• Complete coverage: Heat-Celtics series
BOSTON – These teams, if not these precise players, have been through this before. Ten years ago, in the 2012 Eastern Conference finals, the Celtics came home from Miami with a 3-2 lead and a chance to close out the series in Game 6.
Then LeBron James happened. The Heat forward turned in an all-time timely performance of 45 points, 15 rebounds and five assists, outscoring Boston’s Big Three of Kevin Garnett (12), Ray Allen (10) and Paul Pierce (9) by himself.
Two nights later, James scored 31 to end Boston’s hopes of reaching the NBA Finals for the third time in five years. Instead, it was Miami going for a second consecutive year, en route to the first championship of its own Big Three (James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh).
Six years later, circumstances were similar except for James’ uniform and the locations. He was back with Cleveland when Boston reached Game 6 of the 2018 East finals with another 3-2 lead. He puts up 46 on the Cavs’ court, then goes to TD Garden and eliminates the Celtics with 35 points, 15 boards and nine assists.
One positive for Boston now is that no one on the Heat’s roster is playing like James. Another is that four current Celtics took their lumps in that series: Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Marcus Smart and Al Horford.
The overarching lesson? Don’t take this opportunity lightly.
“My rookie year, being up 3-2, you know, obviously different team now,” Tatum said. “I’m a lot better, [Brown] is. We’re just older. And we’ve been through those tough times.
“We can’t think that it’s over with. We need to go back home like we’re down 3-2, with that sense of urgency that it’s a must-win game, not relaxing because we’re up. … The job’s not finished yet.”
Miami, naturally, will be trying to make sure the Celtics never finish at all. Here are four things to heed as the teams meet for Game 6 Friday night at TD Garden (8:30 ET, ESPN).
1. Short leashes or dance with ones that brung ya?
Miami coach Erik Spoelstra will try to balance competing values as far as whom he uses and for how long. This is an elimination game, which suggests a short leash for players – even starters, established stars, leaders – if they’re misfiring, gimpy or otherwise performing poorly. Then again, there’s a reason certain guys are paid the big bucks, and they’ve earned the opportunity and trust to have the most important game of the season in their hands.
In other words, how long will Spoelstra stick with Kyle Lowry, Max Strus and even Jimmy Butler if they look as out of rhythm and play as unhelpfully as they have recently?
“All hands on deck for sure,” the Heat coach said in a Zoom call with reporters Thursday evening. “We’ll go with the rotation that we feel is best for [Game 6] and adjust on the fly if we need to. But we feel comfortable with everybody on our roster, and we have a bunch of competitors.”
Lowry and Strus, the starting backcourt, has shot a combined 1-for-28 the past two games. Strus is a novice at this level of spotlight and pressure and might just be wilting in the moment.
Lowry, though, is a seasoned vet with a championship ring (Toronto 2019) and no issues with big occasions; he simply is hobbled by a persistent hamstring strain. He hasn’t been aggressive at either end, largely has avoided attacking the paint and put up a ghostly line in Game 5: 0-for-6, one rebound, no assists, no points.
Butler missed the second half of Game 3 with right knee inflammation, and hasn’t looked right since. After scoring 41 points in the series opener and 29 in Game 2, he has averaged 9.0 since while playing without much bounce. He has missed 30 of 40 shots in that time. And Boston coach Ime Udoka acknowledged his team has been able to use big men to guard Butler, challenging his shot and his explosiveness.
So keep an eye on how quick Spoelstra is to sub out even his big names for survival’s sake.
2. When you score more, you defend better
This was the Heat’s downfall Wednesday night. The Miami players sputtered so badly for so long that their poor offense crept into their heads, then crossed halfcourt and infested their defense.
Spoelstra and the players attributed it to an energy drain – all those missed shots, particularly that 7-for-45 3-point disaster, wore on them and slowed them up at the other end. They got away with it for a half, but when nothing changed for them offensively after halftime and Boston perked up, the sag in spirit and focus led to a 32-16 shortfall in the third quarter.
“I feel like when we missed shots, it alters our defense,” center Bam Adebayo said. “We’ve got to play through that. Even though we’re not making shots, we’ve still got to get stops.”
Said Spoelstra: “Those last probably three or four minutes of the third and into the fourth, I think the consecutive missed shots, open shots, started to affect us on the other end and we started to break down a little bit.”
Heckuva time to curl up in a fetal position, two victories from the Finals, unless Heat players feel overmatched or know they’re too hurting.
3. When you defend better, you score more
This was Boston staking out the other side of the same coin. One thing Udoka has achieved during the Celtics’ calendar-2022 turnaround is selling them on a defense-first mentality. They scored just 37 points in the first half and had gotten up 14 fewer shots (34 to 48) by that point, but saw sunlight in Miami’s 37.7% shooting and modest 42 points at the break.
“We rely on the defensive end. Know our offense will pick up eventually,” Udoka said. “When we get the stops to get out and run, we’re kind of a lethal team on both ends.”
He added: “To hold them to that number in the first half when we weren’t playing our best offensively… That travels well with us. We knew we were guarding at a high enough level that if we just turned the corner offensively, we would be in good shape.”
How does Boston turn that corner? Taking care of the ball. In their three victories, the Celtics have had 31 turnovers worth 28 points to Miami. In the two defeats, 40 turned into 52 points.
Udoka had a conversation with Jaylen Brown in particular Wednesday, who was back to some bad habits in the first half. He was trying to dribble through help defenders, causing him to cough up the ball four times in the first half. In the second half, he had no giveaways, while scoring 19 points.
The Celtics found their groove with a 12-4 spurt early in the third quarter. Then came the 24-2 smackdown across the quarter break. It will be on Miami in Game 6 to avoid what has become a defensive web by Boston, limiting the Heat to 182 points in the past two games.
“The mental stress and strain we put on some teams with our defense has worked and carried us through the playoffs at times,” Udoka said. “You saw in the Brooklyn series guys started to wear down. Game 7, Antetokounmpo slowed down some. But having all those bodies to continue to throw at people wears down on them physically and mentally.”
4. Throw out the injury reports
It’s possible that somebody won’t play in Game 6 due to ongoing injuries. Miami’s Tyler Herro, for instance, has missed two games in a row with a groin issue, and about half of Miami’s roster was listed as questionable Thursday evening. Lowry, Strus, P.J. Tucker and Gabe Vincent also carried the questionable tag, though Butler curiously was not listed at all.
“Y’know, I don’t even look at that list anymore,” Spoelstra said, adding that the team complies simply to avoid a league fine.
Neither Marcus Smart nor Robert Williams III was 100% Wednesday, though Smart (ankle) was the more limited with five points on 1-for-5 shooting. Williams (knee) loomed large for a guy who took two shots and scored six points in 26-plus minutes. He grabbed 10 rebounds and blocked three shots – including Gabe Vincent’s 3-pointer, closing a big gap horizontally and vertically – to live rent-free in Miami shooters’ heads.
The Miami center feasted in Game 3 when Williams was out, with 31 points on 15-for-22 shooting. The rest of the series, Adebayo has averaged 10.8 points on 17-for-30 shooting and in Game 5 got pushed (or pushed himself) farther from the rim.
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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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