Celtics ‘Steal’ Game 5 to Stay Alive

BOSTON – Right from the opening tip of Game 5, Marcus Smart let the Miami Heat know that they were about to be in for a long Thursday night at TD Garden.

Smart set the tone on the very first possession, stripping Bam Adebayo’s game-opening drive, diving on the loose ball, and then feeding Jayson Tatum for the game's first points via a fastbreak layup.

That tenacious play kickstarted a 23-7 Celtics run to open the latest chapter of the Eastern Conference Finals. They never looked back as they cruised to a 110-97 win, avoiding elimination for the second straight game.

Smart knew what he was doing, opening the game like that, laying out the blueprint for success for his teammates.

“They understand that, 'OK if he’s going to play like that, I gotta follow,' ” Smart said.

Tatum agreed, “That was contagious.”

From that point forward, the ball never seemed safe in Miami’s possession. The Celtics wound up collecting 13 steals – their most in a single-game effort in 2023 – with every member of the starting lineup snagging at least one.

Smart, unsurprisingly, led the way with a playoff career-high of five steals to go along with 23 points and a game-best plus/minus of plus-20.

“We picked our spots, we picked our pressure up and that was really it,” Smart said of his team forcing 16 Heat turnovers. “Our mindset changed. We can’t let these guys get comfortable. They’re really good when they’re comfortable and they’re a really good team, so we have to make everything as difficult as possible.”

The C’s, admittedly, made things difficult on themselves early in the series with uncharacteristically lackluster defense. They posted a defensive rating of 124.4 in the first three games, resulting in three straight defeats.

However, in the last two games, their defense has returned to its dominant ways, posting a defensive rating of 108.3. It all started in the second half of Game 4 in Miami and then carried through the entirety of Game 5.

“I think we played 48 minutes,” said Jaylen Brown, one of four Celtics to surpass 20 points in the scoring column and also a collector of three steals. “We played with great intensity on defense, and I think we just set the tone from the jump, and we've got to be able to do that and carry that over into the next game. We have got to expect their best punch next game.”

The next game will be played Saturday night in Miami where the Heat will enter desperation mode, hoping to avoid a return trip to Boston for a potential Game 7.

The Celtics have to be ready for Miami’s counterpunch after winning the last two games by double digits, and they know that this hungry Heat team is capable of delivering. After all, the C’s are just two games removed from a 26-point blowout defeat.

However, the Celtics seem to have turned a page since that troublesome Game 3 effort, and they’ve been playing some of their most connected basketball of the season over the last six quarters with their backs against the wall.

They just need to do it for eight more and they’ll be out of this hole.

“Obviously, we didn't imagine being in this position, being down 3-0, but when adversity hits, you get to see like what a team is really made of,” said Brown, whose team hopes to pull off the first reverse sweep in NBA history. “I mean, it couldn't get no worse than being down 3-0, but we didn't look around, we didn't go in separate directions. We stayed together. We doubled down on what we're good at on defense, and now I think it's a series. We've just got to take it one game at a time and keep playing.”

As we saw in the second half of Game 4 and the first half of Game 5, it all starts with setting the tone on defense.