MIAMI — Ahead of Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals, Boston Celtics coach Ime Udoka said that after his team has gone through a roller-coaster ride of a season to get to this point, it is only fitting that this series will come down to Boston having to win a third road game on the shores of Biscayne Bay to advance to its first NBA Finals since 2010.
“Yeah, I would say so,” Udoka said on a video conference call with reporters Saturday morning. “It’s not only hasn’t the series for us — it’s been all season long. Even in these playoffs, it’t been easy… a lot of that is due to what we’re doing, and we can be better, for sure.
“But for us, it’s another opportunity. You put yourself in this position, going up 3-2, to have two games to win one. So as much as you love to finish it on your home court, we’ve been up and down this series, and due to that, it’s where it is right now.”
The Celtics had a chance to close out the Miami Heat at home in Game 6 on Friday night, only for Jimmy Butler to put up 47 points, nine rebounds and eight assists in 46 minutes in an all-time great performance by the future Hall of Famer to ensure this series would reach the seventh game.
But Boston didn’t help itself by, once again, having a poor start — something that has repeatedly bothered the Celtics in this series. Another constant sore spot — the third quarter — was also a problem.
With their season on the line in Game 7, Udoka said the Celtics are focused on making sure they get off to a much better start in what could be their final game of the season. After again committing several careless turnovers in the opening moments of Game 6 and falling into a 12-5 hole, they essentially spent the game attempting to dig themselves out of it.
“A lot has to do with our starts and having to play catch-up the whole game,” Udoka said when asked what causes the Celtics to lose their poise during games. “We understood the situation Miami was in last night and didn’t play our best basketball in the first quarter defensively and offensively. Playing behind the eight ball most of the game. Although we got the lead late or tied it quite a few times, it felt like we were always in an uphill battle, shooting ourselves in the foot.
“We’d like to get off to better starts, put some pressure on the opponent when they’re in that situation, similar to what we did against Milwaukee in Game 7. That’s our mindset coming in. Obviously, going into [Miami], we want to start better. We have confidence in going down there winning, too, but we have to get ourselves off to better starts, get ourselves easy baskets and not give them life early in the game.”
Udoka also spoke about the ways Miami was able to keep Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown off the board in the second half. After both of Boston’s star wings scored 18 points in the first half, they combined to take seven shots in the second half — and took only one each in the fourth quarter, as the Heat went out of their way to force other players to beat them.
It nearly worked, as Derrick White, in particular, had a brilliant game off the bench. Udoka said that it’s a balancing act for his stars to both find their teammates when the defense collapses on them while still being aggressive enough to make plays for themselves.
“Obviously, early in the game if they’re going after them, we encourage them to get off the ball and the defense will kind of break down and open up for them later in the game,” Udoka said. “Guys were making enough plays off the ball. But at the same time, we want those guys to stay aggressive at all times. Find their opportunities, and like I said, a lot of those we had some turnovers in the pocket. Passed up a few open shots and kind of drove into traffic, just encouraged them to be aggressive as far as that. Obviously, the number of field goal attempts on their part was low for a half. Miami, that was their job, to try to take it out of their hands.
“But, like I said, Derrick had it going a little bit, but we always want to stay aggressive and make the right play. But at the same time, they’re our leading scorers, and obviously in the fourth quarter, we need them to bring it home. So we gotta do a better job finding them, getting them knowing the ball and putting them in spots how the defense is guarding them.”
It would be hard to have imagined a scenario four months ago in which the Celtics would be playing now — let alone playing in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals. It has been that sort of season in Boston. And, Udoka said, the resiliency his team has built over the topsy-turvy nature of this campaign is something that can help the Celtics do what they did each of the past two games at FTX Arena: come out with a win.
“We’ve been a resilient group,” Udoka said. “We’ve overcome a lot of things this year. Just in general, nothing has been easy, and that’s just how the season has gone. It’s almost like we have to take the harder route at times and put ourselves in that situation due to some of the things we’ve done in this series.
“[We] understand the big picture and what’s in front of us. We put ourselves in the opportunity to have two games to win one, and have to go finish it down in Miami now.”