Twice in the afterglow of his team’s 121-108 victory over Miami to fend off elimination Friday in Game 5, Boston coach Brad Stevens stepped into the way-back machine and dialed in “1 Year, 0 days.”
It was a full year ago, Stevens was saying, that the Celtics gathered for their first workout in advance of this endless 2019-20 NBA season. That’s when they started from the ground up, emphasizing and drilling through repetition some pretty fundamental stuff, as far as playing the way Stevens wants his teams to play.
Like contesting shots. Attacking the rim. Turning defense into offense, preferably at a revved-up pace in transition.
So when he mentioned Sept. 26, 2019 — not once but twice — Stevens’ implication was that people should notice when the Celtics don’t do important things like that, rather than when they do in win-or-burst-the-bubble tests such as Friday.
“[Defense] is a huge emphasis for us, not only to stop the ball but [to] fire out and play with multiple efforts and challenge shots,” the Boston coach said. “All this stuff is kind of back to the basics. We need to be better, again, in Game 6.”
> Game 6: Celtics vs. Heat, Sunday 7:30 ET on ESPN
That comes Sunday, again on the Disney campus in central Florida (ESPN, 6:30 ET). But the Celtics had their hands full in Game 5, when their long season and postseason had drawn within 24 minutes of completion. Down 3-1 in the series, they trailed after the first half 58-51.
They weren’t just losing, they were being dispatched. At no point in the first two quarters had the Celtics led. They had fallen behind almost instantly, trailing 17-5 in the early minutes. The Heat had them in rebounds, fast-break points, second-chance scoring and a seven-point advantage from the line that accounted for the margin at the break.
The Celtics weren’t quite trudging to the gallows – they were energetic yet not efficient – but that’s where they surely seemed headed.
Then came halftime, when Stevens challenged them and then yielded to the team’s leaders. Point guard Kemba Walker in particular piped up.
“What I remember of halftime is Kemba saying we just need to settle down a little bit,” forward Jaylen Brown said. “We all felt the intensity that we all had in the beginning. I don’t think we came out flat. It was different from Game 4. We had the intensity. It was just kind of a little bit all over the place. We had to dial in a little bit.”
Boston dialed in a lot, playing their best stretch of basketball at least in the past two series and arguably in the bubble overall.
It was 60-51 when Brown stole the ball from Miami’s Bam Adebayo and, on a feed from Walker, finished at the other end. Then Marcus Smart got the ball away from Goran Dragic. No score after that one, but there was a newfound aggressiveness in the Celtics’ defense.
Over a span of 4:46 – from 10:25 of the third to 5:39, when coach Erik Spoelstra burned his second timeout of the quarter – the Heat made only one of nine field-goal attempts, six of which were 3-pointers.
Meanwhile, Boston was pushing into the paint, going to center Daniel Theis in the heart of Miami’s defense. The 6-foot-8 native of Salzgitter, Germany, in his third NBA season at 28, contributed six points, two offensive rebounds and a couple of blocks while playing all but 39 seconds of the quarter.
Theis had been averaging 6.5 points and 0.5 blocks per game through the series’ first four games. After being a cumulative minus-9 in those games, Theis was plus-16 Friday, behind only Walker’s plus-21.
Jayson Tatum, whose lights flickered on after halftime in Game 4, caught a spark again. His 10 points in the first two quarters were up to 27 by the end of the third. Walker stayed feisty despite lugging around three, then four personal fouls. Boston controlled the boards (16-5) in the quarter, and got into the bonus early to turn around the free-throw deficit.
During that same 4:46 span, the Celtics hit 7-of-10 shots and added four foul shots. They finally tied it 60-60, then took their first lead 24 seconds later after a Miami timeout. When Tatum caught a slick cross-court fling from Walker on the right wing and drained a three, Spoelstra huddled up again. It was 71-63, a 20-3 run that defined the game, and Boston never trailed again.
Nobody was playing the way that we have to play in order for us to win. Nobody.”
— Jimmy Butler
The Heat, while respecting Boston’s ability to turn the urgency of elimination into production at both ends, owned the failure.
“They started attacking. We stopped guarding,” Jimmy Butler said. “Never, never a good thing for us.
“Nobody was playing the way that we are supposed to play, the way that we have to play in order for us to win. Nobody.”
Boston did just that with its back-to-the-basics shifting of gears out of halftime. Through their first 15 games in these playoffs, the Celtics’ greatest trouble had come in third quarters; they were getting outscored by an average of 1.6 points in that period, vs. a scoring edge in the other three.
Then they come up with a 41-25 game-breaker.
“We looked like the team that we all know and love,” Brown said.
With a chance to do it again Sunday to earn a chance to do it one more time after that.
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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