• Complete coverage: Eastern Conference finals
BOSTON — If someone steps onto a podium after Game 5 in these Eastern Conference finals and starts yammering about how his team got embarrassed last time and thus wanted “it” more, please unplug his microphone. That tired storyline isn’t sufficient any longer.
“This is nothing about a matter of want,” Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said after his team allegedly didn’t “want” to play harder or better with a more satisfying result in a pivotal Eastern Conference finals game.
Skip that narrative and focus on these five takeaways from the Celtics’ 102-82 victory over the Heat in Game 4 Monday night at TD Garden, pulling even at 2-2 in the best-of-seven series:
1. After 4 games, no real trends yet
When an NBA playoff series reaches 2-2, turning itself into a best-of-three, you’d figure to have had some nail-biters. Some last-second heroics. Maybe a buzzer-beater, or a game won late by some key defensive stop.
Well, that ain’t this series.
Here’s a rundown of how oddball and lopsided, in an equilibrium sort of way, the 2022 Eastern Conference finals have been so far:
• One team or another has led by huge margins in each game. The Heat were up 20 in Game 1, the Celtics led by 34 in Game 2, Miami got up 26 in Game 3 and Boston pushed in front by 32 in Game 4. Tilting to and fro, you’d think someone might have gotten seasick by now.
• As a result, there have been precious few lead changes or ties. In fact, over the past 144 minutes, there have been just one of each and none at all in Games 3 and 4.
• Boston missed 26 of its 3-point attempts Monday, getting outscored by Miami (14-for-36) in that category by 18 points. Yet it still won the game by 20.
• Miami’s starting lineup combined for a mere 18 points, shooting 7-for-36 as a group. The 18 points were the fewest by a starting five in a playoff game since the NBA began distinguishing between starters and bench players back in 1970-71, according to ESPN Stats.
• The last one-possession game in the final two minutes in this postseason was back on May 11 — Game 5 between Boston and Milwaukee — so the Heat and the Celtics have company in this all-or-nothing tendency.
• Since there has been a newfound fascination with counting quarters in this series, the latest count shows Boston with nine, Miami with four and three ties. Which only shows the folly of counting quarters.
Spoelstra suggests that people judging by the final scores, though, might be missing just how close this whole thing has been. Tricky logic but Spoelstra made his case late Monday.
“What you’re looking at is a great series,” he said. “The scores and that kind of thing doesn’t really give the true indication of how competitive it is. It can get away from either team at any time.”
As long as it’s on an A/B pattern, the team that most recently got smacked will be doing the smacking 48 hours later.
“It’s wild, right?” Miami’s Victor Oladipo said.
Said Spoestra: “You know, sometimes when you have two really competitive teams, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to be a one-point game. It means that it can be flammable either way. Both teams are ignitable.
“Whatever they have done to us, we can do to them.”
2. Welcome to Celtics lore, Mr. White
It’s no wonder Celtics guard Derrick White has been suffering from a little “new guy” anxiety. He began this season, his fifth, in San Antonio, only to get traded in February for a package of two players and two first-round picks. That meant upheaval and pressure to live up to that hefty price tag.
White arrived to a role completely different from what he filled with the Spurs. After starting 155 games with San Antonio, he started just four times in the 26 appearances he made for the Celtics. Marcus Smart was Boston’s fixture at point guard, on his way to being Kia Defensive Player of the Year, and that was that.
Derrick White told us he was going to come out ultra-aggressive in Game 4, and he backed up his words by setting the tone in our series-tying rout of the Heat.https://t.co/UlkSnr0dWi
— Boston Celtics (@celtics) May 24, 2022
“You kind of get thrown in the middle of the year, no training camp, nothing,” White said after his winning Game 4 performance. “They’ve got something that they’ve established, been playing I don’t know how many months together throughout the year. You kind of just learn it on the fly, try not to step on any toes, which kind of sets you back personally.”
Along the way, some Celtics teammates gave him pep talks, trying to hasten White’s learning and comfort curves.
“Just letting him know that he can be comfortable with us,” center Robert Williams III said. “Letting him know he’s welcome. I tried to do that since the day he got here. It’s hard, especially middle of the season, coming to a team. You see guys laughing, joking, playing; you’re the new guy.
“So I just try to let him know we’re thankful for him. Welcome to this brotherhood. Speak up when you see something. Don’t be scared.”
Actions speak louder than words. White got tossed into the deep end of the pool Monday, having to fill in for the injured Smart (ankle). All he did was come out on blast, scoring Boston’s first seven points in a start that eventually ballooned to 18-1. He finished with 13 points, eight rebounds, six assists and three steals.
“I said this morning, if I was going to fail, I was going to do it aggressively and just try to get back to how I play,” White said.
Said Celtics coach Ime Udoka: “With him, it was just a matter of understanding who we are here, the difference from San Antonio where (coach Gregg Popovich) is on him about not fouling, I want us to be a little more aggressive and don’t mind taking a foul or two. So he’s had to shift his mindset.”
3. Bad math: 18 points in 48 minutes
Just when you figured the ugliest numbers would come from the Heat’s ice-cold start — that 18-1 deficit and 0-for-14 early shooting — the Miami starters go and make bad history.
A lack of “purposeful execution” on offense, Spoelstra termed it.
“You could pick any player on our roster,” he said. “We are built to really flourish together and utilize all of our menu and our weapons.”
Or, apparently, die by the sword too.
Let’s just say that, on a night when Miami’s starting lineup picked a bad time to go lame, it didn’t help that the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year – Heat wing Tyler Herro – wasn’t available due to a groin injury.
4. Horford’s performance told the tale
There are moments in the second half when Boston’s big lead ebbed and flowed when veteran big man Al Horford seemed to be stabilizing the whole arena. Had this one somehow slipped away, so would the Celtics’ postseason. Horford refused to let that happen by leading the way in two huge areas: rebounding and defense.
The player who scored only five points, taking but two shots, grabbed a game-high 13 boards. He also blocked four Miami shots, delighting the Garden crowd with each one. As a team, Boston out-rebounded the Heat 60-39 and had 11 blocks to the other guys’ two.
5. We know nothing of what’s going to happen in Game 5
There has been momentum, no carryover, no tells for what might happen in this series from one game to the next. The surface narrative says Miami will feel urgency while Boston faces complacency, but that’s really kind of pitiful when we’re taking about the conference finals, right?
Instead, let’s just wait for the injury reports in the days ahead. Then, with the series shifted to South Florida for Game 5 on Wednesday (8:30 ET, ESPN), we can watch these teams reinvent themselves all over again. All we know for sure is that whatever worked last game ain’t working this game.
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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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