How the Celtics relied on their ‘defensive identity’ to dominate the Heat in Game 5 and extend their season

Boston Celtics head coach Joe Mazzulla is a man of few words. During her interview with TNT’s Allie LaForce between the third and fourth quarters of Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals on Thursday night, he only spoke 10. The top seven stood out.

“It just starts with our defensive identity,” Mazzulla said, when asked why the Celtics were the best version of themselves in a wire-to-wire, 110-97 win over the Miami Heat, which he kept alive their season and forced a Game 6 again in Miami on Saturday.

If you just scanned the box score, it might not look like this was a Celtics defensive masterpiece, but the Heat’s 51.3% shooting and 39.1% from the floor from 3-point range don’t tell the whole story. . Yes, they may have hit shots, but they never got into a comfortable rhythm due to pressure from the Celtics right off the starting point.

The Heat won that jump ball and tried to place Bam Adebayo with a post iso to the right side of the floor. Solo, Al Horford forced Adebayo to get the ball all the way to the 3-point line, which meant the Heat big man had to put the ball on the deck in center floor to reach the basket. It was a bad idea with Marcus Smart lurking; the Celtics guard went for a steal, dived to secure the loose ball, and found Jayson Tatum for a fast break layup.

“Physicality on the defensive end from the start,” said Grant Williams. “Intelligence set the tone on the first play of the game, which set up our defense for the rest of the game and we just need to keep up that pressure.”

The Celtics were totally locked out.

Their rallying points were in the backcourt or right in the midfield. They were making the Heat work just to get into their own sets, which then had to start further from the basket. Here’s an example of four first quarter possessions.

The Celtics were picking the Heat up early and making them work

They built up their early pressure by flying around the ball and being smart with when and where they helped. Here’s a play late in the first half where Jaylen Brown skips the fast lane for a steal and gets an easy layup on the break. This is all happening because Smart is ahead of Caleb Martin, which makes the initial move to the wing longer and more predictable, giving Brown a chance to time the steal.

In the third quarter, the Heat tried to set up Adebayo with Smart protecting him, then Horford ducks to the paint and double-teams hard. As Adebayo kicks out to Jimmy Butler, Derrick White has already slipped on his elbow to congest the lane Butler wants to enter and gets the steal.

On the occasions that the Heat managed to get into the lane, the Celtics’ discipline and rim protection made things difficult. While the Heat have shot the ball well overall, it has mostly been on hard jumpers; at rim they were just 17 for 26, a mark 65.4 percent below the league average, and in overall paint they were 26 for 47.

Only a few possessions, White plays tremendous defense and goes vertical to force a Butler error.

A few minutes later, Tatum does the same.

In the second half, White refused to bite a fake Butler, then Tatum stood up to contest a wild running layup by Max Strus.

“Yes, D-White, second team all defense this year for a reason,” Tatum said. “He’s a big part of our team, of our identity, of the things we try to do defensively. He’s a very smart basketball player on both counts, and his awareness, the instincts about him, showed tonight” .

The Celtics don’t have the same level of defense as they did last season, but they still finished second in the league in defensive standings and can dial in when needed. That’s just what they did in Game 5 with a brilliant display that seamlessly blended energy and organization. The result was 27 points on 16 turnovers, which included 13 steals.

And it’s that kind of intensity they’ll need more of in Game 6 if they are to become just the fourth team in NBA history to force a Game 7 after going down 3-0.

“We played with great intensity defensively, and I think we just set the tone from the jump,” Brown said. “We have to be able to do that and carry that into the next game. We have to expect their best punch in the next game.”

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