Celtics survive physical Super Bowl Sunday battle in Miami by playing slow

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Celtics survive physical Super Bowl Sunday battle in Miami by playing slow

MIAMI — It wouldn’t be Super Bowl Sunday without guys getting tossed around. The Boston Celtics and Miami Heat have had countless battles full of punches, body slams and everything in between.

“Last time we came here, we smacked them. So we knew it was going to be a closer game, and they came to play,” Tatum said. “So you enjoy being a part of games like that. Everybody brings a competitive nature out of everybody.”

Even without Jimmy Butler, a late scratch due to a death in the family, the Heat were hanging in there by fighting the Celtics throughout their possessions. They knew Boston’s tendencies and had an answer for everything.

“I enjoy watching physicality with poise, and I thought our guys had that throughout tonight,” Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla said after Boston’s 110-106 win. “Obviously, you have to rise to the occasion, and I thought it goes back to the expectation. We said at halftime, we said before the game, we expect it to be hard. Expect it to be difficult. Don’t wish for it to be anything other than what it is, and make sure you respond accordingly.”

The Celtics showed that poise late in Sunday’s game, but it all traced back to a moment when Jaylen Brown lost his cool.

“I just thought it was a dirty play, to be honest with you,” Heat forward Duncan Robinson said. “That’s how people miss entire seasons. Knock on wood, obviously, but those types of plays, you’ve seen them before throughout the history of the NBA. Guys have suffered really bad injuries from instances exactly like that. So I just thought it was dangerous, unnecessary and excessive.”

Former Celtics players Josh Richardson and Terry Rozier had already left the game with ugly injuries. Kristaps Porziņģis took a shot to the scrotum from Bam Adebayo, then later had to leave for a bit because of a back contusion suffered when boxing out Adebayo.

The game tested everyone’s health and resilience. The challenge was not to break. On a day when Brown had been struggling to find comfort on offense heading into the fourth quarter, he simply lost his cool, even if he thought Robinson was baiting him.

“I felt like Duncan Robinson knew what he was doing there, trying to get tangled up and trying to draw whatever he was trying to do,” Brown said. “But I bet he won’t do it again.”

After Brown was assessed with a flagrant foul, he and Robinson got into it at the free-throw line. Everyone had to make sure it didn’t escalate by causing a whole scene, of course. When Brown was asked about that moment, he said it wasn’t anything special and he didn’t have a comment on it. But Porziņģis, who joined him at the podium, had something to say.

“I want to answer that last question a little bit,” Porziņģis said. “To be honest, when they got into it again, I kind of liked it. It got the whole crowd into it. It was a good atmosphere. So I think that was good.”

Mazzulla also shouted out that little dust-up after the dust-up, saying it was tremendous for the team. For Porziņģis, it was a way of getting hyped up to bring that energy a team like Miami demands of you without falling into its trap of losing control.

“I love it. I love it. I think we have to take those moments, those emotional moments, in a good way to make us fired up with control,” Porziņģis said. “We have to stay controlled because that’s their game. They need us to react to something.”

The coach called it a little bit of chaos and conflict.

“I don’t necessarily encourage friction, but I encourage responding to the occasion,” Mazzulla said. “We have an understanding of like, ‘Hey, this is the environment, and we have to adapt to the environment.’ Either we have to set the environment (or), at times where it’s not set, we have to adapt to that environment.”

Boston lived in that climate of physicality all game. Hanging on to a close lead in crunchtime, the Celtics tried as much as possible to get Jayson Tatum or Brown on Robinson and find a way to twist the defense into helping.

The problem was Robinson wasn’t going to roll over. He was a menace denying whoever was trying to post him up, pushing out their catches and standing up to whoever tried to back him down. It forced the Celtics to get creative, finding different ways to attack it by changing the way they got into the post-ups to find different cutters and shooters.

“There’s times where that matchup is we want to get something out of it, but there’s times when we use it as leverage for the second and third layer of where we’re trying to get to,” Mazzulla said. “It gets the defense’s space compromised throughout the entire possession, whether we have what we want.”

There’s this idea that to play uptempo, it means trying to get down the floor and score before the defense is ready. But Sunday’s game was a study in how there is a duality to speed. With some teams, it’s all about getting the matchup you want, then carefully locking it in.

“I think that’s what we’re defining as a team, that fine balance of thinking fast but executing slow, right?” Mazzulla said. “We define playing fast by getting to your spacing fast, recognizing the cross-match, recognizing the coverage fast, and then understanding what spacing we’re in. And I thought both Jaylen and Jayson did a great job of orchestrating the spacing they wanted when they got the cross-match. So it was like, see it fast and then play slow.”

This game was a grind, but it was a near-constant test of how the Celtics will need to operate in the postseason. Even against a team that lost nearly half of its rotation, the challenge never relented.

Miami’s supposed weak point on defense took the fight to the Celtics all night. It was play after play of postseason basketball.

“Reps. Reps on how it’s going to be. Reps on how it should be. And I thought we owned our space, got to our spots, got to our spacing,” Mazzulla said. “Each game presents a theme, something that we need to learn, and I thought we learned that our offensive execution is setting the table before you eat.”

Even under the Heat’s relentless pressure, the Celtics feasted in the end. There weren’t many straight-up buckets over Tatum, but he leveraged his matchup to eventually draw help from different places and pass around them to outlast the Heat.

“That s— was just fun,” Tatum said. “Fun to be out there.”

(Photo of Jaylen Brown and Duncan Robinson: Jim Rassol / USA Today)