boston celtics Head coach Joe Mazzulla is a man of few words. During his interview with TNT’s Allie LaForce between the third and fourth quarters of Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals on Thursday night, he uttered just 10 of them. The first 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 string-to-string, 110-97 victory over the Miami Heatthat kept his season alive and forced a Game 6 in Miami on Saturday.
If you just scanned the score box, it might not seem like this was a Celtics defensive masterpiece, but the Heat’s 51.3% shooting from the field and 39.1% shooting from 3-pointers don’t tell the whole story. Yes, they may have hit shots, but they never quite got into a comfortable rhythm due to pressure from the Celtics early on.
The Heat won that jump and tried to establish Bam Adebayo with an iso post on the right side of the floor. Only, Al-Horford forced Adebayo to catch the ball down to the 3-point line, which meant the Heat big man had to put the ball up the middle of the court to get to the basket. That was a bad idea with smart marcus Mouse Pad; Celtics guard searched for a steal, dove to secure the fumble, and found jayson tatum for a fast break layup.
“Physicality on the defensive end from the start” grant williams saying. “Smart set the tone on the first play of the game, which set up our defense for the rest of the game and we need to continue that pressure.”
The Celtics were totally locked in.
His pickup points were either in the backcourt or right down the middle of the court. They were making the Heat work just to get into their sets, which then had to start further from the basket. Here’s a sample of four possessions from the first quarter.
They built on 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 he skips the passing lane to steal and gets an easy fast break layup. All this happens because Smart is in caleb martin early, making the initial pass to the wing longer and more predictable, giving Brown the ability to time the steal.
In the third quarter, the Heat tried to set up Adebayo with Smart guarding him, so Horford slides into the paint and makes a tough double team. While Adebayo launches into jimmy butler, white derrick already slid into the elbow to congest the lane that Butler wants to drive in and gets the steal.
On the occasions when the Heat were able to get into the lane, the Celtics’ discipline and rim protection made things difficult. While the Heat shot the ball well overall, that was mostly on tough jumpers; at the rim they were just 17 of 26, a 65.4% mark that was below the league average, and in the paint overall they were 26 of 47.
Just a few possessions down, White plays tremendous defense and gets upright to force a miss from Butler.
A few minutes later, Tatum does the same.
In the second half, White refused to bite a Butler pump fake, then Tatum rose to his feet to contest a wild run layup from Max Strus.
“Yeah, D-White, defensive second team this year for a reason,” Tatum said. “He’s a big part of our team, our identity, the things we try and do on the defensive end. He’s a very smart basketball player on both ends, and his awareness, his instincts, showed up this evening”.
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 rating and can mark him when necessary. That’s exactly what they did in Game 5 with a brilliant display that perfectly blended energy and organization. The result was 27 points from 16 turnovers, which included 13 steals.
And it’s that kind of intensity they’ll need the most in Game 6 if they want to become the fourth team to nba history to force a Game 7 after falling 3-0.
“We played very intense on defense, and I think we 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 wait for his best shot next game.”