BOSTON — The Boston Celtics are halfway through the story.
When they woke up Tuesday morning, the Celtics were down 3-0 in the Eastern Conference Finals. He is now 3-2 and the series will head back to Miami for what should be an intense Game 6 on Saturday (8:30 am Italian time, TNT).
The defending Eastern Conference champions came out strong in Game 5, never trailed, and stayed alive (again) with a 110-97 win that wasn’t all that close. Boston led by at least 15 points the entire second half… until Miami put together four clean scores.
After a great first three games, Boston looked a lot more like a No. 2 seed playing a No. 8 seed. The Celtics are still behind in this series, but given how well they’ve played in their last two games, the impossible seems much more likely.
“I think once we got together,” Jaylen Brown said after Game 5, “we all looked into each other’s eyes and were like hey, we’re not going out like this.”
Here are some notes, quotes, numbers, and footage from a game that made the Celtics just the 15th team (out of 151 applicants) in NBA history to force a Game 6 after trailing 3-0…
1. So this is the team that finished second in defense
They say defense wins championships. And turning a 3-0 series into a 3-2 series, the Celtics played a league-level defense. Game 4 was the Heat’s least efficient offensive game of the postseason (18 games total, including the play-in). And Game 5, when you subtract their nine junk points, was nearly as inefficient (87 points on 81 possessions).
Miami was missing Gabe Vincent, who averaged 17.5 points on 58% shooting (including 11-of-22 from 3-point range) in his first four games and twisted his left ankle in the fourth quarter of Game 4. Celtics were largely responsible for their opponents’ struggles.
“Their activity level has increased over the past two games,” said Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, “and that’s what you should expect in a competitive playoff series.”
The Celtics weren’t terrible defensively through their first three games. They were good enough to force the Heat into many late hour situations. During Game 4, Miami had taken *29% of his shots in the final seven seconds of the shot clock.
* That’s far higher than the highest regular season rate for any team (24% – Philadelphia) and more than double the Celtics’ rate in their first four games (14%).
Game 5 was much the same, plus a reduction in 3-point volume and a lot of turnovers. The Heat’s 23 3-point attempts were fourth fewest in a game this season and fewest since before the All-Star break. Their turnover of 16 wasn’t a playoff high, but their 13 live-ball turnovers (all committed in the first three quarters) have ranked second in a game this season (100 total games). Live ball turnovers, of course, create transition opportunities, which make the Celtics offense much easier.
The Celtics managed to put pressure on the perimeter, while not being tapped in the paint. The Heat ranked 25th offensively in the regular season, but they are never easy to defend.
“Those guys are playing at an incredible pace,” Brown said. “The pace they play is somewhat similar to the Warriors. They run to their seats. They snap out of screens. They find those pockets. They move. You can’t blink because they will transfer, you’ll lose a shooter for a three, so you have to be disciplined. You must be healthy, you must chase those boys, because they will run all night. You must bring your own trainers.
The Celtics are now 4-0 as they face elimination in these playoffs, having allowed just 100.3 points per 100 possessions in those four games. This is elite defense…that wasn’t around when their season wasn’t on the line.
2. Heat’s big two come up empty
The Heat have a guy who can beat a great defense with a great offense. But Jimmy Butler had a quiet night, scoring just 14 points (his lowest playoff total) on 5-for-10 shooting. He was just 2-for-5 in the paint and attempted just six free throws.
According to Second Spectrum tracking, Butler had just three isolations Thursday after averaging 18.3 in his first four games. Lui continued to attack Derrick White, but White held on long enough to avoid it being a necessary match for the fit…
“Our offense has been a little disjointed,” Spoelstra said when asked about Butler’s lack of offense. “We weren’t able to start our attack, get the ball where we needed it to go to the spots where you could operate. If we can get Jimmy into his comfort zones and strength zones more consistently, he’ll be fine.
Bam Adebayo couldn’t rally the game, scoring just 16 points on 8-for-15 shooting. He’s not a scorer like Butler and had a flurry of points from catching and in transition as the Heat scored on six consecutive carries in the middle of the third fourth. But when Adebayo was asked to handle the ball, the Celtics attacked and he committed six of his team’s 16 turnovers.
“You have to give them credit for the business,” Spoelstra said. “They stuck us several times in the paint with quick coats, stripteases, stuff like that. We have to shore it up. It’s two games in a row. We have to be aggressive and then make the appropriate plays with adequate spaces.
3. Getting the Readings Right, Part II
Through his first four games, Brown shot just 39%, including 3-of-25 from 3-point range. And he didn’t get off to a good start in Game 5, airballing his first field goal attempt and going 1-of-4 in the first quarter. Luckily for the Celtics, he turned the tables later, finishing with 21 points on 9-of-18 shooting, making as many 3s in the first 15 minutes of Game 5 (3-for-4) as he had in Games 1-4. combined.
More importantly, both Brown and Jayson Tatum continued to make good reads instead of bad shots…
The Celtics have certainly played harder on defense in the last two games of this series, but they’ve also figured out how to best attack the Miami defense.
“The last two games we’re quickly getting the lead,” Boston coach Joe Mazzulla said, “and then there’s the two-on-one, and then we read the two-on-one. When we play fast but organized, that’s when we are at our best.”
“You know exactly where to attack,” Brown said. “You know exactly where to take advantage of your matchups and you kind of allow an aggression to settle in, and that’s what Miami wants to do. They really want to attack you defensively. They want to get you in trouble. They want to be really aggressive with the ball, and because we’ve been taking our time, being patient and seeing the play, the play is starting to come to us.
The results are a more egalitarian offence. Tatum is an elite scorer and Brown can make tough shots, but the Celtics are at their best on offense when the ball moves, the seams are attacked, and everyone looks good.
Tatum finished with 11 assists, tied for third most in his career (532 total games). And he created more buckets than that, attacking weak spots in Miami’s defense and shooting the ball wide when he saw a second defender…
Sure, it helps when other guys shoot. And in Game 5, White and Marcus Smart were a combined 10-of-14 3-pointer, each scoring more points than their two All-NBA teammates.
“It’s a long series,” Tatum said, “and you’re going to need big games from different guys at different points in a series. That’s why it’s a team sport. You need everyone to be great at some point, and Smart and D-White is why we won tonight. Those two guys, their ability to shoot tonight, spread the defense and then make plays on the defensive end.
4. Good for both offenses
On Tatum’s “hockey assist” above, the weak spot in Miami’s defense was Kevin Love. At times, it was Cody Zeller, who was absolutely burned by Tatum pick-and-roll on two consecutive carries (one, two) late in the first quarter. (Zeller can at least say he has something in common with Kia MVP Joel Embiid: In the last game he played, neither could contain Tatum.)
Other times, the weak point was Duncan Robinson. And as happens almost every time he plays, it’s good to ask yourself which attack is happiest to have Robinson on the pitch?
The Heat tried to hide Robinson in their zone defense, which they played for most of the second and fourth quarters. But he had problems there too, picking up five fouls in his 28 minutes.
Still, Thursday Robinson was terrific on offense, scoring 18 points on 7-of-10 shooting. And only two of those seven field goals came from beyond the arc. As noted, the Celtics dispatched the Heat from the 3-point line, but Robinson was able to score on the inside. He even outplayed Al Horford in isolation in the fourth quarter.
Robinson has been scaring the shit out of opposing defenses with his moves and 3-point shooting since the last time (2020) the Heat went to the Finals. But he made 88 percent of his 3-point shooting that year and is now evolving into more of a double threat, putting the ball down and scoring inside the arc.
“Two or three years ago, everyone was pretty busy getting him off the three-point line,” Spoelstra said ahead of Game 5. “He had to work on different ways to still help our offense, which he always does.”
5. Two down…
The Celtics were the much better team in the regular season, and they were the much better team in their last two games. They definitely have the ability to win any game these two teams play, and probably Should win any game played by these two teams.
This was only the third team in the 27 seasons we have play-by-play data to finish in the top two at both ends of the field. The other two – the 2014-15 and ’16-17 Warriors – won the championship. The Heat, meanwhile, had the worst regular season winning percentage among the 151 teams that held a 3–0 lead in a best-of-seven series.
Yes, the Celtics Candies do it… as long as they can keep their foot on the gas.
Having a chance to make NBA history and reach the Finals should certainly be carrot enough to keep them focused for another 96 minutes of basketball. They played great defense every time their season was put on the line.
But playing hard consistently has been a problem for the Celtics most of the season, and bad habits can come back to bite you at the wrong time. Shouldn’t Games 1-3 of the Conference Finals have been big enough to play that hard?
The Celtics are halfway through the story, but Game 6 in Miami should be the toughest of the four games to come by.
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John Schuhmann is a senior statistics analyst for NBA.com. You can email him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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