ORLANDO, Fla. — It’s apparent the chaos, the discussions, phone calls, game plans, and reflections the past 48 hours were effective in turning the Celtics back into the team they’ve been this season.
There was no margin for errors Saturday. The Celtics had essentially blown the first two games of this Eastern Conference finals series against the Miami Heat, and then some players turned on each other after Thursday’s bitter loss.
The Celtics don’t have to be best friends off the court, but they do have to work together on the court, and their cohesion was refreshing after melting down in the first two games. They never trailed. They played with force. They countered Miami’s strategies with fresh wrinkles of their own and even staved off a Heat rally in the final minutes.
The 117-106 win had to be one more rewarding of the Brad Stevens era, because adversity was at its highest and chemistry had been questioned.
The events of the past 48 hours were downplayed, but it included a lot of conversations between Stevens and his main core. Matters were settled Friday, and the goal then became to develop a blueprint not only to take a sizeable lead against the freewheeling Heat, but to keep it.
They never trailed. They made plays down the stretch. Marcus Smart, who called out his teammates after Game 2, scored the Celtics' final 10 points. It was apropos. Smart played so much under control in Game 3. He finished with 20 points (10-for-10 on free throws), 6 assists, and 4 rebounds.
His change in approach represented that of his team. The Celtics were patient, unselfish, and aggressive. Jaylen Brown attacked the middle of that daunting Miami zone with vigor. He put his imprint on the game from the outset, as if he was anxious to atone for the team’s Game 2 meltdown.
“To be honest, I didn’t get much sleep the last 48 hours. I was so antsy to get back and play basketball,” Brown said. “I don’t think the last two games exemplify what this team is about. So, I couldn’t wait to come out and be the best version of myself and try to add to a win. And I’m glad to be a part of this team and this organization, and I’m proud of how we responded.”
It was something to be proud of because the Celtics could have gone sideways after Thursday’s events. Brown and Smart talked early into Friday morning about the past two games and how to collectively work toward team success. It’s obvious both men want to win badly. Sometimes their methods may be different in how to reach their goals.
“That it was probably blown out of proportion,” Brown said of the events of the previous two days. “Like, we are in a bubble. There’s a lot of grown men. There’s a lot of passion and emotion going on. But at the end of the day, we’re a family. We represent this organization. We represent each other and we won’t ever let anything come in between that. We’ve got a tremendous opportunity and we understand that and nothing’s going to stop us from trying to maximize that.”
It is critical for the Celtics to understand this opportunity and how precious they are. That adversity is going to come, but the best way to combat it is collectively. One source close to the team said that Thursday’s events may actually galvanize them. There was also pressure on Stevens, especially since he shouldered a chunk of the blame for last season’s issues.
He admitted that he didn’t care about the final result — he probably did, though — but he just wanted his team to respond favorably, especially given the cloud of criticism and negative that has hovered the past 48 hours.
“I think I told the team this yesterday, I certainly told the staff two nights ago, like, this result didn’t really matter to me,” Stevens said. “It was more about, like, what are we going to show ourselves to be. And I thought that we are a really special group, a really good group. And the first time we were pushed to more emotions that challenged us, we got better, and that’s encouraging.”
What Stevens had to do was trust his players would police themselves with his guidance. Stevens can get involved, but he can only do so much. The players have to execute the game plan. They have to make the plays and they have to play with selfless style that brings the best out of their talents as a whole. Mission accomplished for one night.
“Just took a bunch of good people committed to each other,” Stevens said. “There’s no special talk, no special things, no rah-rah speeches. It’s who you have in the locker room and are they committed to each other. Everybody gets pushed to emotions in sports. That’s why I was curious to see what would happen tonight, but I didn’t have much doubt. I think this group has some good character.”
What happened is the Celtics collected themselves enough to fight another day. And they proved they have enough fortitude to rejuvenate themselves after a stretch that could have split most teams.
“Yeah, we could have come here and laid down. We could have played like we were fighting for our lives," Jayson Tatum said. "It wasn’t perfect. It’s never going to be perfect. But just playing connected, playing together with a purpose, like we did tonight, it gives ourselves a chance. That’s all you want is just to be able to give yourself a chance.
"We ain’t got to win all of them at once, we just got to win one game at a time.”