YOU LOVE ME – The locker room wisdom that kept the Boston Celtics thinking for games 4 and 5 of their Eastern Conference Finals series against Miami came from an unassuming source. Matt Reynolds, a member of coach Joe Mazzulla’s staff, spoke after Tuesday morning’s movie session.
“Don’t ruin the season with a bad week,” said one of the players, recalling Reynolds’ message.
Simple yet profound, that observation fit for a fortune cookie took the Celtics’ mind off their miserable 0-3 start to the series and the team they had been, and how they had played, for most of this 2022 season- 23. They’ve gotten much more aggressive defensively, packing up the lane to annoy the Heat on the inside. They stopped putting up early pitches, were careful with the ball, and started trusting each other again, which set them back with back-to-back wins, 116-99 on the Heat’s home court on Tuesday and 110-97 in the TD Garden Thursday.
What Boston faces now, however, may require someone with more oratory skills. No offense to Reynolds, but this seems like a job better suited to a guy like Winston Churchill, the statesman who coached Britain through WWII relying on a good cigar and a BBC radio mike.
Here’s one of Churchill’s quotes that seems more relevant now: “When you go through hell, carry on.”
Having to enter the arena in Miami, still down 3-2 and faced Saturday night (8:30 am Italian time, TNT) from a fully engaged and flustered Heat team, it’s definitely a version of basketball hell. Virtually no room for manoeuvre, no margin for error, already 96 minutes and, to be successful, another 96 are missing.
Of course, the Celtics have momentum in the series and seem to have rediscovered the best of themselves. They are, by consensus, the most talented team and have been putting those talents to good use lately.
But Boston’s face-saving raise in virtually the last six of 16 quarters so far in this contest — they were down 56-50 at halftime in Game 4 — has led to some irrational exuberance. The possibility that the Celtics could do something no NBA team in 150 previous attempts has done — dig out of a 3-0 hole to win a playoff series in seven games — is now being discussed as if it were a foregone conclusion. Such is the likelihood of playoff basketball: the hot hand and the latest narrative rule.
The reality, however, is that Miami gets Game 6 at home, the first of two chances yet to eliminate the Celtics and advance to the NBA Finals for the second time in four postseasons. Boston and its fans would switch positions in a heartbeat. Having spent the better part of the last couple of weeks as first runners in this thing, there’s a sense of urgency that comes back for the Heat, a condition they typically respond well to.
Guard Gabe Vincent, who pushed Miami’s pace averaging 17.5 points and hitting half of his 22 3-pointers in his first four games, missed Game 5 but his sprained left ankle is improving. RPGs Caleb Martin and Max Strus may feel more comfortable at home again. And the Heat may have run into more help as forward Haywood Highsmith, after logging only token minutes earlier Thursday, shot to a good 36 minutes for 15 points.
Above all, the two leaders of the Heat, Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo, face the biggest challenges. Neither of them played in the last quarter in the last game, their team’s fate is sealed, their performance mediocre. Adebayo had 16 points and eight rebounds, as well as six turnovers. Butler caught just 10 shots, scored 14 points, was team worst minus 24. Playoff Jimmy? More like Play-In Jimmy.
None of the Heat sounds like they’re accepting the idea that this, Game 6, is already their Game 7. That is, losing on Saturday and losing in Boston on Monday is assured. Butler and Adebayo don’t confuse Game 6 with anything else. They don’t anticipate needing a game 7, a vast difference from feared.
“We will always stay positive, knowing that we can and will win this series,” Butler said. “We’ll just have to lock it at home.”
Adebayo said: “Why should we lose faith? When we started this journey, nobody believed in us. Everyone thought we’d go out in the first round. Everyone thought we’d go out in the second round. And now we’re here a game away. For us, we’ve always had faith and that won’t go away.
One tactic Boston might want to try is to force Butler to stand guard and give him a few boos. So far, the Heat forward has shot 38 free throws while committing just seven fouls. He stays on the floor as long as Miami needs him to be.
The Celtics, meanwhile, have been riding a happy wave of triples. They went 34 to Miami’s 17 in games 4 and 5, a 51-point lead. In the first three games, the Heat led by more than 39 points. Boston has yet to prove it can win a close game or one where its bombs aren’t landing. Will Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart and Derrick White have the same bounce, the same energy on the other end?
These are the sorts of things that will determine whether this is the series finale or whether the teams play again on Monday with the story on the line. Basketball factors and individual performance, not hunched shoulders or odds-maker odds.
“Who cares about mood?” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said late Thursday. “I think a lot of this is overstated. It’s a competitive series. You always expect things to be challenging in the conference finals. One game does not lead to the next game. Based on all the experience we’ve had, it doesn’t matter in the playoffs. It doesn’t matter if you lose for any reason.
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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can email him here, find his archive here, and follow him on Twitter.
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