BOSTON — From a series sweep to a serious series, the Boston Celtics are transforming the Eastern Conference finals.
They’re still in a big hole, but they won again easily Thursday, 110-97, in Game 5 over the Miami Heat, with four of their starters scoring at least 20 points, and are now two wins from becoming the first team in NBA history to win a series after trailing, 3-0.
Game 6 is at 8:30 p.m. Saturday in Miami. The Celtics have won the last two games by a combined 30 points. Boston never trailed Thursday and led by as many as 24 – it was a 15-point game after the first quarter.
“It just says that our backs are against the wall and we’re sticking together and we’re competing at a high level to give ourselves a chance,” Boston coach Joe Mazzulla said.
The Celtics’ backcourt of Derrick White and Marcus Smart easily had their best games of the series. They took advantage of the Heat missing starting guard Gabe Vincent (sprained left ankle) and victimized Max Strus and Vincent’s replacement, Kyle Lowry.
White, who opened the conference finals as a reserve, went off with 24 points on six 3s, with two steals. Smart added 23 points (four 3s) and five steals.
“He just plays with a defensive versatility and he does a great job paying attention to detail on personnel tendencies,” Mazzulla said of White. And of Smart, he said: “He’s just an emotional key for us. When he’s locked in and playing both sides of the ball at a different pace, it kind of gives us our identity and our life.”
Jayson Tatum nearly reached a triple double (21 points, 11 assists and eight rebounds and Jaylen Brown added 21 points.) Tatum got it going for Boston with 12 in the first, including a dunk with 3:18 left that prompted Miami’s second time out of the game. The Celtics were already up 15 by then and the closest the game would get was 11 points, in the second quarter.
Neither Bam Adebayo (16 points, eight rebounds) nor Jimmy Butler (14 points) played in the fourth quarter of this blowout. Miami turned to Haywood Highsmith for the first time in this series and he delivered off the bench with 15 points, as did Caleb Martin (14 points) and Duncan Robinson (18 points).
Lowry and Strus gave the Heat little (combining for eight points on 3-of-10 shooting). Miami again was a mess with turnovers (16 for 27 Celtics points) and gave up 17 second-chance points. The Celtics, continuing another recent trend, were hot again from 3-point range.
“Their activity level has gone up the last two games, and that’s what you have to expect in a competitive playoff series,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “And then we’re playing in a crowd quite a bit. Which there can be some good things from that, if we read the game, read the coverages and make the appropriate plays.
“But you have to give them credit for the activity,” Spoelstra continued. “They jammed us up several times in the paint with quick hands, strip-downs, things of that nature. We have to shore that up. That’s two games in a row of that. We do have to be aggressive and then make the appropriate plays with appropriate spacing.”
Just one more win would bring this series back to Boston for an improbable Game 7 on Monday, with a ton of history on the line as well as a berth in the NBA Finals against the Denver Nuggets.
As you know, none of the 150 teams who fell behind 3-0 in a series have come back to win. Only three teams have even forced a Game 7. It was not long ago the Celtics were on the verge of being swept, with fair questions being asked of Mazzulla’s future in Boston, and of the future of the roster as it stands.
“Yeah, obviously Game 3 was a tough one, but I mean, throughout the whole year we’ve been connected in the locker room, have each other’s backs, and I was confident that we would come back and just compete,” White said. “We’ve been doing that for these last two games.”
On the other side, the Heat are (still) trying to become the second No. 8 seed ever to reach a finals and the first since 1999. They’re 0-for-2 in their first two cracks at it, and do not want to see what 0-3 feels like.
“The last two games are not who we are,” Butler said. “It just happened to be that way. We stopped playing defense halfway because we didn’t make shots that we want to make. But that’s easily correctable. You just have to come out and play harder from the jump. Like I always say, it’s going to be all smiles and we are going to keep it very, very, very consistent, knowing that we are going to win next game.”
Celtics look like themselves
It took the Celtics until halftime of Game 4 to figure things out, but they put together their wall-to-wall masterpiece in Game 5 to make the possibility of an 0-3 comeback look shockingly real.
Boston’s contested shooting has been unsustainably good, but their attention to detail and intensity in every aspect of their identity and scheme on both ends has come back in full force. — Weiss
Peak Boston basketball
Tatum finally solved Miami’s defense and looks so comfortable drawing doubles and finding shooters. The team is moving the ball with speed and decisiveness, and the defensive pressure has been just right without overextending themselves. The individual defense on Butler and Adebayo has been incredible, and Boston is nailing its spacing in transition off their countless deflections.
This is the peak of Celtics basketball, and they look like they can pull off the greatest comeback ever if they just sustain this focus. — Weiss
Celtics play with intensity
The Celtics had the intensity from the start. On the first play, Smart knocked the ball away from Adebayo and dove on the court to take away the possession. From there, Boston forced 15 more turnovers, including five more by Adebayo.
Boston was actually outscored after opening the game on a 20-5 run but held a comfortable margin the rest of the way. Tatum didn’t have a big scoring game but controlled everything with his offensive reads. — King
Why Heat struggled
The Celtics aren’t giving Adebayo to do anything on offense, which is one of the ways this series changed. After attempting just seven shots with four turnovers in Game 4, Adebayo had six turnovers Thursday. Boston is collapsing on him and stripping the ball from him.
Adebayo isn’t making his move fast enough or finding the open teammate as the double team comes; in part because the Heat aren’t moving as much without the ball. On a night where Vincent was out, and in a season where Miami often used Adebayo to facilitate the offense, failing to get him going or find something to counter the Boston change on defense was a recipe for the disaster that unfolded. — Vardon
(Photo: Winslow Townson / USA Today)