Poised Celtics dismantle Heat, use perfect playoff recipe: Focus on the business at hand


BOSTON — It always fires up the house when a hometown hero swishes a 3-point attempt pretty much right off the national anthem. That’s precisely what the Celtics’ Jaylen Brown did against the Miami Heat in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals Sunday afternoon at TD Garden.

But it’s what Brown did after that hi-how-do-you-do 3-pointer that shook the building and sent the social-media mob into overdrive. For bookkeeping purposes, it was a spin move and a driving dunk. For acrobatics, it was the Ringling Brothers. Brown eased his way to the basket in a way that made it look computer-generated, and just like that it was 5-0, then 9-0, and then 17-2, and a 32-point lead in the third quarter … and, finally, when it was over, the Celtics had themselves a festive 114-94 victory over the Heat.

Beyond the very obvious, which is that the math often works well when NBA teams win Game 1 of a best-of-seven series — as in 75.4 percent of them have gone on to win the series, according to basketball-reference.com — there’s something else at play for the Celtics this postseason.

To put it bluntly, the message being delivered to the Celtics by an adoring but anxious fan base is as follows: Don’t just stand there, win something.

No sense doing a documentary here on the NBA championships the Celtics were well-positioned to win in recent years but did not, but we do need to go to the tote board: Over the past seven seasons the Celtics have been tripped up in the Eastern Conference finals four times and made it to the NBA Finals one time, losing to Golden State in six games. It was that loss two years ago that inspired last year’s “Unfinished Business” campaign that crashed and burned after the Celtics were eliminated by the Heat in the Eastern Conference finals.

But judging by the way they played on Sunday — and judging by some of the things they’re saying — the Celtics aren’t using this year’s playoffs to atone for what went wrong last year. Instead of “Unfinished Business,” these Celtics are all about, well, business. Current business. Unencumbered by the past, then, the Celtics can allow themselves to live in the present.

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“It was definitely a fun game,” said Kristaps Porzingis, who scored 18 points. “Our first playoff game this year, at home, Sunday, 1 p.m. — perfect setup. We came out the right way.”

Porzingis is a first-year Celtic, which means he wasn’t around last year when the Green went down 0-3 against the Heat in the conference finals, then tied the series, and then belly-flopped in Game 7 right here at TD Garden. Nor was Porzingis around two years ago for the loss to Golden State in the finals. But given the way the Celtics played on Sunday — getting the early lead, reacting to Miami’s inevitable runs, hitting on 22 of 49 3-point attempts — Porzingis could have been speaking for the room when he said there was “… a little more juice for (the) game. But early games are always a little bit weird. Early morning, kind of feels almost like a practice. But we all knew it’s a regular game, we’re starting the playoffs here, and I was just happy we came out the way we came out this morning … this afternoon.”

This morning, this afternoon. Whatever. What’s important is that it’s this year, and it’s the only year that matters for these living-in-the-moment Celtics. Consider the way the Celtics reacted when the Heat ate away at the early lead, or how they reacted when a strong fourth-quarter Miami run cut Boston’s lead from 101-70 to 106-92 with just under three minutes remaining — not close enough to lift the Heat up off the canvas, but close enough for the Celtics to be aware of the altered state of the game.

“I think there was a four- or five-minute stretch where we didn’t handle it well, but for the other 42, 43 minutes, that’s the recipe,” Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla said. “The balance is having the humility to do it even better.”

“Recipe” is a wise word for those who believe recent editions of the Celtics have lacked a playoff recipe. And if you’re a Celtics fan who likes “recipe,” you’re going to love this next one: “poise.”

“I thought we kept a level of poise,” Mazzulla said. “Even after some of those runs, just getting to our space.”

You want to talk poise? As the game was winding down, the outcome of the game assured for Boston, Tatum crashed hard to the floor after being taken out by Miami’s Caleb Martin. Tatum was quickly back on his feet and casually walked to the free throw line, either uninterested or unaware what was happening behind him, which is that Brown was jawing a little with Martin.

“I feel fine,” said Tatum, who submitted a triple-double with 23 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists, all tops on the Celtics. “I didn’t see … went to get the rebound, got knocked down there, fell, go right up, go shoot some free throws.”

Tatum was even more casual than he let on. Go watch the replay. He glared for a moment, and then simply ignored the matter entirely; he did look back, quickly, but the look on his face suggested nothing had even happened.

“It’s supposed to be tough, the playoffs,” Tatum said, but he was talking about these playoffs, as in the playoffs being staged in 2024. If he was still weighted down by 2023, who knows, maybe a hockey fight breaks out at the basketball game.

The message the Celtics are receiving from their fan base — and surely the Celtics are hearing it — is that they can’t relitigate last year, or the year before that, or the years before those.

What a weekend in Boston sports. The Bruins won their playoff opener on Saturday night, and on Sunday afternoon the Celtics won their playoff opener.

In doing so, both teams have distanced themselves from last year’s flat postseasons. And now everyone can understand what Jayson Tatum has already figured out: It’s not worth looking back.

(Photo: Bob DeChiara / USA Today)





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