ORLANDO — The Celtics are on the brink of elimination, one game from watching their bubble burst here at Walt Disney World. They have lost three games in this Eastern Conference final series with the Miami Heat by 11 total points, which makes this series even more infuriating.
But those who think a comeback is impossible better think again. The Celtics need to only look at their co-tenants in the AdventHealth Arena to see an example of a team making an improbable rally from down, three games to one.
The Denver Nuggets have done it twice here in the bubble, beating the Utah Jazz in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs before shocking the heavily favored Los Angeles Clippers in the semifinals. So while the chances are remote and require the Celtics to play almost perfect basketball for the next three games, it’s not impossible.
“I don’t know that [what] the historical odds are or whatever, it doesn’t really matter,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “The situation we’re in, we’ve got to play well on Friday. We don’t have to win three games on Friday, we have to win one. That’s going to be our focus and we’ll get after it.”
Of course, those Celtics fans over maybe 45 years old remember the last time a Boston team responded from a 3-1 deficit. The 1981 Celtics trailed the Philadelphia 76ers by that margin in the Eastern Conference finals. The Celtics then returned to Boston Garden on April 29 and won Game 5 by 2 points.
They won Games 6 and 7 by a combined 3 points. They didn’t dominate the 76ers, they did just enough each game to win, and that’s what these current Celtics need to do, turn a couple of late-game plays to their side — three times in a row.
“It’s the easiest coaching job right now for Brad,” said former Celtics forward Cedric Maxwell, a member of that 1981 team. "There’s no room for error. There’s no rah-rah speech. Every possession becomes monumental and that is what you have to impress upon your players. You get no second chance. So in order to do something like that, everybody has to be on board.
“You don’t even think about the next day because there is no next day.”
When asked if he thought this current team could respond from 3-1, Maxwell said: “It’s a possibility. The pressure is now eliminated on the Celtics because nobody is going to give them a chance to come back. You’ve seen Denver do it. There is no pressure because everyone has given up on you.”
Game 5 of the 1981 Eastern Conference finals was a war. Both teams combined for 78 free throws, including a combined 24 attempts from Bobby Jones and Darryl Dawkins. The Celtics won by 2. (Neither team attempted a 3-point shot.)
“That was the best coaching job I saw Bill Fitch do,” Maxwell said. “Just get one. Can’t think about what you’re going to be doing on Sunday. It’s right in front of you and you can win these battles, then you can put pressure on the opposition because everybody’s counted you out. Everybody is going to say the exact same thing, ‘The series is over.’ So there’s no pressure on you.”
The bubble eliminates any home-court advantage so that may be a detriment to the Celtics, who would be returning home to TD Garden if this were a normal world. And how hard the Celtics play in Game 5 will determine how badly they want to remain in the bubble, where they have been for 11 weeks. While some teams here were bothered by losing, the bright side was they were going to be home the next day.
Are the Celtics thinking about home or Game 6?
“I believe I’ll fight until the end, I think that’s how a lot of our guys' minds are wired,” forward Jaylen Brown said. “It’s not over. It can be done. We’ve got a lot of heart in this locker room. The good thing is we still have an opportunity. We still have a chance. I believe in this team and I believe we can still come back and win.”
This is not uncommon rhetoric. The players promise to fight until the end, but when they face a 10-point third-quarter deficit, they could decide to relent and concede, especially when a return to normal life awaits.
So while Brown may believe the Celtics are ready to make an historic run — only 13 teams have come back from 3-1 — do the Celtics collectively believe this is worth the fight?
“Definitely meet, definitely get together, these types of moments are crucial,” Brown said. “We don’t want to be separated. We want to continue to be together. Fight until the end. That’s the best thing we can do to represent our organization, represent ourselves, represent our families, stay together and play hard. I think everybody will be part of that result. If we don’t stay together and we fall apart, it’s not going to be a good look. I’m looking forward to the film session, looking forward to meeting with our guys and come out next game on fire.”