Brian WindhorstESPN Senior Writer7 Minute Read
MIAMI — Demons were born Sunday night, those thoughts that stick in the head and on detractors’ lips.
The Boston Celtics have played hundreds of memorable playoff games in their storied history, but for the foreseeable future, just saying “Game 3” is going to sting without any needed context.
Frankly, the Miami Heat have a pretty good catalog of playoff moments and yet their 128-102 victory to take a 3-0 Eastern Conference finals lead might get its own special heading, too. Unexpected success is often the sweetest and the Heat and their fans were floating on that emotion.
Miami coach Erik Spoelstra, who is in the midst of painting his masterpiece as he is on the verge of a career-affirming improbable Finals appearance for a No. 8 seed that was three minutes from not making out of the play-in tournament, had to take measures to hold all the emotions in.
“That was a solid, mature, professional approach,” Spoelstra said Sunday night, realizing his job is now shifting to managing massive success. “But we have respect, deep respect, for Boston.”
It is going to be tempting for the Celtics to make “Game 3” a watershed moment. To let the overwhelming disappointment of being thoroughly dominated and humiliated cause an angry response.
This is a hugely talented, experienced and expensive team that is on its way out of the postseason with a dud. When that happens in pro sports, there is typically a blame game that demands action.
There’s going to be a pull for firings, trades and makeovers in Boston. It’s going to be like a dam straining against a flood. In a matter of days and three losses, this has transitioned from a team favored by the computers and the sportsbooks to win the title to a franchise in crisis.
Celtics owner Wyc Grousbeck spent much of the third quarter, as his team was getting outscored 32-17, looking at his phone in his courtside seat trying to focus on anything else.
Team president Brad Stevens stood outside the Celtics’ locker room after the game stunned at what he’d just seen, making sure to give credit to the Heat for their vanquishing.
Jayson Tatum, who seven days earlier had played one of the finest games in NBA history as he set a record in scoring 51 points in a Game 7 Eastern Conference semifinals victory, dragged himself to the postgame podium wearing the all-white suit he’d picked out for this game.
Miami chic, no doubt, but it came across as such the wrong tenor after what happened in front of the typical “white out” Heat playoff crowd. It could’ve come off as confident; Tatum has had some awesome road playoff games in his career, but this was such a flat note that it was hard not to make it a symbolic connection to the outcome.
“Obviously, we’re in a tough position,” Tatum said after an anemic 14 points on 6-of-18 shooting. “But we’ve just got to have some pride.”
And then there was Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla, whose game plan to accept all the blame for the loss was as ineffective as his strategy was for the game itself.
“I just didn’t have them ready to play,” Mazzulla said, over and over. “I have to get them in a better place ready to play, and that’s on me.”
Mazzulla doth not protest too much. He was so over-the-top in trying to rip the attention toward himself and away from his team, a group that had played so lifelessly, that his tactics were transparent.
He’s in the midst of learning many lessons in his first playoffs as a head coach, and this was yet another one. There’s an art to being a shield — and this wasn’t it.
There is a wave of anger from New England and a rising expectation elsewhere Mazzulla will pay the price for this 0-3 hole the Celtics find themselves in. Stevens is a huge believer in Mazzulla and made the choice not only to promote him but also to make him the permanent coach midway through the season.
Stevens will tell you about his first season as an NBA coach in 2013 when he made mistake after mistake, some of them embarrassing. Like when he drew up a side out-of-bounds play for a last-second shot only to realize, to his horror, after the timeout that the ball was on the baseline and not the sideline.
Stevens knows when you have a rookie coach, rookie mistakes will be made.
Before Game 3, if you were around the Celtics, you’d know there was no chance Mazzulla would not be back next season.
After Game 3, nothing feels certain.
There is a question about whether the Celtics can give Jaylen Brown an extension worth more than $280 million this offseason. His performance has been dreadful in this series; he was 0-of-7 from 3-point range Sunday and is 2-for-20 from 3 in the three losses against Miami.
Before Game 3, it seemed like locking down Brown, 26, was automatic; getting a player at his age in his position under control for five years is good business.
After Game 3, it is human nature to wonder if the Tatum-Brown pairing is great or just very good. And considering they both might each cost more than $50 million in salary per season soon, is just very good actually good enough?
“The series isn’t over yet,” Brown said. “It’s looking bad, but you come out, have some pride about yourself.”
This soul searching could go on. It’s easy to question just what happened to the Celtics’ strong defense — they are a shell of the team that made the Finals last season — but then there’s the continued lineup changes and the effort level and the inexplicable delay to double-team Heat star Jimmy Butler.
And that’s the penalty for going down the way the Celtics are in this stunning collapse. It will cost more than just a chance at a title. This is the kind of loss that can rob a team of its confidence and its direction.
What has happened over the past five days for the Celtics is more than disappointing. The Heat are just crushing them. But the way it has unfolded has now become so much more than that.
And that could be what Game 3’s true legacy is.