MIAMI — For a night, the Boston Celtics said no to becoming No. 151.
It’s not a rallying cry with much rhythm or magic to it — don’t expect to see that splashed across t-shirts laid out at every seat in TD Garden for Thursday’s Game 5 (8:30 ET, TNT) — but not becoming the NBA’s latest playoff sweep victim was as good as anything else the Celtics had Tuesday. For now, the number of teams in league history that lost a best-of-seven series after digging themselves a 3-0 hole remains frozen at 150.
No one ever has come back, but with their 116-99 victory at Kaseya Center, the Celtics still have a chance.
“We want to come back to Miami,” Boston’s Jaylen Brown said. “If that happens, I feel like we’ll feel good about ourselves.”
Boston’s goals have grown smaller, its vision more narrow given its ongoing predicament. “Unfinished Business?” That theme for the 2022-23 season of returning to the NBA Finals and this time winning the championship has been dialed back to just, y’know, winning one home game in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Still, as someone once bellowed on Boston’s basketball court some years ago, anything is possible. In the meantime, here are five takeaways from a game that, for a little longer, kept the Denver Nuggets’ dance card open for next week’s Finals.
1. The Celtics nearly waited too long
Down 3-0 in the series and by nine points early in the third quarter, Boston faced a now-or-never challenge. Miami had shooed them away like so many flies a couple times in the first half and, at 61-52, looked ready to start the clinching party.
That’s when Jayson Tatum hit a pair of 3-pointers, Derrick White hit another out of a timeout and the Celtics kept going. They scored 18 in a row to flip that deficit of nine points into a lead of nine. Defensively they stiffened, draining a little life out of the Heat and much fun out of the building. They moved the ball and, by that, moved the needle, never trailing again.
For the first time this series, they looked like the team that won 57 games in the regular season to earn the East’s No. 2 seed, the team that got past the Atlanta Hawks and Philadelphia 76ers to loom as Finals favorites until three consecutive meltdowns.
Word was the Celtics had a team gathering at a nearby Top Golf after their Monday film session. It was time better spent than making summer vacation plans.
“Just coming together, talking it out,” Brown said, “and like a lot of times when you get to this point down 3-0, you see locker rooms and teams start to go in the other direction. We want to make sure that we stayed together. We wanted to make sure that we looked each other in the eye and came out today and put our best foot forward.
“I’m proud of our group for doing that because you see teams with their back against the wall and you see they just collapse. You didn’t see that tonight.”
2. Calling timeouts: A+
One hundred and one games into a season/postseason might seem a little late to be handing out grades to a coach for something as simple as calling his timeouts wisely. But given Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla’s battle with that seemingly basic sideline tactic, it’s worth noting how well he did in this one.
Mazzulla — the former assistant who slid over one chair when Ime Udoka was suspended and ultimately fired for violating team policy with an improper office relationship — had been slow on the timeout trigger from the start. His preference to let his players figure their way out of jams was reminiscent of the great Phil Jackson’s patience with Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, and later Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant. But these Celtics are younger and less accomplished than those NBA legends, and the strategy seemed to fail as often as it worked, right through the first 18 games of the playoffs.
Twice in Game 4, though, Mazzulla was timely in getting a break. In the third quarter, he used one to bail out Brown from a pressured situation. In the fourth, he got Tatum back on the court after a couple ugly opening minutes as Miami crept within 88-83.
The first one saved a possession and got the Celtics revved up defensively. The second one got them moving again offensively. Together, they demonstrated good things that can come out of huddles, which too often have been conspicuous by their absences.
“Just wanted to make sure we got a good shot on that,” Mazzulla said of the third-quarter timeout. “I felt like the possessions before that didn’t go well defensively. Wanted to reset a little bit.”
Said Tatum of the break early in the fourth: “They was playing zone, and quite frankly we kind of struggled against the zone the first couple games. So it kind of had us stagnant. When I came back in, he just drew up a play to get some movement, finding open space and then make the right play. I shot the ball, and it went in.”
Simple stuff, but what happens on the sideline can make such a difference in what happens between the lines.
3. Another visit to Boston before booking Denver
Everywhere Heat coach Erik Spoelstra looked, he could find problems. Boston got out in transition better than it previously had in the series, with 18 fast-break points to Miami’s 10. The Celtics had more possessions thanks to having fewer turnovers. And after Boston shooters collectively made only 29% of their 3-pointers across the first three games, this time they had a breakthrough. The Celtics hit 18 of their 45 3-pointers (40%) with five players making three or more. Miami took 32, but made just eight.
Overall, the Heat coach bemoaned the lack of juice in his team’s offense.
“Played a little bit slower,” Spoelstra said. “And yeah, there wasn’t a lot of flow to the offense, and then they capitalize on that. Getting out in transition, which they have been trying to do. Speed this thing up a little bit and then they knock down some 3s.”
That was in the third quarter, after which Boston got more assertive and, in general, more familiar with the faces looking back from the mirror. Miami tried but couldn’t derail the visitors or fully find its own rhythm. In getting outscored by 15 in the third quarter, it missed 14 of its 22 shots. The fourth was worse, missing 12 of 18. Could be the rarefied air of holding that 3-0 lead threw off the south Florida team that embraces the underdog role.
“All year long,” Jimmy Butler said, “we’ve been better when we’ve had to do things the hard way.”
It just got a little bit harder.
4. Celtics’ “others” win this battle
Miami’s supporting cast has drawn loads of attention this series, due to their productivity and their back stories. Gabe Vincent, Caleb Martin, Max Strus and Duncan Robinson all went undrafted, all wound up on the Heat roster and all four played vital roles in the first three games. Their combined scoring: 61.3 points per game.
But it was Boston’s secondary stars and role players who got to shine Tuesday. Marcus Smart, Al Horford, Derrick White and Grant Williams combined for 53 points to the Miami four’s 44, providing just enough support for Tatum (33) and Brown (17). Williams’ contribution — 14 points in 29 minutes — was another marker of sorts given Mazzulla’s spotty use of him at various times this postseason.
“His professionalism is underrated,” Smart said. “We talk a lot about Grant, but we love Grant and we love everything he brings to this team.”
Williams, who took so much grief for “poking the bear” with Game 2’s head-bumping confrontation with Butler, got the bear good in the fourth quarter. Butler tried to get up a shot from the right baseline and Williams swatted it the instant it left his hands.
5. Forcing Game 5: Pride or hope?
The Celtics had talked tough at shootaround Tuesday morning. “Don’t let us get one,” Smart had said. “Don’t let us win tonight,” was Brown’s variation. At the time it seemed mostly to be a pep talk to themselves, some bravado to motivate themselves rather than intimidate Miami.
The question now is, were the Celtics just saving face with their performance Tuesday or did they find some answers? The Heat have no reason — yet — to be nervous and they looked it, with Butler and others smiling and yakking as the final moments ticked away. The Celtics are at least one more victory away from putting any pressure on the Heat.
And the history stuff isn’t comforting: Of the all teams that started a series down 3-0, 44 (29.3%) managed to force a fifth game. But only 11 (7.3%) made it to a Game 6 and only three (0.2%) were able to tie their series before getting eliminated anyway.
Still, Boston gets to play one more, at least, on its parquet floor. It can try, a bit earlier this time, to replicate what it pulled off in the semifinals against the Sixers – fend off elimination on the road, then win decisively at home.
And if all goes well enough for the Celtics, they can plant a seed in the Heat players’ minds about maybe, just maybe, becoming the first team to blow a 3-0 series lead. A 1-150 all-time mark would look and feel considerably different to these two crews.
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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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