Chris Forsberg

Celtics' handling of Game 1 dust-up with Heat sends perfect message

Jayson Tatum and the C's showed impressive maturity late in Game 1.

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With an absurd 75 hours to fill from the final buzzer of the Celtics' Game 1 win over the Heat until tip off of Game 2, a whole bunch of ink will be spilled pondering Caleb Martin’s intentions on a late-game sequence that left Jayson Tatum bouncing dangerously off the TD Garden parquet after getting undercut chasing a rebound.

Was it a premeditated message from the Heat? We tend to err on the side of Martin simply being clumsy. But here are two things we know for certain: 1) The only way the Heat can stick around longer than four games in this series is to junk things up, and 2) The Celtics’ response in the moment could not have been better.

Despite the painful spill, Tatum sprang to his feet and immediately removed himself from the fracas. He angrily stomped to the free-throw line, snatching the ball from Tyler Herro’s hands along the way. His only detour was to dap up teammate Jaylen Brown, who had choice words for Martin immediately after the spill.

And that was the most important part of the sequence. Brown wasn’t waiting for a judge to decide whether Martin’s actions were accidental; he confronted the Heat guard immediately, let him know it wasn’t OK, and defended his fellow Celtics All-Star.

What’s more, Kristaps Porzingis tailed his Cookies ’N Cream pal as Brown stalked after Martin and made sure there was no further escalation beyond stern words.

“It's playoff basketball, right? It's a physical game, playing against a physical team. S---'s going to happen,” said Tatum. "It’s not the last time my body will get hit like that or fouled in this series. So, I wasn't hurt. You get hit like that, you just get up, and I knew we were in the bonus. So I knocked the free throw down.”

Jayson Tatum was hit hard midair by the Heat's Caleb Martin for a technical foul. After falling on his back, he got right up to shoot his free throws. Postgame, Tatum reacts to the hit and how he's feeling physically.

Given the lopsided nature of Sunday’s Game 1, it was understandable for some to feel like Martin’s actions were premeditated. It’s fair to wonder if, after being pushed around for much of the day, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra yearned for his team to set a more aggressive tone.

It’s no secret that the Celtics haven’t always responded well to physicality. But in that moment Sunday, they handled the flare-up to perfection. The fact that one Boston superstar had the other’s back is particularly endearing.

Or as Derrick White noted, "KP and JB got [Tatum’s] back. Gotta love that.”

Tatum was fantastic throughout Game 1, and maybe the only time the Celtics truly lost their way was when the team was hunting the final assist to cap Tatum’s first postseason triple-double (23 points, 10 rebounds, 10 assists). If the Heat hadn’t rallied a bit early in the fourth, the starters might not have even been on the floor with 60 seconds to go when the Martin dust-up occurred.

But the Celtics sent a message of their own with their Game 1 dominance. It was the first time the Jays have defeated the Heat in a Game 1 despite three meetings in the Eastern Conference finals over the previous four postseasons.

The Celtics let their play do the talking on Sunday. With Jimmy Butler sidelined, Boston has a decided advantage in talent and depth. The Heat also don’t have the sort of antagonizer who could truly get under Boston’s skin.

One of the lasting images from last year’s series was Grant Williams going nose-to-nose with Butler in Game 2 before the Heat rallied for a 2-0 advantage. We didn’t mind Williams poking the bear in that moment, but the Celtics demonstrated Sunday that they won’t be lured into those sort of shenanigans this time around.

No, the Celtics have bigger goals. The Celtics are simply on a different level than the Heat this season and need to stay focused on their championship quest. They can’t get caught up in any sort of retaliation, though it wouldn’t surprise anyone if Martin draws a hard foul along the way.

Miami wants Boston to get distracted. The Celtics need to learn from past series and put this thing away as quickly as possible.

The dust-up will dominate conversation for the next couple days. That’s inevitable. But so too is Boston winning this series — and in short order -- if it doesn’t get caught up in the noise.

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