As Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals began to unfold, the Celtics looked like they’d come to terms with their 3-1 deficit and their fate, and realized maybe it was just time to go home.
The effort level appeared to be lacking, the shots were errant, and the overall vibe just seemed lousy. If that was the Heat’s chance to finish this off, though, they did not take it. The Celtics erupted for 41 points in the third quarter and ultimately rolled to a 121-108 win that kept their season alive for at least one more game. Game 6 is Sunday night.
“I felt like earlier in the game we were a little frustrated, bickering at each other, at the refs, and over all of that small stuff that frustrated us,” point guard Kemba Walker said. “But we got out of it and just let the game come to us.”
Jayson Tatum had 31 points and Jaylen Brown added 28 for the Celtics. Center Daniel Theis was an integral part of the second half rally, finishing with 15 points, 13 rebounds and 3 blocks. The Heat made just 7 of 36 3-pointers and were outscored, 70-50, in the second half.
Observations from the game:
▪ The Heat led by 9 points early in the third quarter before the Celtics woke up. It started with their defense, which is generally how their good runs start. The Heat were held scoreless for 4 minutes, 30 seconds, and the drought was only snapped when Goran Dragic heaved in a 3-pointer with the shot clock running down. Theis, who was replaced by Enes Kanter for much of the first half, keyed the defensive surge with stout interior defense.
▪ Tatum was just 3 for 9 with 10 first-half points, but he once again shrugged off a quiet start with a dominant third period. He did a little bit of everything but had the most success by attacking the rim after Boston had entered the free-throw penalty. He took eight third-quarter foul shots and scored 17 points in the quarter, helping ignite Boston’s 20-3 run.
The Celtics just need to find a way to get these surges from him a bit earlier. Tatum said after the game he is trying to find the balance between knowing his team needs him to attack and not forcing his offense.
▪ In the third quarter the Heat went to the zone that has caused Boston problems in this series, but the Celtics did well to find seams with Theis flashing to openings near the foul line area.
“We need him to provide what he provides,” Stevens said. “He was great in the middle of the zone. He caught it twice and scored, and he was great there on the glass on both ends. We need him to be good.”
▪ Brown is quietly putting together a dominant string of offensive performances. He had made at least half of his shots in each of Boston’s last four games and has combined to go 39 for 68 (57.4 percent) overall and 11 for 23 on 3-pointers during that time.
“I’m just trying to be aggressive, each and every night,” he said. “I probably should be more aggressive and picking finer spots of where I can be aggressive is key. Just keep being assertive and I feel like I’ll be fine.”
▪ It was a miserable start for the Celtics. They opened the game just 1 for 12 overall and 1 for 8 on 3-pointers, along with four turnovers.
“We were playing a little bit fast, a little bit antsy,” Brown said. “We were trying to win the game in the first half, and we just needed to stay with it, keep making the right play and just settle down a little bit.”
▪ It’s rare for the Celtics' effort to be noticeably lacking, even when things aren’t going their way. But there were several defensive possessions in the first half when they simply looked dazed, whether allowing players like Duncan Robinson to attack the rim, or letting Miami players chase down offensive rebounds that the Celtics appeared in better position to receive. Fortunately for them, the malaise did not last.
▪ Former Celtic Jae Crowder has made just 6 of 33 3-pointers over the last four games, and that was clearly a shot the Celtics were willing to give up Friday. They’ll keep doing that until Crowder gives them a reason not to.
▪ The backup center rotation remained a revolving door. In the first half Kanter, who’d played just 17 minutes in the entire series, got an extended run. The big man had some productive minutes on offense and had 8 points, 4 rebounds and 2 assists.
“We were struggling,” Stevens said. “They hit some really tough shots. Robinson was going nuts, and Kanter’s points in the paint I thought really helped, and kind of helped steady us and give us a chance at halftime.”
▪ Brown said that Walker was the one to speak up at halftime after Boston’s scattered start to the game. He told the team it just needed to settle down, and it certainly did in the third quarter.
“It was a really long game,” Walker said, “but one thing you can control is your ability to play hard. I thought we did that. We caught ourselves, settled into the game, made the right plays.”
Adam Himmelsbach can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @adamhimmelsbach.