One night, the Miami Heat look ready for their ring sizing. The next, they turn into impostors to the throne. Jimmy Butler made history with his lofty stat line in Game 1, but by the fourth matchup on Monday night he was part of a Miami starting lineup that went 0 for the opening 8½ minutes, with 14 straight misses, and whose single point through eight minutes was the lowest by a playoff team in a quarter-century.
And the same goes for the Boston Celtics. Their players can spend one game queuing for the trainer’s room, and two nights later take turns blocking the next Heat player’s shot, as they did during their defensive showcase in Game 4′s runaway 102-82 win — which came without Marcus Smart, the league’s defensive player of the year.
On the surface, the numbers indicate that the Celtics and Heat have evenly split the four games played so far, with the ever-pivotal Game 5 coming up Wednesday night in Miami. Beneath it all, however, this playoff round cannot be summed up so easily. And please forgive the participants for trying to do so.
“There’s always concern how the game went about, but we can’t dwell on what happened,” Heat point guard Kyle Lowry said, attempting to explain how his team went from making Boston fans boo their own during low moments in Game 3, to watching them dance during the Gino and American Bandstand montage they love to play at TD Garden when the home team is winning big.
“We have to figure out how to get better, move on to the next situations,” Lowry continued. “They came out and they played better than us tonight. They protected their home court. We didn’t do what we wanted to do tonight.”
A simple conclusion, indeed. But that kind of rational talk has no place in this loopy series.
They’re all tied up, and yet somehow, the winner of each game has held a lead of at least 20 points at some point during the action. The Heat led by 21 after the first quarter of Game 3. The Celtics led by 18 after the first quarter of Game 4. Four Heat starters finished in double-digits in Game 3. None did in Game 4.
So does that mean the two conference heavyweights have been trading haymakers, and that eventually, one will deliver a crushing blow to knock the other into the offseason? Nope, that simple logic doesn’t necessarily hold, either. Boston, the team that has not been whole throughout the postseason while its two best players vacillate between consistency and uncertainty, has controlled much of this round, winning or tying 13 of the 16 quarters played.
And although neither Jayson Tatum (1 for 7) nor Jaylen Brown (1 for 6) had it working from the three-point arc on Monday night — reflecting the Celtics’ broader struggles in missing 26 deep looks — Boston still opened up a 32-point lead at one point.
“I would say the urgency from the team that’s coming off that loss,” Celtics head coach Ime Udoka said, offering his best explanation for the strangeness of the series. “Obviously we had some really bad quarters but had been overall consistent before that. … It’s an inconsistent series from both teams at times, and it’s an odd one, honestly, when you look at some of the numbers tonight, the way we didn’t shoot or play offense that great and having a 30-point lead
“It’s been a back-and-forth series even in the same game at times, 39-18 quarter, 39-14 quarter when they really hurt us. So we want to be more consistent overall, move the ball and understand how they’re guarding us but maintain our defensive identity that we had all year.”
On Monday night, center Robert Williams III was back in the lineup after missing Game 3 with knee soreness, and the Celtics felt his impact. The one night in this series when Williams did not step onto the floor, Heat center Bam Adebayo played with the force that his nickname indicates, dominating with 31 points and 10 rebounds to go along with six assists and four steals.
In Game 4, however Bam went back to bleh as Williams played no small role in neutralizing the interior with his defensive presence. Celtics teammate Al Horford might have led the team with 13 rebounds and four blocks, but Williams, who collected nine rebounds and stuffed a pair of shots, makes Boston an elite team beneath the glass and on the defensive end.
“Just upping the effort and everything,” Williams said. “We felt like last game they destroyed us, obviously, on the boards, so we just wanted to build up the effort all around.”
Another uncomplicated, reasonable breakdown. And yet, words cannot properly explain what’s happening in this series. It’s the most lopsided level round of playoff basketball imaginable, with players sliding in and out of the lineups, home fans pinging from delight to despair and the deficits looking like something from a forgotten January back-to-back, not the conference finals.
It’s utter domination — with both teams doing the dominating.