Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press
Benefit of the doubt shouldn’t be given to NBA teams trailing 3-1 in a playoff series. They are never, ever in that deep of a hole by their own hand, and winning three elimination games is colossally, comically hard.
And yet, with this in mind, the Boston Celtics’ 121-108 Game 5 win over the Miami Heat on Friday night still feels significant—not a declaration of the inevitable, no, but evidence of the possible: This series isn’t over. The Heat aren’t safe. The Celtics aren’t rolling over.
A successful comeback, improbable on its face, is absolutely on the table.
This revelation—and it is a revelation—didn’t reveal itself right away. The Celtics did a bang-up job in the first half of making it look like they had no intention of forcing a Game 6. They fell behind by double digits, couldn’t generate the cleanest looks around the rim despite attacking the basket more and allowed the Heat to dictate the pace.
The script flipped entirely in the second half, beginning with the third quarter. Boston outscored Miami 41-25 on the back of a 17-point detonation from Jayson Tatum (31 points, 10 rebounds, six assists), a frantic defensive effort and a commitment to getting out in transition.
Keith Smith @KeithSmithNBA
Jaylen Brown on what was said at halftime: “I just remember Kemba (Walker) saying ‘We just need to settle down a little bit.’ That’s what I remember and that’s what we did.”
That energy spilled into the fourth quarter, where Jaylen Brown pumped in 12 of his 28 points. The Celtics’ defense specifically never let up. It was everywhere. The Heat’s three-point shooting has regressed largely by their own undoing since Game 1; they put down just 23.3 percent of their wide-open triples in the previous three tilts.
Friday’s struggles—7-of-36 overall (19.4 percent) and 3-of-18 in the second half (16.7 percent)—came in stark contrast. Miami missed some outside bunnies, but Boston closed out like avoiding elimination depended on it, particularly in the final two frames, because it did.
Jared Weiss @JaredWeissNBA
That Jaylen Brown contest reaching for the sky to get Herro to miss is the difference between Game 4 Celtics and Game 5 Celtics. Their switches and close outs have been pristine in the second half and the offense is just coming easily, just as Stevens said in the huddle earlier.
It was—it is—the kind of turnaround that’s equal parts encouraging and maddening. The Celtics are still alive. Cool. But why couldn’t they play like this sooner? Or for longer?
Boiling down their three losses to self-sabotage does a disservice to Miami. The Celtics have fared poorly against zone defenses all year, and the Heat have capitalized on that, even if their personnel sort of dictates they play that way in this matchup.
This series is a 3-2 Miami lead, not a 2-3 Boston deficit.
And along those same lines, the Celtics cannot ensure they’ll mirror every aspect of this win in Game 6. Some of it seems beyond their total control.
They’ve struggled, for instance, to win the starting center minutes from the jump. The Heat outscored them by 21 points in the 98 minutes Bam Adebayo and Daniel Theis shared the floor through the first three games. That matchup favored Theis (15 points, 13 rebounds) in Game 5. Boston was a plus-16 in the 29 minutes he went up against Adebayo.
Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press
Still, the context of this Celtics victory is hardly farfetched.
Tatum can be the best player on the floor in this series, even though Butler exists. Brown can put effective, relentless pressure on the rim, even against Miami’s zone. Boston can move more off the ball and generate cleaner three-pointers (especially for Brown). It can survive, thanks to Brown and Tatum, lamentable or forgettable nights from Kemba Walker.
There’s even a (slight) case to be made that the Celtics should be ahead in the series. Filter out crunch time through the first four contests, and they had outscored the Heat by 23 points entering Friday night.
Writing off determining chunks of gameplay is, of course, a brand of cherry-picking. But clutch performances are more unpredictable. They’re such small slivers of games that, during a limited sample like a playoff series, they aren’t necessarily telltale of anything.
This isn’t akin to saying the Celtics can just flip a switch. They’re not good enough to win like that every night. But what they just did collectively is sustainable throughout an entire game.
Getting to the basket doesn’t have to be an art form. The Celtics have done it before, in Game 3. Attacking is a matter of opportunity and discipline. They proved as much in the second half Friday night.
Dan Favale @danfavale
% of the celtics fgas that have come inside restricted area vs the heat
game 1: 21.6% (loss)
game 2: 27.8% (loss)
game 3: 37.6% (win)
game 4: 26.8% (loss)
game 5: 34.4% (win)
Doing a better job on the defensive glass allowed them to push the pace; pushing the pace makes it tougher, if not impossible, for Miami’s defense to get set; and attacking a defense in lurch gives way to tidier looks at the rim and more trips to the free-throw line. (Boston was 11-of-12 from the charity stripe in the third quarter.)
If this is stating the obvious, that’s sort of the point. It shouldn’t take an entire half for the Celtics to mandate the terms of engagement. Just 7.8 precent of their points came off fast breaks through the first two quarters. That offensive share skyrocketed to 18.6 percent in the second half, including 19.5 percent in the third frame. It comes as no surprise this is when Boston was at its best.
Anchorage Man @SethPartnow
30.8% OREB rate and 31.8% FT rate for Miami in first half (VERY HIGH on both aspects.) Feels like Boston is trying to do too much on defense, which is where are these fouls and long rotations leading to OREBS are coming from. They’ve guarded ok! Just need to be more basic/solid.
In the end, that’s what Game 5 does for the Celtics: offer a blueprint for victory. It is a set of instructions that has, perhaps, been staring them in the face all series. But living life on the ropes ranks among the best wake-up calls.
And the Celtics, it seems, are now answering that call. It shouldn’t have taken this long. It shouldn’t even be necessary. And it damn sure doesn’t make them favorites to rattle off another two consecutive victories against the Heat. But it matters.
They laid bread crumbs in Game 5, and if they follow them, they’ll have a chance at regaining what they lost at the beginning of this series: benefit of the doubt.
Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference, Stathead or Cleaning the Glass. Cap info via Basketball Insiders.
Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@danfavale), and listen to his Hardwood Knocks podcast, co-hosted by B/R’s Adam Fromal.
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