NBA playoffs: Now the Celtics look like themselves

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NBA playoff basketball is an exercise in advanced problem-solving, and the Boston Celtics came into Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals with some serious problems.

They blew double-digit second-half leads to the Miami Heat in consecutive losses, encountered far more trouble with the Heat’s zone defense than any top-five offense should and let Miami wreak havoc in the paint.

If the first two games of the series were radical departures, then Game 3 was a bold correction for the Celtics, who overwhelmed the Heat 117-106 to narrow Miami’s series lead to 2-1.

With an offense that has made movement, creativity and unselfishness its defining qualities, there is no good reason for the Celtics to stagnate against a 2-3 zone defense, even one as alert as Miami’s. The Celtics feature the kind of personnel to beat a zone, with penetrators and playmakers all over the floor. Yet in the two losses, they abandoned their dribble attack, settled for contested jumpers and stood motionless in the half court.

In Game 3, Boston attacked the paint from the opening tip. Against the Heat’s man-to-man defense in the first quarter, the Celtics punished the Heat with drive after drive, led by their pair of young, dynamic wings, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. When Tatum met resistance en route to the hoop, he kicked the ball out to Brown, who initiated a drive of his own. Tatum was Boston’s primary distributor on Saturday — he finished with a game-high eight assists, the result of his patience and his eagerness to make plays.2

By halftime, it was clear that the No. 1 item on the Celtics’ Game 3 to-do list was abusing Miami inside. On a controlled break, Brown hunted Duncan Robinson, dragged him down just beneath the basket for an early post-up and scored at point-blank range with an and-1. Marcus Smart got into the act as well, doing work down on the block. In the final tally, Boston racked up 60 points in the paint to Miami’s 36.

“We just made the plays that were presented to us,” Kemba Walker said. “Whenever we had opportunities to drive and kick, we did, and guys were just being aggressive.”nfl cheap nike jerseys

Given the range of NBA offenses and their willingness to attempt 3-pointers at unbelievable rates, any zone defense will have to cover a ton of ground, which leaves holes for a smart offense to exploit. The Celtics can fire from distance, which was a detriment in the first two games as they tried to shoot their way over the zone. Once the Heat settled into a zone in Game 3, the Celtics targeted the soft spots and made quick decisions that stretched the Heat to their limits.

With each possession, the Celtics mounted more confidence against a zone that had tormented them. Their pick-and-roll attack and perimeter screening actions loosened the vise. Once they extended Miami’s zone from corner to corner in the third quarter, Brown sneaked along the baseline to collect a feed from Smart for an easy bucket. A couple of minutes later, rookie Grant Williams found the dead spot in the zone for a layup. These are the kind of well-executed reads that define Boston in its wins — and were sorely missing in its two losses.