The Celtics found more than their shooting touch in the NBA playoff version of a mudwrestling match in Miami. They discovered something much more valuable — basketball killer instinct — finishing off a hobbled Heat team that is basically begging to be put out of its misery.
That newfound finishing kick and a 93-80 Game 5 victory on Wednesday night have the Celtics on the verge of the franchise’s first NBA Finals since 2010.
They can end these Eastern Conference finals and Miami’s season on Friday at TD Garden. Given the Heat’s injury woes with Jimmy Butler and Kyle Lowry shells of themselves, it feels like the humane thing to do.
The sports version of killer instinct, displayed in spades by Michael Jordan and Tom Brady, is one of those attributes you have or you don’t. It was fair to question if the Celtics possessed it. During this magical ride, they’ve had letdowns and let-ups that have cost them games and momentum. In the playoffs, if you play around with your prey you can become it. That was nearly the case versus the Bucks.
This time, the Green dropped the guillotine clean on the Heat via a hellacious 24-2 run that stopped cold-shooting Miami cold, seizing control of this series with a 3-2 lead.
It also marked a milestone of growth for this group because this is how championship teams behave. They find a way to pull the plug on the opponent even on nights they’re misfiring. The ability to do that in the most important contests is the final piece of the toolkit for these Celtics.
“I mean, it’s really experience for us,” said Al Horford. “Just even in these playoffs, we’ve been put in different positions, different situations. Even in this series, I feel like we’ve grown as a group. It’s something that, you know, we’re better for. Each game we’re trying to learn and trying to be better.”
The Celtics let the Heat hang around too long, honestly. The teams combined to shoot 31 of 82 in the lowest-scoring first half of a conference finals game since Game 5 of the 2014 East finals.
At halftime, the Heat led, 42-37. The Celtics gave them life in the form of 16 second-chance points and 12 points off turnovers.
Stars Jayson Tatum (1 for 9 for 4 points with two turnovers) and Jaylen Brown (2 for 7 for 6 points and four turnovers) were literally throwing Game 5 away. Boston’s stingy defense and the Heat’s paucity of healthy players and reliable shot-makers kept the Celtics afloat. But they were clinging to a 1-point lead (59-58) with 2 minutes 44 seconds left in the third quarter.
Then the Celtics bore down, bared their fangs, and ripped the Heat to shreds over a 6:20 span with a 24-2 barrage, opening a mortal wound and an 83-60 advantage.
During that span, the all-grown-up Green hit 9 of 10 shots. Brown drilled all five of his, including three 3-pointers, collecting 13 of his game-high 25 points. Tatum, who finished one assist shy of a triple-double (22 points, 12 rebounds, 9 assists) didn’t miss either, going 3 for 3 for 7 points.
Meanwhile, the Miami masonry crew shot just 1 for 13 during that interval.
The Celtics simply sent the elevator to a floor the Heat don’t have keycard access to.
“We know what we’re capable of,” said Brown. “Sometimes it’s more so mental, trying to get over the adversity, or sometimes we’re overthinking a little bit too much.
“We feel like there’s not a lot of people who can play basketball with us two. When he gets going, when I get going, we know that we’re going to put ourselves in a good spot to win.”
For the Celtics not to advance to the Finals now, they would have to engage in serious self-harm and recidivism.
The crippled Heat, who played again without Sixth Man of the Year Tyler Herro, still have plenty of fight and physicality. What they lack is enough firepower to extend this series unless the Celtics slip up and slip back into old habits.
Boston’s smothering defense is its calling card. But it’s not all the Celtics’ hardcore, hard-to-beat D that has the Heat feeling like any made basket represents an oasis in a desert of rim-denting misses.
One game after shooting 33.3 percent, the Heat shot just 31.9 and made 7 of 45 threes. They shot 4 for 23 (17.4 percent) overall in the third quarter.
The Miami Dolphins have an easier time scoring. How is Tua Tagovailoa’s jumper?
One third-quarter sequence was emblematic of the South Floridians’ futility. Victor Oladipo got a pair of premium looks from three. He sent both of them thudding off the glass like hail falling from the heavens on a car windshield. Sandwiched in between Oladipo’s bricks was a front-rimmed three from Butler, who shot 4 of 18 for a meager 13 points.
Plus, Miami’s starting backcourt of Lowry (hamstring) and Max Strus is a combined 1 for 28 over the last two games.
The Jays, Horford, and Marcus Smart have been here before. The Celtics were up, 3-2, in the Eastern Conference finals in 2018 and couldn’t close out LeBron James and the Cavaliers. They lost the 2020 conference finals to Miami in six.
But this time feels different because the Celtics possess a finishing move.
“Obviously, different team now, I’m a lot better, J.B. is. We’re just older, and we’ve been through those tough times,” said Tatum.
“We can’t think that it’s over with. 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 … not being satisfied, knowing that we still got things to clean up.
“We still need to play better. The job’s just not finished yet.”
But the Heat are primed to be finished off.