ORLANDO, Fla. — It looked as if the Celtics were ready to let go of the rope. They began the second half with a missed Jaylen Brown 3-pointer and a Bam Adebayo jumper, and they trailed a win-or-go-home game by 9 points.
The third quarter has been the Celtics' bugaboo for the entire postseason. Why should Friday be any different? They had already played another flat first half, looking ready for the first flight Saturday morning out of the bubble.
Yet they persevered, and began getting breaks. They stormed back with a game-changing, 13-0 run. Suddenly all those tough-luck plays, loose balls, offensive rebounds, and foul calls flipped into their favor. The Celtics made their breaks in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals, not just matching the Miami Heat’s intensity, but exceeding it.
That’s what has been needed, but not always delivered, throughout this series. Miami plays hard and relentless even when it doesn’t play well. The Celtics don’t always play with that fortitude, but with their season on the brink and a complete second-half required to extend the series, Boston gutted the Heat in the paint with a relentless attack.
Their 70 second-half points were the result of a brilliant offensive display as they ran away for a 121-108 win. For the first time in this series, it appears the Celtics had the Heat figured out. Hopefully for them, it isn’t too late.
They’ll need two more wins to reach the NBA Finals — not inconceivable, especially with the manner of Friday’s victory. The Celtics went 3-point happy in the opening quarter, then decided to attack the paint. That was the key to success.
Of the 70 second-half points, 48 were scored in the paint or at the free-throw line. Brown attacked the rim. Jayson Tatum attacked the rim. Gordon Hayward got into the middle of the Miami zone for jumpers. The Celtics finally figured out the way to beat the Heat is not the long ball. It’s the short game, which eventually opens up the long.
At halftime, Kemba Walker told his teammates they were pressing too much, playing too tense, playing exactly as if they were afraid to lose. He implored his teammates to loosen up, play ball, and execute the game plan.
“We just found the energy that we needed to win this game,” Walker said. “I thought it really started toward the end of the [first half]. It just continued and we picked up our pressure a little bit. We just enjoyed the game. I felt like early in the game, we were a little frustrated, bickering at each other, the refs, and let the small stuff frustrate us. We got out of it and let the game come to us.”
Walker has been getting picked on defensively since the Toronto series, and Friday was no different. Walker has tried to defend bigger players such as Jimmy Butler and Jae Crowder to little success, but he offered more resistance this time. He got into early foul trouble, but continued to fight. In the second half, Walker was a plus-20 in his 12 minutes, 12 seconds.
He stole a bad Butler pass and fed to Hayward for a runout layup and a 105-91 lead with 7:07 left. Boston went on a 56-31 run after that Adebayo basket to open the second half, when it appeared the Celtics were done.
“What I remember of halftime is Kemba saying we just need to settle down a little bit,” Brown said. “We all felt the intensity that we all had in the beginning. I don’t think we came out flat. It was different from Game 4 for us. We had the intensity. It was just kind of a little bit all over the place. We had to dial in a little bit. Once we did, I feel like we were fine.”
It’s not that the Celtics aren’t talented enough to win this series. They just haven’t always played together, especially under adversity. They were frustrated by the Miami zone the first 2½ games, but they seem to have learned how to score repeatedly against it — attacking the paint.
The Celtics came out flat in Game 4, and it cost them dearly because they ran out of energy trying to rally, then made the same mistakes that plagued them in the first two games. This time, the Celtics played through their mistakes, made up for turnovers by getting a defensive stop or key rebound. They remained focused on getting out to Miami’s shooters and at least contesting every shot.
Tyler Herro, the hero of Game 4 with 37 points, finished with 14 as a minus-10. Adebayo, who was swarmed at the rim and not allowed to do his Shaquille O’Neal impression, finished with a series-low 13 points and eight rebounds. Daniel Theis countered with 15 and 13, winning that matchup for the first time in the series.
The Celtics bought themselves at least two more days in the bubble. They have won two out of the past three, and can take one step closer to making the improbable possible with a win Sunday.
It’s heartening for Celtics faithful that their team didn’t crumble under difficult circumstances. On Friday, they played until they played well.