MIAMI — The Boston Celtics are one win away from their first trip to The Finals in 12 years.
Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals was another tale of two halves, a rock fight that turned into a blowout. After scoring just 37 points on 46 possessions (0.80 per) in the first half, the Celtics scored 56 points on their first 41 possessions of the second half to leave the Miami Heat in the dust.
“We knew we were guarding at a high enough level,” Celtics coach Ime Udoka said afterward, “that if we just turned the corner offensively, we would be in good shape.”
Jaylen Brown had four turnovers in the first quarter, but finished with a game-high 25 points, making some tough shots as the Celtics pulled away. Jayson Tatum was dealing with more pain in his shoulder and didn’t shoot well, but he finished one assist away from a triple-double.
Here are some notes, numbers and film from the 93-80 victory that gave the Celtics a 3-2 series lead.
1. Both teams banged up, but one played healthier
For the first time in this series, the Celtics had all of their top seven guys available. But they weren’t 100% healthy. Tatum (who injured his shoulder in Game 3) looked to be in pain early and often. Robert Williams III (playing his ninth game since returning from knee surgery) was not available to start the third quarter and was noticeably limping late in the fourth. Marcus Smart was still affected by the ankle injury he suffered in Game 3.
Still, Tatum played the first 22:28 of the second half, only going to the bench for garbage time. His 44:25 for the game was the 10th most minutes he’s played in his career (432 total games: regular season and playoffs). And from the looks of it, the Celtics were the healthier team.
The Heat’s Tyler Herro missed his second straight game, dealing with a groin issue. Based on how Kyle Lowry (hamstring issue) and Jimmy Butler (knee injury) played, it’s safe to assume that neither is anything close to fully healthy. Lowry was 0-for-6, with zero assists and three turnovers in 25 minutes. Butler was 4-for-18.
“We are not going to make any kind of deflection or any kind of excuse,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said, refusing to answer questions about his players’ limitations. “Boston beat us tonight. And let’s be clear about that.”
“I’ve been playing terrible,” Lowry admitted. “It is what it is. I’m out there, so I’ve got to do a better job.”
Butler echoed Lowry’s sentiments.
“If I’m out there,” he said, “I’ve got to do better. I’ve got to find a way to help us win, and I haven’t been doing that. I’m fine. My knee is okay. I’ve just got to do better. It’s no excuse.”
2. Worst case scenario for the Miami offense
This is why, before this season started, many may have doubted the Heat’s ability to compete for a championship. They had some fearsome defenders, but they seemingly had a low ceiling on offense, with two starters — Butler and Bam Adebayo — who don’t shoot well from the outside and a third (P.J. Tucker) who just doesn’t shoot much at all.
The Heat managed to rank 12th offensively in the regular season, actually leading the league in 3-point percentage (37.9%), with some breakout seasons from Max Strus, Gabe Vincent and Caleb Martin. But they’ve now been held under 90 points per 100 possessions in back-to-back games.
Their 7-for-45 (16%) from 3-point range was their worst beyond-the-arc performance in more than three years (since Jan. 2019), but the Heat shot relatively well from deep (14-for-36, 39%) in Game 4 and still couldn’t crack 90 per 100. And the Celtics have found success by keeping Butler and Adebayo away from the basket and daring them to shoot from 10 or more feet out.
Most of the time, those guys have shied away from those short jumpers. Here was one first-quarter example where Butler rolled into open space and didn’t even look at the basket …
“Really Butler wasn’t looking to score,” Udoka said. “He was more of a screener, making plays in the pocket. He was slipping behind some of our switches. We wanted to keep a big on him, play him like a big, play him in more traditional drop coverage.”
The Heat’s best offense in Game 5 came via offensive rebounds. Their 24 second-chance points were the most they’ve recorded since Game 4 of the first round. But their first-chance offense was brutal for the second straight game.
Miami has been held under 90 points per 100 possessions five times this season, twice in the regular season and three times in the playoffs. Three of those five games, including Games 4 and 5 of this series, have come against the Celtics.
3. Max Strus can’t make a pull-up 3
Lowry wasn’t the only Heat starter to miss all of his shots on Wednesday. Strus was 0-for-9, including 0-for-7 from 3-point range.
In the regular season, Strus shot well on both catch-and-shoot 3-pointers (41.3%) and pull-up 3-pointers. He was 28-for-73 (38.4%) on the latter, a mark which ranked 20th among 142 players with at least 50 pull-up attempts.
Though he was 0-for-5 in Game 5, Strus is still a decent 37-for-99 (37.4%) on catch-and-shoot 3s in the playoffs. But he’s now 5-for-28 (18%) on pull-up 3s, the second worst mark among 24 players who’ve attempted at least 25. (Herro has the third worst mark at 7-for-35.)
With opposing defenses working harder to take away the Heat’s favorite actions, a greater percentage of Strus’ 3s have been off the dribble in the playoffs (22%) than they were in the regular season (17%). But the Celtics have also been OK with Strus shooting open 3s off the dribble.
With the Boston bigs in drop coverage, the Heat know they can get open jumpers by setting screens along the sideline, where there’s no extra defender to stunt at the shooter. And on Miami’s second possession of Game 5, Strus got a wide-open look when Brown was hit by Adebayo’s screen and Al Horford hung back in the drop. Strus just couldn’t knock it down …
After an offensive rebound and a Boston foul, the Heat ran a sideline screen for Butler on the other side of the floor, and he bricked a wide-open, pull-up, mid-range attempt.
The Celtics were the most switch-heavy team in the regular season. They’ve defended a lot differently in this series, and the Heat haven’t been able to make them pay for it. They also haven’t been able to make them pay for just playing soft man-to-man defense against almost half the Miami rotation.
4. Heck of a halftime speech
The Celtics’ offense was even worse than that of the Heat in the first half, in part because they had 10 turnovers. The second half (56 points on 46 possessions) wasn’t their most efficient 24 minutes of this series, but it was more than enough given what was happening on the other end of the floor.
As you might expect, the Boston offense fed off its defense. After scoring on a designed play (see below) on their first possession of the third quarter, the Celtics got a fast-break and-one from Brown. Another and-one on the break later in the quarter, this one from Horford, gave them the lead for good.
And then they scored 20 points on their final 12 possessions of the period, taking advantage of mismatches and a lot of fouls from the Heat. With another stretch of 14 points on five possessions early in the fourth, the Celtics suddenly had a 23-point lead.
Boston made some tough shots, but they also executed really well. One Tatum iso turned into a Tatum catch-and-shoot 3, thanks to a Stephen Curry-esque relocation and a drive-and-kick delivery from Horford …
5. Some ATO goodies
Three of the Celtics’ scores in the second half came after timeouts. And all three were well-designed and well-executed sets.
The first was their first play of the third quarter. It’s a play they often run for Robert Williams III, but this time, they ran it for Horford. He first set a ball screen for Smart that Adebayo switched. That put Lowry on the big man (Adebayo’s switching can have repercussions), and when Tatum set a back-screen, Tucker stayed attached to the screener. Lowry was able to maintain contact with Horford, but didn’t see the pass and was just too small …
Late in the third quarter, the Celtics got a wide-open corner 3 for Grant Williams after a timeout when Brown drove baseline and drew help from Duncan Robinson …
Early in the fourth, a slower-moving ATO resulted in another corner 3, this one from Brown, who read Butler trying to shoot the gap …
According to Synergy tracking, the Celtics have been the No. 1 team out of timeouts this season (regular season and playoffs combined), scoring 1.03 points per chance.
Big picture: the Celtics have been the best team in the league for the last four months, and this group is now one win from its first trip to The Finals since 2010. It’s fair to assume that TD Garden will be, as the kids say, “lit” for Game 6 on Friday (8:30 ET, ESPN).
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