By Ty Anderson, 985TheSportsHub.com
History may be working against them, but there’s no reason to actually believe that the Boston Celtics are incapable of mounting a third-round series comeback against the Miami Heat.
Let’s start with the obvious: Home court doesn’t exist. There’s not even a semblance of home court, and no, you’re not selling me on these court-level LED boards having the same impact as an explosive TD Garden or American Airlines Arena whiteout. The Celtics also, on paper, have the deeper roster when it comes to true takeover talents in must-win situations; Tyler Herro had his say in Game 4, Goran Dragic has been the Heat’s most consistent threat, and there’s always the threat of Jimmy Butler. But look at the Celtics’ options here. There’s Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Kemba Walker, and even Marcus Smart has had his moments this summer.
But most of all, as emphatic efforts in Games 3 and 5 have told us, these Celtics know how to play when true desperation calls. And there’s nothing that embodies that quite like playing for the fate your season every single time you step on the court.
That finally arrived on Friday night with the Celtics erasing a seven-point deficit in the second half during a 13-0 run (and 20-3 run overall), and simply never looking back.
“That’s just us,” Brown said after Friday’s season-extending victory. “There’s a lot of fight in our team. We came this far. We sacrificed so much. We’ve been here for a long time. If anything, if we wanted to go out, we want to go down fighting.”
The fight arrived a little later than expected, sure, with the Celtics coming out with the nervous energy that led to some ugly, lost possessions. (Brown described it as the Celtics trying to win the game in the first half.) The Celtics also looked poised to let another rookie dominate the night, with the Heat’s Duncan Robinson coming out the gate on fire. But when they settled, they once again overwhelmed. And like Game 3, it was a team-wide effort that felt predicated on simply outworking the Heat ’til they quit.
When the Celtics have struggled in this series, it’s felt like it’s come down to one glaring issue: Excess and/in failures to recognize the situation before them. When things have gone South (Beach) this round, there’s been too much passing into traffic without proper support (0r because of that lack of proper support to lead the passer out of trouble), too many low-percentage looks in the name of hero-ball and trying to do too much versus simply trusting the other four guys on the court. Walker and Tatum’s poor looks in isolation cost the Celtics out of the gate, while downfalls in Games 2 and 4 felt like a toxic mix of carelessness and miscues that made the Celtics almost unrecognizable. Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge said it wasn’t the team he knew.
It may sound like an oversimplification, but the Celtics’ struggles are completely correctable with a bit more awareness, and that certainly seemed to be the name of the game on every possession Friday.
“When we don’t get caught up in that other crap, we’re trying to be our best,” said Stevens. “We care about competing. We care about representing our team and our organization well. We care about each other. I mean, that’s why you compete.
“We’re prideful. We want to do well.”
And the Celtics have been at their best when just straight-up attacking the Heat and, again, challenging their will.
After a slow start in the paint, the Celtics finished Game 5 with 56 points in the paint. (Their centers came through in a major way.) They also forced Miami into early foul trouble, and were in the bonus with about eight minutes remaining in the third quarter. This was a dissection that the Heat were not equipped to counter. And it was led by Boston’s top two stars.
Already matching their total number of elimination game wins in Stevens’ first five postseasons on the job, the Celtics’ top guns carried the scoring load in a must-win, as Tatum had a team-leading 31, while Brown chimed in with 28.
“Playing within the system, playing within the game,” Tatum said of his success. “Knowing I need to be aggressive, try not to force it, but know I got to get myself going and make plays, whether it be for myself or other guys. Just build off that.”
“I think that’s the key: just being aggressive,” Brown echoed. “Miami is really good at making it seem like it’s not open, have a lot of guys who have length, Crowder, Butler, even Robinson has length. You just got to do it anyway, play hard, with intensity.”
Despite the shared mentality, the game played out with Tatum as the consistent threat, as he led Boston’s 41-point third-quarter effort with 17 points, while Brown served as the silent assassin with back-to-back makes from deep in the fourth frame.
“I thought [Brown] was really good,” Stevens said. “He made those corner threes there in the fourth. He had great drives. He had a couple great cuts there in the third. He was very good all night.”
The Tatum-Brown duo shot a combined 20-for-45 (44.4 percent) from the field, and their scoring accounted for almost half of Boston’s total production in the survival effort. This was similar to their Game 7 efforts against the Raptors in the second round, too, which saw the duo score 50 of the C’s 92 points, and a combined 19-for-40 (47.5 percent) from the field.
And based on their elimination game performances to date, there’s comfort in knowing they can give you more.
But in their bid to become the C’s team to overcome a 3-1 series deficit in almost 40 years, the Celtics know how it starts.
“We’re just trying to take it one game at a time,” Brown noted. “I think that’s our focus, that’s our emphasis. We’ll see what happens at the end. When we play hard, play with each other, fight, we’ll see what the results come out to be.
“Just one game at a time.”
One very winnable game at a time.