We have ourselves a series.
After dropping the first three games of the Eastern Conference Finals, the Celtics that looked like the best team in the NBA for stretches in the regular season have shown up the last two games. On Thursday night they took a double-digit lead early and turned Game 5 into a “sit your stars in the fourth” win for Boston 110-97 (and it wasn’t that close).
Miami still leads the series 3-2 and should be the favorite to advance, but doubt is creeping into Heat Nation. The Heat need to close this out Saturday in Game 6. Otherwise all bets are off.
Here are three takeaways from Game 5.
1) It was the best of Boston…
Those of us who picked the Celtics to win this series did so because they had two elite stars, great depth, the third-best defense in the NBA this season and plenty of shooting. They were the better team, both on paper and during the regular season.
What we expected was the team that didn’t show up until the second half of Game 4. There is something about these Celtics — for the past few years, through three different coaches — where they need to make it hard on themselves, put their backs against the wall, before they played at their peak.
“I didn’t know the answer,” Jayson Tatum said postgame about why that is. “For some odd reason, even last year, we seemed to always make it tough on ourselves. But I do know you can see the true character of a person, of a team, when things aren’t going well.”
That elite team showed up again from the opening tip of Game 5, which is why Boston had a double-digit lead midway through the first that lasted until the final minutes of garbage time.
Everything went right for the Celtics in the first half. Jaylen Brown found his shot and had 15 points (3-of-5 from 3). As a team the Celtics shot 11-of-25 from 3 (44%). Their defense was sharp leading to 10 forced turnovers, which allowed them to get some easy transition buckets. They handled the Heat zone (hitting the 3s helped there). They had eight offensive rebounds for 13 second-chance points.
The Celtics were up 61-44 at the half. Maybe the hottest Celtic on the night was Derrick White, who had 24 points by the time the final buzzer sounded.
Let’s take another look at that Derrick White buzzer beater pic.twitter.com/mTD4u3UQSr
— Celtics on NBC Sports Boston (@NBCSCeltics) May 26, 2023
Most of what worked for Boston continued after the break, to the point Erik Spoelstra chose not to play Jimmy Butler or Bam Adebayo in the fourth quarter, resting their legs for Game 6 on Saturday. In the end, the Celtics have four players scoring 20+ points (White, Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum).
The Celtics did an excellent job on Adebayo, who was allowed to attack in isolation early in the series but is now finding multiple defenders on his drives. Boston is doing much better at shrinking the floor. Also defensively, Robert Williams has handled switches much better in the last couple of games.
Offensively, everything worked. The Celtics’ two offensive bellwethers are 3-point shooting (16-of-39 for the game, 41%) and Tatum getting downhill and attacking (5-of-6 shooting in the paint for the game, he was aggressive). Both were on display Thursday.
If Boston can do those things in Game 6, we likely see a Game 7.
2) It was the worst of the Heat
One off game in a series, especially when up 3-0, happens. Game 4 was forgivable if not ideal for the Heat.
Game 5… that was a punch to the gut. Miami still leads the series 3-2, but Boston has confidence heading into a critical Game 6. The Celtics have upped their intensity and level of play in the last two games and the Heat need to match it.
Two straight ugly losses for the Heat, has that impacted the team’s mood?
“Who cares about mood?” Erik Spoelstra asked? “We have a gnarly group. I think so much of that is overrated. It’s a competitive series. You always expect things to be challenging in the Conference Finals. One game doesn’t lead to the next game… We beat them by whatever in Game 3. It just doesn’t matter. It’s about collectively preparing and putting together a great game. We’ll play much better on Saturday.”
It’s not a short list of things Miami needs to turn around in Game 6:
• Stop turning the ball over (16 turnovers, 11 in the first half, gave the Celtics momentum).
• Attack and get to the free throw line
• Jimmy Butler has to get back to being the best player in the postseason, 14 points on 5-of-10 shooting will not get it done.
• Bam Adebayo needs to be a leader and step up as well
• The Heat need Gabe Vincent back (he missed Game 5 with a sprained ankle, his status for Game 6 is up in the air).
But it’s all got to start with Butler. They need playoff MVP Butler back.
3) Saturday’s Game 6 isn’t technically the Heat’s Game 7, but…
Miami can lose on Saturday and their season is not over, they would still fly back to Boston for a Game 7 on Monday.
The Heat also want no part of that Game 7.
Game 6 is not the Heat’s Game 7, but it’s thisclose to being precisely that.
“We can and we will win this series,” Jimmy Butler said.
However, the Celtics have made it a series with some suspense as to the outcome now. These Celtics becoming the first team in NBA history to come back from 0-3 down to win a series is still a long shot, but it also fits the personality of this inconsistent, up-and-down team.
It feels like the winner of Game 6 will advance to the NBA Finals, which start June 1.