“Don’t let us get one,” they said.
You probably snickered.
“Talk when you get two,” you said.
So what do we think of the Celtics now?
Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals wasn’t a game. It was a beating. Boston led by 15 after the first quarter. It was 17 at halftime and 18 at the end of the third, when Heat coach Erik Spoelstra told Jimmy Butler to call it a night. The Celtics made threes, 41% of them. The Heat committed turnovers, 16 of them, which Boston turned into 27 points.
“There's no excuses,” said Spoelstra. “The Celtics outplayed us tonight.”
“Our backs are against the wall,” said Boston coach Joe Mazzulla. “And we’re sticking together.”
No team in NBA history has come back from a 3–0 deficit to win a series. But are we starting to think the Celtics could? Miami had its way with the Boston in the first three games of this series. Jimmy Butler was the best player on the floor. But Jayson Tatum found his shooting stroke in Game 4. Grant Williams found a role. And the Celtics defense found its identity.
“I think once we got ourselves together,” said Jaylen Brown, “we all looked each other in the eyes and said ‘hey, we're not going out like this.’”
What is with these Celtics? For 57 games this season they looked like a title favorite. Tatum was an MVP candidate. Brown, All-NBA. The team had the best winning percentage since the Kevin Garnett/Paul Pierce years.
But in the playoffs they have been prone to clunkers. Game 5 against Atlanta. Game 5 against Philadelphia. In what seemed to be a must-win Game 3 against Miami, the Celtics didn’t show up.
“I wish I [knew] the answer,” said Tatum. “For some odd reason, even last year, we always seemed to make it a little bit tougher on ourselves. But what I do know is that you can see the true character of a person, of a team when things aren't going well, and our ability to come together, figure things out when it's not necessarily looking good for us, it's unlike any team I've been on this year and last year, just the core group of guys being able to respond.”
The defense did. Miami shot 51.9% from the field in the first three games. They connected on 47.4% in the last two. The Heat shot 47.8% from three in the three wins. In its two losses, 30.9%. On Thursday, Miami didn’t collect a second-chance point until midway through the fourth quarter.
“Their activity level has gone up the last two games,” said Spoelstra.
To say the least.
Marcus Smart was everywhere. Derrick White was brilliant. White scored 24 points. He was 6-of-8 from three. Butler finished with 14 points. For most of the game White was draped all over him. Tatum racked up 21 points. More impressive were the 11 assists. In the first three games, Boston shot 29% from three. In the last two it jumped to 40%. Over the last two games the Celtics have outscored the Heat 102–51 from beyond the arc.
“Spacing,” said Mazzulla. “When we play fast but organized, that's when we're at our best.”
And what about Mazzulla? Most of Boston has had him cleaning out his office by now. There were calls for Mike Budenholzer. For Nick Nurse. Even a reunion with Doc Rivers. But Mazzulla had the Celtics ready to play in the second half of Game 3. He had them energized from the start of Game 4. “One of our assistants put it in great perspective,” Mazzulla said. “The season [is] like nine months long, and we just had a bad week.” When TNT cut to a Boston huddle, Mazzulla could be heard urging the Celtics to be more physical. Each player made eye contact with him and nodded his head.
Mazzulla has now won four games when facing elimination, just the third rookie coach to do it. If he deserved the withering criticism he took after the first three games Mazzulla has earned praise after the last two.
Before the game, Mazzulla was asked how he dealt with the pressure. He revealed that he recently met three girls, all under the age of 21, who were living with terminal cancer. They talked about life. About death. About enjoying life, regardless. “I thought I was helping them by talking to them,” said Mazzulla, “and they were helping me.”
Miami isn’t finished. It still has two games to win one. “We are always going to stay positive,” said Jimmy Butler, “knowing that we can and we will win this series.” But Boston has momentum. It has confidence. On paper it is the better team. Over the last two games, it played like it.
“They let us get two,” Brown said. “Don’t let us get another one.”
It was funny once.
Now? Not so much.