BOSTON — If they haven’t already, all of the players participating in this Eastern Conference finals should sign a waiver. The series involving the top-seeded Miami Heat, the second-seeded Boston Celtics and their top-notch training staffs isn’t for anyone who believes basketball consists merely of beauty or grace.
Heat forward Jimmy Butler couldn’t play in the second half of Game 3 because of inflammation in his knee. Marcus Smart, the Celtics’ heartbeat, needed help from the trainers to leave the floor after a gruesome-looking injury to his ankle. Later, Celtics forward Jayson Tatum splayed across the floor as his right shoulder throbbed in pain. Despite their howls and grimaces as they exited the court, both Boston players would return for more punishment. All of this happened on a Saturday night that started with the news of Boston center Robert Williams III having to miss the game with left knee soreness.
So after the Heat’s 109-103 victory, a few things were evident.
One: Neither head coach seemed particularly interested in pretending to have a medical degree or a sixth sense, so both took a minimalist route in providing prognoses.
“I do not have any updates on anybody. We’re just going to go back to our cave and just recoup, and maybe I’ll have some information for you [Sunday],” Heat Coach Erik Spoelstra said.
And two: On Monday night, when the teams meet again, someone in the training rooms of TD Garden better have Tylenol (or something stronger) on deck. Maybe even Paul Pierce’s old wheelchair.
As for the players themselves, they will need to come prepared with ankles made of steel and adrenaline on a 10. And tape. Lots of athletic tape.
“You know, injuries are a part of the game,” said Heat point guard Kyle Lowry, who made his series debut Saturday night after he missed the past four playoff games with an ailing left hamstring. “That’s the part that sucks about the game, the injuries, and you know, this is tough.”
If you’re anything like Lowry — and not a sicko who could stomach watching the replay of Smart’s injury more than once — you also detest injuries. But at least in this series, the Heat and Celtics are turning pain into an art form.
Granted, any game loses appeal when a superstar such as Butler can play only limited minutes. And it’s no fun hearing the court microphones pick up Smart’s anguish as he squirms on the baseline. However, when so much about this series fails to meet the normal standard of postseason aesthetics — the Celtics treat the basketball as if it’s a plate that has just been nuked in a microwave; they turned it over 24 times Saturday — the players have forced us to marvel at their strength, endurance and particularly high thresholds for pain.
It started in the opener, when Heat forward P.J. Tucker left the court with an ankle injury that looked bad enough to keep him in the trainer’s room for at least the rest of the game. But he wouldn’t allow his rolled ankle to have the final word and came back to play 31 minutes in the Heat’s win.
“There’s a genie back there,” Tucker said after the game, explaining how he healed so quickly. “Took one of my wishes.”
If Tucker needed a genie, then maybe Lucky, the Celtics’ mascot, sprinkled magic dust on Smart’s foot after his fall. Early in the third quarter Saturday night, as Smart attacked the glass for a rebound, he and Lowry collided, and his foot landed in a way that a human foot shouldn’t.
Smart couldn’t put weight on the ankle as the trainers flanked him on both sides and helped him off the court. But there he was, just a few minutes later, hobbling through the hallway, a camera capturing his steps as he made his way back to the Celtics’ sideline. When fans inside the sold-out arena looked up and saw their hero on the overhead scoreboard, their roars seemed to collectively express: What?!? How!??!?
How in the world was Smart back on the floor? And checking into the game? And moving laterally on defense? And then on the other end, catching a pass in the left corner, pump-faking to his right to elude Victor Oladipo (a good defender, by the way) and drilling a three-pointer to cut the lead to 10?
Credit the magic of modern medicine — or Lucky’s healing powers — but Smart showed no noticeable shuffle in his gait as he tracked Tyler Herro, boxed out Bam Adebayo and goaded offensive fouls (see also: flopped) against any Heat player who forgot to read the scouting report. A lesser person, lacking a team of trained medical professionals paid to obsess over his body parts, would have been crying alone in the fetal position — not finishing the game with 16 points in nearly 37 minutes of action.
Tatum’s apparent shoulder injury in the fourth quarter seemed just as dramatic. So paralyzed in pain, Tatum never made it down the court after he lost the ball to Lowry. And he didn’t get back up when his teammates got a stop and hurried back to the offensive end. Instead, he hurled his leg in the air, twisting himself to lay on his left side while holding his right shoulder.
Following the game, Tatum would say the stinger he felt had originated in his neck and traveled down his arm. He, too, disappeared into the tunnel and headed to a back room where the medical staff “ran some tests.” Then, just like his teammate, Tatum made a triumphant return. Celtics fans again drenched their man with their shocked appreciation.
As the Heat and Celtics prepare for Game 4, the protagonists are looking more like Willis Reed impersonators than modern-day millionaires accustomed to load management. They’re playing through injuries and reminding us of the limits they’re willing to push just to make it to June. Their pain isn’t pretty, but they’re creating a memorable series that deserves our respect — and maybe its own insurance plan.