BOSTON — The Boston Celtics are halfway to history.
When they woke up Tuesday morning, the Celtics were down 3-0 in the Eastern Conference Finals. Now, it’s 3-2, and the series is heading back to Miami for what should be an intense Game 6 on Saturday (8:30 ET, TNT).
The defending Eastern Conference champs came out hot in Game 5, never trailed, and stayed alive (again) with a 110-97 victory that wasn’t that close. Boston led by at least 15 points for the entire second half … until Miami put together four straight garbage-time scores.
After a stunning first three games, Boston has looked a lot more like a No. 2 seed playing a No. 8 seed. The Celtics are still behind in this series, but given how well they’ve played over the last two games, the impossible looks a lot more likely.
“I think once we got ourselves together,” Jaylen Brown said after Game 5, “we all looked each other in the eyes and said hey, we’re not going out like this.”
Here are some notes, quotes, numbers and film from a game that made the Celtics just the 15th team (of 151 candidates) in NBA history to force a Game 6 after trailing 3-0.
1. So this is the team that ranked second defensively
They say that defense wins championships. And in turning a 3-0 series into a 3-2 series, the Celtics have played championship-level defense. Game 4 was the Heat’s least efficient offensive game of the postseason (18 total games, including the AT&T Play-In Tournament). And Game 5, when you subtract their nine garbage-time points, was nearly as inefficient (87 points on 81 possessions).
Miami was missing Gabe Vincent, who averaged 17.5 points on 58% shooting (including 11-for-22 from 3-point range) over the first four games and turned his left ankle in the fourth quarter of Game 4. But the Celtics were largely responsible for their opponents’ struggles.
“Their activity level has gone up the last two games,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said, “and that’s what you have to expect in a competitive playoff series.”
The Celtics weren’t terrible defensively through the the first three games. They were good enough to force the Heat into a lot of late-clock situations. Through Game 4, Miami had taken *29% of its shots in the last seven seconds of the shot clock.
* That’s much higher than the highest regular-season rate for any team (24% – Philadelphia) and more than double the Celtics’ rate through the first four games (14%).
Game 5 was more of the same, plus a reduction in 3-point volume and a whole lot of turnovers. The Heat’s 23 3-point attempts were their fourth fewest in a game this season, and their fewest since before the All-Star break. Their 16 turnover weren’t their most in the playoffs, but their 13 live-ball turnovers (all committed in the first three quarters) were tied for their second most in a game this season (100 total games). Live-ball turnovers, of course, create transition opportunities, which make the Celtics’ own offense a lot easier.
The Celtics managed to apply pressure on the perimeter, while not getting taken advantage of in the paint. The Heat ranked 25th offensively in the regular season, but they’re never easy to defend.
“Those guys, they play at an incredible pace,” Brown said. “The pace they play at is kind of similar to the Warriors. They sprint to their spots. They sprint off screens. They find those pockets. They relocate. You can’t blink because they’ll relocate, you’ll lose a shooter for a three, so you’ve got to be disciplined. You’ve got to be sound, you’ve got to chase those guys, because all night they’re going to be running. You’ve got to bring your track shoes.”
The Celtics are now 4-0 when facing elimination in these playoffs, having allowed just 100.3 points per 100 possessions over those four games. That is elite defense … that hasn’t been there when their season hasn’t been on the line.
2. Heat’s big two come up empty
The Heat do have a guy who can beat great defense with great offense. But Jimmy Butler had a quiet night, scoring just 14 points (his lowest total of the playoffs) on 5-for-10 shooting. He was just 2-for-5 in the paint and attempted just six free throws.
According to Second Spectrum tracking, Butler had just three isolations on Thursday after averaging 18.3 through the first four games. He continued to attack Derrick White, but White held his own enough to keep that from being a adjustment-needed matchup …
“Our offense was disjointed a little bit,” Spoelstra said when asked about Butler’s lack of offense. “We weren’t able to initiate our offense, get the ball where we needed it to go in spots where you could operate. If we can get Jimmy in his comfort zones and strength zones more consistently, he’ll be just fine.”
Bam Adebayo couldn’t pick up the slack, scoring just 16 points on 8-for-15 shooting. He’s not a scorer like Butler and he did have a flurry of points off the catch and in transition when the Heat scored on six straight possessions midway through the third quarter. But when Adebayo was asked to handle the ball, the Celtics attacked, and he committed six of his team’s 16 turnovers.
“You have to give them credit for the activity,” Spoelstra said. “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.
3. Making the right reads, Part II
Through the first four games, Brown was shooting just 39%, including 3-for-25 from 3-point range. And he didn’t get off to a good start in Game 5, airballing his first shot attempt and going 1-for-4 in the first quarter. Fortunately for the Celtics, he turned it around after that, finishing with 21 points on 9-for-18, making as many 3s in the first 15 minutes of Game 5 (3-for-4) as he had in Games 1-4 combined.
More important was that both Brown and Jayson Tatum continued to make good reads instead of taking bad shots …
The Celtics have definitely played harder on defense over the last two games of this series, but they’ve also figured out how to best attack the Miami defense.
“The last two games we’re getting the advantage quick,” Boston coach Joe Mazzulla said, “and then the two-on-ones are there, and then we’re reading the two-on-one. When we play fast but organized, that’s when we’re at our best.”
“You know exactly where to attack,” Brown said. “You know exactly where to take advantage of your matchups and kind of allows an aggressiveness to level out, and that’s what Miami wants to do. They want to really get after you on defense. They want to put you in bad spots. They want to really be aggressive on the ball, and as we’ve taken our time and being patient and seeing the game, the game is starting to come to us.”
The results are a more egalitarian offense. Tatum is an elite scorer and Brown can make tough shots, but the Celtics are at their best offensively when the ball is moving, seams are being attacked, and everybody’s getting good looks.
Tatum finished with 11 assists, tied for the third most in his career (532 total games). And he created more buckets than that, attacking the weak spots in the Miami defense and getting off the ball when he saw a second defender …
Of course, it helps when the other guys make shots. And in Game 5, White and Marcus Smart were a combined 10-for-14 from 3-point range, each scoring more points than their two All-NBA teammates.
“It’s a long series,” Tatum said, “and you’re going to need big games from different guys at different points of a series. That’s why it’s a team sport. You need everybody at some point to come up big, and Smart and D-White is the reason we won tonight. Those two guys, their ability to hit shots tonight, spread out the defense, and then making plays on the defensive end.”
4. Good for both offenses
On the “hockey assist” from Tatum above, the soft spot in the Miami defense was Kevin Love. At times, it was Cody Zeller, who got absolutely torched by Tatum in the pick-and-roll on two straight possessions (one, two) late in the first quarter. (Zeller can at least say that he’s got something in common with Kia MVP Joel Embiid: In the last game each played, neither could contain Tatum.)
Other times, the weak spot was Duncan Robinson. And as is the case almost every time he plays, it’s good to ask which offense is happier to have Robinson on the floor?
The Heat tried to hide Robinson in their zone defense, which they played for most of the second and fourth quarters. But he even had trouble there, picking up five fouls in his 28 minutes.
Still, Robinson was terrific offensively on Thursday, scoring a team-high 18 points on 7-for-10 shooting. And only two of those seven field goals came from beyond the arc. As noted, the Celtics ran the Heat off the 3-point line, but Robinson was able to score inside. He even drove past Al Horford on a fourth-quarter isolation.
Robinson has been scaring the bleep out of opposing defenses with his movement and 3-point shooting since the last time (2020) the Heat went to the Finals. But he took 88% of his shots from 3-point range that year and he’s now evolving into more of a dual threat, able to put the ball on the floor and score inside the arc.
“Two or three years ago, everybody was pretty committed to getting him off the three-point line,” Spoelstra said before Game 5. “He had to work on different ways to still help our offense, which he always does.”
5. Two down …
The Celtics were the much better team in the regular season, and they’ve been the much better team over the last two games. They certainly have the ability to win any game that these two teams play, and they probably should win any game that these two teams play.
This was just the third team in the 27 seasons for which we have play-by-play data to rank in the top two on both ends of the floor. The other two — the 2014-15 and ’16-17 Warriors — won the championship. The Heat, meanwhile, had the worst regular-season winning percentage of the 151 teams that have held a 3-0 lead in a best-of-seven series.
Yes, the Celtics can do this … as long as they can keep their foot on the gas.
Having the chance to make NBA history and reach the Finals should certainly be enough of a carrot to keep them focused for another 96 minutes of basketball. They’ve played great defense every time their season has been on the line.
But playing hard consistently has been an issue for the Celtics for most of the season, and bad habits can come back to bite you at the wrong time. Shouldn’t Games 1-3 of the conference finals been important enough to play this hard?
The Celtics are halfway to history, but Game 6 in Miami should be the toughest of the four games to get.
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John Schuhmann is a senior stats analyst for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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