The Celtics turned the ball over 24 times in their 109-103 loss to the Miami Heat in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals Saturday night. It was their second-most turnovers in a game this season, and the most since an October 22 loss to the Toronto Raptors – their second game of the year – and their most in a playoff game since 2004.
Despite all of that, the Celtics nearly pulled off an all-time comeback, erasing a 26-point first half deficit to get within a point in the fourth quarter. Ultimately though, they never gained the lead despite a number of runs and Miami ended up with a wire-to-wire win.
“When you turn the ball over 24 times, and gift them 33 points off of that, you dig yourself a hole,” head coach Ime Udoka said after the game.
In the big picture, that hole was clear as shown by the 26-point Miami lead. Even at more specific points in the game though, the Celtics couldn’t help but give the ball away. Every time it seemed like they were about to turn the corner, the problem surfaced once again.
The Celtics’ first real run back into the game came with six minutes to go in the third quarter. Marcus Smart – after leaving the game with what appeared to be a serious ankle injury then returning a few minutes later – hit a three pointer to cut the deficit to 10. That shot sent the building into a frenzy, and it appeared the Celtics had all the momentum back on their side as Miami took a timeout. However, they then turned the ball over on each of their next two possessions and three times in the ensuing three minutes, allowing Miami to stretch its lead back to 15.
With their next run early in the fourth quarter, the Celtics were able to get within single digits at 89-80. The Grant Williams three pointer that set that score would be followed by two turnovers in four possessions, with an offensive rebound allowed in that stretch as well. Two minutes later, Miami was back up 15.
Finally, the Celtics made their last and biggest charge after Jayson Tatum suffered an apparent shoulder injury. A Jaylen Brown three pointer with 2:40 to go made it 93-92, just as Tatum had returned to the game and again the crowd was playing a factor. Two turnovers on the ensuing possessions prevented the Celtics from building on that moment, and by the time the dust settled they were down eight points with a minute to play.
Turnovers dug the Celtics in a hole they probably should not have been able to dig out of. Yet the team played some truly gritty basketball at times, and made a game out of it in the second half – only to have the turnover trend show up once again. It’s not just the sheer number of giveaways that was the story of this game, but the key moments some of those giveaways came in as well.
It also didn’t help that the Celtics’ two biggest offensive weapons were the two most responsible for the issue in the game. Jaylen Brown led the team with seven turnovers, while Tatum had six.
“I did a (expletive) job today taking care of the basketball, I’ve got to get better.” Brown said after the game. How does he plan to do that? “Just being stronger, driving, I’m going to keep being aggressive, I’m going to keep getting to the basket, I’m going to keep doing what I do but I’m going to be stronger when I get in there.”
“I’m trying to be aggressive. I’m trying to make a play for our team,” he continued. “We were down 25, we were playing with a lack of emphasis. We need to play with some heart, some aggression. I tried to come out, in the second half especially, and just be aggressive and just ignite our team. Some of them led to turnovers, some were unforced.”
Despite Brown’s issues controlling the ball, he still managed to score a game-high 40 points. For Tatum though, the turnovers were part of a rough night all around. He finished with just 10 points on 3-of-14 shooting, including a 1-of-7 mark from deep.
“Six turnovers and no field goals in the second half, that is unacceptable,” Tatum told reporters after the game. “Honestly, I’ve got to play better. I feel like I left the guys hanging tonight. That’s on me, and I acknowledge that.”
Asked if the high turnover numbers were due to increased pressure by the Heat or sloppy play from the Celtics, Tatum noted both were an issue for Boston. “I guess you could go half and half,” he replied. “Obviously they’re a really good, scrappy defensive team, but a lot of those were some careless turnovers as well.” While it doesn’t paint a perfect picture of the split, Miami was credited with 19 steals in the game.
Tatum also noted the early deficit didn’t help, and that the team may have been forcing things on offense. “Playing extremely fast, trying to get it back – but every time we came to the huddle, we talked about ‘can’t get it back in one play,'” he explained. “But obviously human nature plays a part. You’re down so much, you just want to get back so bad, that you can kind of just move a little too fast sometimes.”
Udoka, Brown, Tatum, and Al Horford all cited film study after the game as a way to solve the issue – a similar theme to what the team spoke about after Game 1 when untimely turnovers also cost them.
After their turnover issues in that series-opening game, the Celtics responded well with just 10 turnovers in Game 2. They’ll need a similar bounce-back Monday night in Game 4, or they face a 3-1 series deficit heading back to Miami.
Coverage of Game 4 can be heard on 98.5 The Sports Hub and the 98.5 The Sports Hub Celtics Radio Network. Pregame begins at 8 p.m., with tip-off set for 8:40.