Playoffs 2020 | East Finals: (3) Celtics vs. (5) Heat

'Heat culture' will be tested by resurgent Celtics in Game 6

Everybody talks about it when the Miami Heat win. Nobody brings it up when they lose.

So we’ll have to wait until Sunday night, when Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals is over to know whether “culture” made a difference or not.

What the Heat and their most fervent supporters call culture, other teams refer to as standard operating procedures. Or rules, policies, standards, habits, traditions or “the way we do things around here.”

Some don’t even talk about that stuff at all, because they’re too busy trying to find opportunities and fix what’s broken on the fly in an NBA playoff series. Against a formidable opponent, the Boston Celtics, who could talk morning till night about the culture they have as a city and as a franchise, without altering the fact that they trail 3-2 in the best-of-seven series.

> Game 6: Celtics vs. Heat, Tuesday at 7:30 ET on TNT

The Celtics staved off elimination Friday in Game 4 because they defended more extensively, attacked the rim, took better care of the basketball than they had been, and likely had an adrenaline boost from staring in the face their season’s potential demise. They’ll have to do it again Sunday (TNT, 7:30 ET) and, if successful, again on Tuesday.

“Every game is hard,” said Boston coach Brad Stevens, in a Zoom conference with reporters. “Every time you play a playoff game, it’s its own entity. It’s not as much about momentum as it is making sure you do what you do best as much as you can and create a momentum in that game.’

Similarly, Miami needs to counter whatever revived hope and momentum the Celtics have not with culture but by addressing slippage and failures from what had worked so well in their 10-1 postseason start.

The Heat have dropped two of the past three in the series, culture not withstanding. It hasn’t been center Bam Adebayo’s fault, as he nobly claimed late Friday. And it had nothing to do with responding or not to veteran forward-slash-semi-coach Udonis Haslem’s exhortations during a second-half timeout.

Miami got a little lulled by its potent first half, 58 points that coach Erik Spoelstra feared might tempt his players to relax defensively. The team’s 3-point shooting continued its slide — 3-for-18 in the second half. And Jimmy Butler, so lauded for his leadership between games and closing ability late in games, wasn’t up to the job Friday.

“We weren’t communicating,” Butler said. “We weren’t as aggressive on either end of the floor, and they were way too comfortable.”

Our guys are like a powder keg. They can explode at any time.”

— Heat coach Erik Spoelstra

Spoelstra expressed utmost confidence in his shooters Saturday. “Our guys are like a powder keg,” he said. “They can explode at any time.” But after 14 playoff games, this is looking like a legit trend.

The Heat shot 39.1% from the arc in the first round against Indiana, 37.3% in the conference semifinals against Milwaukee and now 30.1% against Boston. During the regular season, Miami ranked second overall at 35.4%.

Factor in Boston’s prowess at contesting on the perimeter and that’s a problem. The Celtics ranked fourth in defensive field goal percentage overall in 2019-20 and second vs. 3-point attempts.

Among the Heat’s rotation guys, Jae Crowder is making only 26.2% (11-42 3Ps) and guard Goran Dragic is at 32.4% (11-34). As electric as rookie reserve Tyler Herro’s 37-point performance was in Game 4, he’s shooting an OK 35.0% (14-40). Even sniper Duncan Robinson is down by his standards — after hitting 47.0% during the season, he tops Miami at 35.7% (15-42).

“They’re very good at defending the 3-point line,” Spoelstra said. “They’ve taken us off of some of our normal rhythm 3s. We’ve also missed some open ones.”

While it’s true Miami’s shooters could go off at any time, they probably don’t want to wait until Game 8.

Then there’s Butler, who has been praised for his knack of knowing what his team needs at any given point in a big game. Except what the Heat needed in Game 5 was more production than Butler’s second half of three points on 1-for-5 shooting with no rebounds and three assists.

After that finish, Butler got asked about how he would counsel Adebayo to stop blaming himself. It’s a different sort of leadership Miami needs from Butler at this point to get that proverbial toughest victory of the four.

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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