The Boston Celtics finally got back to looking like themselves on Saturday night—and then nearly blew it again.
It's been a whirlwind 48 hours for the Celtics, who blew a 17-point lead to the Miami Heat to go down 2-0 in the Eastern Conference Finals, and then got into a shouting match in the locker room that was heard by every reporter there. They also got back Gordon Hayward, who's been out since Aug. 17 rehabbing an ankle injury and whose status was confirmed less than an hour before tipoff.
The Boston team that emerged from all that turmoil was much closer to the one that's gotten title buzz since outlasting the defending champion Toronto Raptors in a seven-game battle in the second round. The Celtics executed their defensive coverages, they made shots, Hayward looked better than expected and they came away with a 117-106 win to cut Miami's series lead to 2-1.
"Our backs were against the wall," Jayson Tatum said after the game. "I think we should play like that all the time. Like we're fighting for our lives."
And even still, the Heat never fully went away. Boston led by 20 in the fourth quarter and the Heat cut it to five with less than a minute to remaining. If a few missed free throws and open threes go the other way, they could have taken the lead.
The Celtics played with fire again, but this time, they escaped getting burned and they have a lot to build on. Head coach Brad Stevens finally figured out an offense that could attack the Miami zone that had stifled them through the first two games.
The return of Hayward can't be overstated. He looked rusty in his first game in a month, shooting just 2-of-7 from the field, but made some solid passes and defensive plays, and played 31 minutes off the bench, which Stevens said was more than he expected to play him. With three days off before Game 4, Hayward should look even more comfortable on Wednesday. Even if he's not 100 percent, just being able to upgrade the minutes Semi Ojeleye had played earlier in the series is a blessing for the Celtics.
Most crucially, Marcus Smart was able to neutralize Heat guard Goran Dragic, who has been playing the best basketball of his career throughout the playoffs. Dragic finished with just 11 points on 2-of-10 shooting with five turnovers.
"Marcus' ball pressure on Goran was important," Stevens said. "It's something we need to continue to look at. Marcus did a great job on a guy who is playing better than I've ever seen him."
Dragic's struggles were the difference in this game. If he has even an average game, maybe the result is different. Credit to Smart for defending him well—Stevens made a big adjustment that paid off. It's now on Heat coach Erik Spoelstra to make a counter-adjustment to maintain Miami's upper hand in the series.
As much as it feels like the Celtics have figured some key things out, they've proven throughout the playoffs that they can't be counted on to be the best version of themselves on a consistent basis. Even in the first-round sweep of the Sixers, they let an inferior opponent hang around and make games closer than they needed to be. Against the Raptors, after a miracle shot by OG Anunoby prevented them from taking a 3-0 lead, they let Toronto back into the series to tie it.
That fateful collapse in Game 2 looks, for now, like a galvanizing moment for this group. On Saturday, they were able to channel the emotions of a meltdown into a reset. But one bounce-back game does not necessarily undo what has been a pattern for them throughout this postseason—and they couldn't even fully escape it or put the Heat away late. They can't bank on Dragic struggling like this again, and Erik Spoelstra will likely not leave struggling rookie guard Kendrick Nunn in as long as he did in the second half after not playing him at all in the first.
If Saturday didn't answer every single question about the Celtics' prospects of winning this series, it at least showed that those prospects exist. There are things here to build on.
Said Kemba Walker: "We got back to ourselves."
They got back to themselves. Now, they have to stay there. But it's a series now.
Sean Highkin covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. He is a graduate of the University of Oregon and lives in Portland. His work has been honored by the Pro Basketball Writers' Association. Follow him on Twitter, Instagram and in the B/R App.