BOSTON – From a series sweep to a serious series, the Boston Celtics are transforming the Eastern Conference Finals.
They’re still in a big hole, but they won easily again on Thursday, 110-97, in Game 5 over the Miami Heat, with four of their starters scoring at least 20 points, and are now two wins away from the first team in NBA history to win a series after trailing 3-0.
Game 6 is Saturday at 8:30 p.m. in Miami. The Celtics won the last two games by a total of 30 points. Boston never trailed on Thursday, leading by as much as 24 — it was a 15-point game after the first quarter.
“It just says we have our backs against the wall and we will stick together and compete at a high level to give ourselves a chance,” said Boston coach Joe Mazzulla.
The Celtics’ backcourt of Derrick White and Marcus Smart easily had their best games of the series. They took advantage of Heat missing starting guard Gabe Vincent (sprained left ankle) and victimized Max Strus and Vincent’s replacement, Kyle Lowry.
White, who opened the conference finals as a reserve, led off with 24 points off six 3s, with two steals. Smart added 23 points (four times 3) and five steals.
“He just plays with a defensive versatility and he does a great job paying attention to detail on the tendencies of the staff,” Mazzulla said of White. And of Smart, he said: “He’s just an emotional key for us. When he’s locked up and plays both sides of the ball at a different pace, it kind of gives us our identity and our lives.”
Jayson Tatum almost reached a triple double (21 points, 11 assists and eight rebounds and Jaylen Brown added 21 points). of the game. The Celtics were already 15 ahead at the time and the closest they would get to the game was 11 points, in the second quarter.
Neither Bam Adebayo (16 points, eight rebounds) nor Jimmy Butler (14 points) played in the fourth quarter of this blowout. Miami turned to Haywood Highsmith for the first time in the series and he delivered 15 points from the bench, as did Caleb Martin (14 points) and Duncan Robinson (18 points).
Lowry and Strus gave the Heat little (together eight points on 3-of-10 shooting). Miami was another mess with turnovers (16 for 27 Celtics points), conceding 17 rematch points. Continuing another recent trend, the Celtics were hot again from 3-point range.
“Their activity level has gone up in the last two games, which is what you should expect in a competitive playoff series,” said Heat coach Erik Spoelstra. “And then we play in a crowd quite a bit. What good things can come out of that, if we read the game, read the coverage and take the right actions.
“But you have to give them credit for the activity,” Spoelstra continued. “They crammed us into the paint multiple times with quick hands, strip-downs, things like that. We have to support that. That’s two games in a row. We have to be aggressive and then make the right plays with the right distance.”
One more win would bring this series back to Boston for an improbable Game 7 on Monday, with a ton of history on the line and a place in the NBA Finals against the Denver Nuggets.
As you know, none of the 150 teams that trailed 3-0 in a series have come back to win. Only three teams have even forced a Game 7. It wasn’t that long ago that the Celtics were on the verge of being swept, with legitimate questions being raised about Mazzulla’s future in Boston and the future of the roster as it stands.
“Yeah, of course Game 3 was a tough one, but I mean we’ve been connected all year in the locker room, have each other’s backs and I was very confident that we’d come back and just compete,” said White . . “We’ve done that in the last two games.”
On the other hand, the Heat are (still) trying to become the second No. 8 seed ever to reach a Finals and the first since 1999. They go 0-for-2 in their first two cracks, and don’t want to see how 0-3 feels.
“The last two games are not who we are,” said Butler. “It just happened that way. We stopped defending half way through because we weren’t getting the shots we wanted to make. But that is easy to correct. You just need to come out and play harder from the jump. As I always say, it will be all smiles and we will keep it very, very, very consistent, knowing that we are going to win the next game.
Celtics look like themselves
It took the Celtics until the halftime of Game 4 to sort things out, but they brought together their wall-to-wall masterpiece in Game 5 to make the possibility of an 0-3 comeback seem alarmingly real.
Boston’s contentious shooting was unstoppably good, but their attention to detail and intensity in every aspect of their identity and scheme on both sides has returned in full force. — Weiss
Peak Boston Basketball
Tatum finally sorted out Miami’s defense and looks so comfortable drawing doubles and finding shooters. The team moves the ball with speed and decisiveness, and the defensive pressure was just right without overdoing itself. The individual defense on Butler and Adebayo was incredible, with Boston nailing its distance in the transition of their numerous deflections.
This is the pinnacle of Celtics basketball and it looks like they could make the biggest comeback ever if they keep this focus. — Weiss
Celtics play with intensity
The Celtics had the intensity from the start. On the first play, Smart hit the ball away from Adebayo and dove onto the field to take possession away. From there, Boston forced 15 more turnovers, including five more by Adebayo.
Boston actually got outscored after opening the game with a 20-5 run, but held onto a comfortable margin the rest of the way. Tatum didn’t have a big scoring game, but controlled everything with his offensive reads. — King
Why Heat struggled
The Celtics don’t give Adebayo a chance to do anything offensively, which is one of the ways this series has changed. After attempting just seven shots with four turnovers in Game 4, Adebayo had six turnovers on Thursday. Boston falls in on him and rids him of the ball.
Adebayo doesn’t make his move fast enough or doesn’t find the open teammate when the double team comes; partly because the Heat doesn’t move as much without the ball. On a night when Vincent was gone and in a season where Miami often used Adebayo to ease the offense, failing to get him going or find anything to counter the change in Boston’s defense was a recipe for the disaster that unfolded. — Vardon
(Photo: Winslow Townson/USA Today)