left in the third, they made up for the misstep on the next possession by forcing a 24-second foul.

From the opening tip to the end of the third, everywhere the Heat looked there was a Celtics defender in their face.

But when the fourth came, Boston faced a challenge.

Resting on the laurels of a 32-point lead, the Heat made a late charge. The Celtics’ defensive intensity waned as Miami shot a torrid 13/14 to open the frame.

The Heat got within 14 points, but that was it. The Celtics bent but never broke.

“I think it was important how the third quarter went for us. I think that was a big key for us. Of course we can find moments again like in that fourth one, right? We were not perfect,” said Kristaps Porzingis. “Maybe we took our foot off the gas a little bit, and every team is dangerous when they start shooting. And then it’s like, ‘Okay.’

“But we stayed calm and managed to put the game away and maintain the separation we had built throughout the game.”

Miami Heat vs. Boston Celtics

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Learning from mistakes is the only way forward. That’s the approach Boston has taken when facing any adversity this season, and that’s what the fourth quarter delivered for them.

Miami couldn’t miss in the fourth quarter, but at the same time, the Celtics’ heads weren’t in the game the same way they were during the first three quarters.

“Well, we had four turnovers and then seven in the fourth quarter, so I would say the points behind the turnovers (led to that),” Mazzulla said. “Six points for defensive communication off the ball, and on some of them they made some shots there. So I would say we can control 70/30.”

And while their defensive pressure may not have been ideal, their offensive process maintained its composure.

“I thought we kept the balance,” Mazzulla said. “And even after a few of those runs, we just kept getting our distance. You can always tell if you’re mastering a run by the shots you make on the other side, and I thought we made really good shots even through most of that run.

“We come out of the timeout, Derrick hits a three, Al hits a three, and I think we got a layup that we missed, which is a good execution, but we just didn’t make it. So for me, run management is about figuring out where to stand defensively and then fighting for the right shot on offense. So I thought we did a pretty good job of that.”

Miami Heat vs. Boston Celtics Game One

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Boston’s defense gave them a 1-0 lead. They shot the three ball well, but their ability to control Miami’s offensive flow completely dictated the outcome of the game.

With Jimmy Butler sidelined, the Heat have no offensive failsafe. Adebayo is an All-Star, but he is not a renowned shot maker. Holiday forced his will on Herro, blunting his effectiveness. Jaquez had an efficient scoring night, but Boston would be more than comfortable with his contested layups being Miami’s best source of offense in this series.

But no matter how well the Celtics played, they still want to get better. They still have to get better. And that’s more important than anything.

“The balance is the ability to do even better,” Mazzulla said of the Celtics’ overall approach. “So eleven turnovers, they got on the shot margin, didn’t make a mistake and held them to five offensive rebounds. So the adjustment is to do better. Do it with more physicality. You have to be ready to do that.”

Delon Wright’s three-point fire in the fourth quarter calmed the momentum of Boston’s defensive performance. Miami never came close to a full comeback, but the momentum they gathered was enough to create a moment of pause for the TD Garden crowd.

When the Heat showed flashes of the same team that defeated the Celtics in last year’s Eastern Conference Finals, Boston’s collective heart stopped for a moment.

But that’s not how the Celtics interpreted the moment itself.

In reality, the Heat hit some shots and Boston took their foot off the gas pedal. The former is outside the Celtics’ total control, but the latter is not. And they plan to use Miami’s run to their advantage.

“I think we have to take that moment where they (started) to make that comeback (and) use that as the driving force for us going forward,” Porzingis said. “For example, they can shoot, they can also return some punches, and they are also dangerous.

“So we can’t just take it for granted and say, ‘Okay, we can just walk past it.’ So it will be very important to maintain that healthy lead and a healthy lead for us going forward.”