‘Mentality’ was a big talking point heading into Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals. Through the first four games, the Celtics and Heat had alternated wins and it was looking like the team put into a corner on any given night would punch back in the next game two nights later.
After their Game 4 win, the Celtics talked a lot about keeping the underdog, backed into a corner mentality that they had after losing Game 3 and falling down 2-1 in the series. That strategy appeared to work, as the C’s 93-80 win in Game 5 made them the first team in this series to win back-to-back games – and more importantly put them within a win of reaching the NBA Finals for the first time in just over a decade.
The other thing the win did – in theory – is give the Celtics some more breathing room. They now need to win just one of the next two games, while Miami faces a win-or-go-home scenario in Game 5 in Boston. Still, if the Celtics were to slip up in Game 6, they’d then be the ones playing a ‘do-or-die’ game on the road in Game 7.
If it’s up to the Celtics though, none of that will matter. They don’t plan on doing anything with or even thinking about that cushion. Instead, the messaging after Game 5 was similar to what the team was saying after Game 4 – play with urgency.
“Nothing changes. We had to come out with the right mentality after a win, and we did that,” head coach Ime Udoka said after the game when asked about his message to the team heading into Game 6. “We want to do the same and close it out at home, and know the urgency of not coming back here…To have it on our home court is an advantage, but they beat us there already so we have to come out with the same urgency as these last two wins and try to put it away.”
“For our guys, it’s just one more step in continuing to grind it out. We wear teams out defensively and make it extra hard on them mentally and physically, and if we do that we put ourselves in good shape,” he continued. “Just not give up those 39 point quarters or the turnovers that give teams hope and life. We know what we’re all about. For us, I don’t think anybody is looking at ‘get to the Finals.’ We still know what the deal is and the task at hand is.”
Key locker room leaders echoed Udoka’s sentiment after the Game 5 win. “Just continuing to do what we’ve been doing,” veteran Al Horford explained. “Preparing, getting our rest. Approaching that game Friday at home – and just doing what we do.”
“The mindset and the talk that we had after the game was we were down 3-2 last time [against Milwaukee] and had to go on the road and win a Game 6 and we did. So we can’t think that it’s over with,” Jayson Tatum said. “We need to go back home like we’re down 3-2, with that sense of urgency that it’s a must-win game. Not relaxing because we’re up, because it’s possible. Obviously we did it last series. Knowing that, and talking about that, and obviously enjoying this one but not being satisfied, knowing that we’ve still got things to clean up and we still need to play better and the job’s not finished yet.”
“Don’t look past them. Don’t believe what you guys [the media] say on TV, that we’ve won a championship, because this is far from over,” he added. “We talked about it, we just went into Milwaukee and won a very big Game 6. So know that it’s possible. We came in with the mindset tonight that it was a must-win game – that we need to carry that over, go into Friday like we down 3-2. This is a great team, well coached, they’re not going to give up. It’s not going to be easy. I’m looking forward to it. It’s going to be a challenge, but it’s going to be fun.”
“This is a great opportunity. Leave everything on the floor. You don’t want any feelings of regret. We’ve got an opportunity to do something with this group that’s special, so let’s not take that for granted,” Jaylen Brown noted. “Let’s come out Friday on our home floor and play the best version of basketball we’ve played all season. It’s a big game for us. At the same time, just breath. Relax. Sometimes we can be a little bit too tense, because we know how important these moments are. But just come out and play our game, and we’ll be fine.”
As young as Tatum (24 years old, in his fifth NBA season) and Brown (25 years old, sixth season) are, they’ve been in a similar spot before. In 2018 – Tatum’s rookie year and Brown’s second – the Celtics got out to a 3-2 lead on the LeBron James-led Cleveland Cavaliers. However, Cleveland would go on to take Game 6 at home, before winning Game 7 (they ended up getting swept by Golden State in the NBA Finals).
After Wednesday night’s game, Tatum was asked if this year’s run – which is as close as the Celtics have gotten since – feels different.
“Yeah, it does,” he explained. “My rookie year, being up 3-2 – obviously, different team now. I’m a lot better, JB [Jaylen Brown] is. We’re just older. And we’ve been through those tough times.”
Still, that experience may provide the Celtics with something to lean on as they prepare for the next two to four days.
“It’ll help,” said Brown when asked about that series. “We have a lot of guys that have been in those moments, but so have they. Miami, they have a lot of guys that have been to the finals or won championships, so I’m not sure how much it’ll help against a team like Miami that’s really experienced with a lot of vets, but definitely having experience and learning from it is an advantage. We’ve jut got to come out on our home floor and take care of business. Play good basketball, take care of it, hit shots, and defend, and we’ll be fine.”
Game 6 back in Boston will take place on Friday, continuing the grueling every other day pace of this series. Tip-off is set for 8:30 p.m. ET, with pregame coverage beginning at 8 on 98.5 The Sports Hub and the 98.5 The Sports Hub Celtics Radio Network.