BOSTON — A procession of Celtics staffers approached Jayson Tatum at his locker after they lost a second straight game to open the Eastern Conference finals against the eighth-seeded Miami Heat.
"We have to win both games in Miami. That's the job."
"Crazier stories have been written."
Tatum sat with the task of having to win four of five games in the series long after his teammates filed out of Friday's 111-105 loss to the Heat, finally emerging from the locker room 80 minutes from the final buzzer.
"It's a challenge," said Tatum, who ran his fourth-quarter shooting numbers to 0-for-3 from the field through two games. "There's no point in being up here sad and s***, right? They came in and won two games. They played well. You give them credit, but we're not dead or anything. We have a great opportunity. I still have the utmost confidence. Everybody has the utmost confidence, and we just have to get ready for Game 3."
The ball tips next in Miami on Sunday (8:30 p.m. ET, TNT).
There is plenty of blame to go around for Friday's defeat: The stubbornness of first-year Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla, who is on his heels against veteran Heat counterpart Erik Spoelstra and publicly insists his every move is the correct one, in-game adjustments be damned; his players' failure to value every possession a year removed from that same flaw costing them a championship; Grant Williams challenging Jimmy Butler, of all people, when the Heat's hard-ass superstar needs no further reasons to tear an entire city's heart out.
But one factor for blowing another double-digit lead rises above all others.
"It's a series of discipline and mindset," said Mazzulla, "so it's mental from a standpoint of who can make the right plays at the right times, who can make the simple plays, who can win those details and margins.
"So, yeah, it's definitely mental."
At some point, you are who you are, and the Celtics have repeatedly given away playoff games in the clutch, dating back to last year's conference finals against the Heat. Miami has as much confidence in its ability to execute down the stretch of close games as it does in Boston's penchant for late-game lapses.
Mazzulla has stuck with what the game plan tells him, not what the game is telling him. The latest example was Al Horford in lieu of Robert Williams III for the game's final 7:41, when the 36-year-old was pushing his shooting slump to 5-for-29 from 3-point range (17.2%) over his last six games and avoiding attempts that might have made it worse. He was shook, and Williams was the more active and effective player all night.
Did the Celtics consider riding him instead? "No," said Mazzulla. "Al's finished every game he's played."
When it came down to it, with a minute left and the Heat leading by 3, Boston's 89-77 lead long since erased, Bam Adebayo manhandled Horford for an offensive rebound and uncontested dunk that pushed Miami's advantage to two possessions for the first time since the opening minutes of the third quarter.
Meanwhile, Spoelstra confounded Jaylen Brown (16 points on 7-for-23 shooting) with an array of looks the Celtics were unprepared for, including a zone defense they have seen from the Heat countless times before.
"We just haven't figured it out in terms of how to exploit it every single time down the floor," said Brown, who is now 2-for-13 from distance in the series. "We've got to recognize certain situations. Credit to them."
Two nights after Tatum and Brown combined for five fourth-quarter turnovers, they committed another three in Friday's final frame and nearly gifted the Heat several more. Clinging to a 98-94 advantage inside of five minutes to play, Brown traveled. Tied 100-100, Marcus Smart just dropped the ball. Tatum charged out of control into Butler several plays later, and the Heat converted on all three miscues by Boston's best players.
Miami has scored 70 points off 18 offensive rebounds and 30 Celtics turnovers in two games. Seventy.
"We need to get together, man," said Robert Williams, who scored 7 of his 13 points in the fourth quarter but grabbed only 3 rebounds in 23 minutes. "Time's running out. We ain't got time for these mess-ups."
Then came Grant Williams, who took Payton Pritchard's minutes in Game 2 — a late adjustment most everyone was calling for in the second half of Game 1. He played well, up until he provoked Butler after his lone 3-pointer of the night gave the Celtics a 98-87 lead with 6:37 to go. Butler responded by backing Williams into the paint, scoring over him from seven feet and drawing a foul. Before Butler made his free throw, he went forehead-to-forehead with Williams, and the mismatched pair earned double technicals.
Jimmy Butler and Grant Williams really going head-to-head tonight 😳
— Ball Don’t Lie (@Balldontlie) May 20, 2023
On Miami's next possession, Butler scored over Williams again, this time from five feet.
With the game slipping away from the Celtics, Williams took it upon himself to respond, forcing an ill-advised and errant shot over the larger Adebayo. Butler targeted Williams on the next two possessions, drilling two more pull-up jumpers and flipping a 2-point deficit into a 102-100 advantage for Miami.
Butler soon left the court telling the national television audience, "They thought he was the answer. C'mon. That's your answer to the Jimmy Butler problem? That's their answer? C'mon. That can't be the answer."
“That’s the answer to the Jimmy Butler problem?!”
Jimmy is HYPE after going up 2-0 against Boston 😤 pic.twitter.com/weGt0h1ts1
— NBA on TNT (@NBAonTNT) May 20, 2023
Whether Butler would have bullied the Celtics regardless of the trash talk is a matter of debate, but the entire brouhaha was emblematic of Boston's inferior mentality. The Celtics act like they have won when the job is not done. The Heat understand, if they never stop tugging, Boston will let go of the rope. The Celtics built double-digit leads in the second, third and fourth quarters, and each time they gave them right back.
"We've got to execute better," said Tatum. "We've had double-digit leads in both games, and a turnover has changed the momentum or offensive rebounds led to a 3 and changed the momentum. Those plays, when we're up 12 and could go up 15, they go on an 8-0 run, and now it's at 4. Now, the momentum has shifted. We've been up. We've got to do a better job of making those winning plays in those situations."
Easier said than done. Not only do the Celtics need to win four of the next five games, but they might have to win them all decisively, because when the score is close, we have seen the script too many times before. Boston might be the more talented team, but the Heat are tougher mentally and physically under pressure.
"We've just got to come out and fight. Play basketball," said Brown, seemingly attempting to convince himself the Celtics can rewrite the ending for 93% of 0-2 deficits. "Both of these games, they've been able to come out on top, but who's to say we can't come out on top in the next two games? We've just got to come ready to play basketball. Can't lose confidence. It's the first to four. Should make for a better story."