John Tomase

Celtics are tougher than Heat, and that could have huge implications

Jayson Tatum and the C's have unlocked an essential trait this series.

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Thanks for the scrimmage, Miami.

Unlike Heat-Celtics battles of yore, which inevitably ended with both teams staggering to a seventh game, this year's edition is a mismatch of vintage Mike Tyson vs. Insta Jake Paul proportions.

Outside of some stupid shooting by the Heat in Game 2, the Celtics have controlled virtually every minute of the first-round series, which should conclude on Wednesday night in Game 5. Then it will be on to the Cavs or Magic before maybe the Knicks in the conference finals.

The Heat do not remotely match up with the Celtics from a talent standpoint, not with Jimmy Butler and Terry Rozier sidelined. But they have still served a valuable purpose that could pay off deep into June – they've helped the Celtics discover their toughness.

There's something about this team that just feels different, and it has little to do with the results. The Celtics aren't whining to the officials, despite the desperate Heat hacking them on virtually every possession. Miami's physicality hasn't short-circuited the offense, as happened periodically during the regular season. And most impressively, when the Heat throw a low blow, the Celtics respond with just the right show of force.

In Game 1, that meant Jaylen Brown immediately confronting Caleb Martin for his reckless takedown of superstar Jayson Tatum, who popped right up, grabbed the ball, marched the length of the court, and drilled his free throws.

In Game 3, that meant Payton Pritchard, the smallest player on the floor, giving Martin an earful after Miami's Tyler Herro chucked a ball at Sam Hauser in frustration.

And in Game 4, it was Al Horford shouldering aside Bam Adebayo after a pointless post-whistle challenge that left Tatum writhing with a rolled ankle.

Past Celtics teams might've wobbled in the face of such aggression; heck, this one showed that tendency during the season, when it didn't always respond particularly well to physicality, such as vs. the Pacers in the in-season tournament or the Nuggets in either potential Finals preview.

But the playoff Celtics look like a team on a mission, and it starts with Tatum. He curtly dismissed questions about Adebayo's unnecessary challenge while obviously seething. He seems intent on letting his play speak for him, which is why there's been surprisingly little arm flapping after he draws contact. That's typically a sign that the opponent or the officials are in his head, but Tatum means business.

He illustrated the point on Monday by ramming his shoulder into Martin's chest with a jab step to create the separation that gave him room to drill a 3 in the staggering defender's face. He effectively said, "That's for that bulls--- in Game 1."

The Celtics have met contact with contact, and it starts with their superstars. Brown, in particular, has relished the opportunity to go through defenders rather than around them or over them, and even if he struggled a bit at the rim on Monday, he's giving Haywood Highsmith a summer's worth of nightmare fuel by ripping straight through his chest at will.

Prior Celtics teams could be goaded into mucking around in the manure, but Brad Stevens made a couple of crucial upgrades, replacing the mercurial Marcus Smart and the motor-mouthed Grant Williams with the tenaciously unflappable Jrue Holiday and the stoic Kristaps Porzingis.

Smart pretty much definitely would've tackled someone by now, but Holiday prefers to respond in the post or while hounding the perimeter. Add Derrick White, who's just an old-school gamer, and the Celtics are playing like a team that finally understands exactly what's at stake.

It was just a little thing, but on their final offensive possession, Tatum simply dribbled out the shot clock. The game was won. When Martin clanged an ensuing meaningless 3, Tatum snatched the rebound like he was offended and slammed the ball twice into the floor as the buzzer sounded.

His actions suggested he was done with the bleeping Heat, and he should be. The Celtics have much bigger goals, and thanks to Miami, they might be just a little bit better prepared to achieve them.

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