“Don’t let us have one,” they said.
You probably laughed.
“Talk when you have two,” you said.
So what do we think of the Celtics now?
Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals was not a game. It was a beating. Boston led by 15 after the first quarter. They were 17 at halftime and 18 at the end of the third, when Heat coach Erik Spoelstra told Jimmy Butler to end the night. The Celtics made triples, 41% of them. The Heat committed turnovers, 16 of them, which Boston converted into 27 points.
“There are no excuses,” Spoelstra said. “The Celtics outplayed us tonight.”
“Our backs are against the wall,” Boston coach Joe Mazzulla said. “And we stick 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 do it? Miami got away with Boston in the first three games of this series. Jimmy Butler was the best player on the court. But Jayson Tatum found his shot in Game 4. Grant Williams found a paper. And the Celtics defense found his identity.
“I think once we got together,” Jaylen Brown said, “we all looked into each other’s eyes and said ‘hey, we’re not going out like this.'”
What is with these celts? Through 57 games this season they looked like title favorites. 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-have Game 3 against Miami, the Celtics did not appear.
“I wish I [knew] the answer,” Tatum said. “For some strange reason, even last year, we always seemed to make it a little harder for 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, work things out when it doesn’t necessarily look good for us, is unlike any team in The one I’ve been this year and last year, just the core group of guys who can answer.”
The defense did. Miami shot 51.9% from the field in the first three games. They connected to 47.4% in the last two. The Heat shot 47.8% from three in the three wins. In his two losses, 30.9%. On Thursday, Miami didn’t accumulate a second-chance point until midway through the fourth quarter.
“His activity level has gone up in the last two games,” Spoelstra said.
To say the least.
Marcus Smart was everywhere. Derrick White was brilliant. White scored 24 points. He went 6 for 8 on three. Butler finished with 14 points. For most of the game White covered him completely. 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%. In the past two games, the Celtics have outscored the Heat 102–51 from beyond the arc.
“Spaced out,” Mazzulla said. “When we play fast but organized, that’s when we’re at our best.”
And Mazulla? Most of Boston has already had him cleaning his office. There were calls for Mike Budenholzer. To Nick Nurse. Even a reunion with Doc Rivers. But Mazzulla had the Celtics ready to go 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, and we just had a bad week.” As TNT cut to a Boston meeting, Mazzulla could be heard urging the Celtics to be more physical. Each player made eye contact with him and nodded.
Mazzulla has now won four games when facing elimination, only the third rookie coach to do so. If he deserved the withering criticism he received after the first three games, Mazzulla has earned praise after the last two.
Before the game, Mazzulla was asked how he deals with 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,” Mazzulla said, “and they were helping me.”
Miami is not over. He still has two games to win one. “We will always stay positive,” Jimmy Butler said, “knowing that we can and will win this series.” But Boston has momentum. Have confidence. On paper it is the best team. In the last two games, he played like this.
“They let us have two,” Brown said. “Don’t let us get another one.”
It was fun once.
Now? Not so much.