In May 2018, a Celtics team without injured All-Stars Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward marched to the Eastern Conference finals, where it was a clear underdog against LeBron James and the Cavaliers.
But when Boston pushed to a 3-2 series lead behind fearless young stars Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, the narrative shifted. The Celtics had a wonderful opportunity for an improbable trip to the NBA Finals.
They lost Game 6 in Cleveland before returning to TD Garden, where they had been 10-0 in those playoffs. Then they scored 79 points in Game 7 and watched James march on once more.
Now in the Eastern Conference finals for the fourth time in six years, the Celtics are in a similar situation. But this one certainly feels more sturdy. They return home Friday night with a 3-2 lead over the reeling Heat, on the verge of the franchise’s first Finals berth since 2010. The memories of missed opportunities are still there.
“The experience definitely helps out, the motivation of not making it, falling short a few times,” Celtics coach Ime Udoka said. “It’s nothing that’s really talked about, but you can feel that inner drive to take the next step, and with these young guys being in those positions before, there’s a calm about them going through this situation … It’s not too big for this group of young guys.”
Although the core of this team played for that 2018 squad, a lot can happen in three years. That season, Tatum was a first-team All-Rookie selection; now, he is first-team All-NBA. Brown has since made an All-Star team, and Marcus Smart has transformed from a ball-hawking nuisance into the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year.
“My rookie year, being up, 3-2, obviously a different team now,” Tatum said. “I’m a lot better, J.B. is. We’re just older. And we’ve been through those tough times.”
This squad was also upset by the Heat in the conference finals two years ago and has been unable to take its next big step. There is value in those near misses, of course, but it’s clear that the time for valuable learning experiences is over. It’s clear that the time is now.
“[Past experiences] will help,” Brown said. “We have a lot of guys that’s been in those moments. But so have they. Miami, they have a lot of guys that’ve been to the Finals or won a championship. I’m not sure how much it will 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.”
The Celtics are confident but wary, which is probably how Udoka would like them to feel. Just one round ago, they were the team trailing, 3-2, their season on the brink, before they went to Milwaukee and toppled the Bucks in Game 6, and came home to Boston and did it again.
Time and again during these playoffs there have been reminders of how quickly momentum can shift, and the Celtics will do all they can to ensure that it does not.
“Don’t look past them,” Tatum said. “Don’t believe what you guys say on TV, that we’re going to the championship, because this is far from over.”
Heat fans might not share that sentiment. Although Miami remains within striking distance, the talent gap has appeared to be significant. With No. 2 scorer Tyler Herro out for the last two games because of a groin injury, and Jimmy Butler and Kyle Lowry slowed by recent injuries, the Heat have looked lost against the Celtics’ top-ranked defense.
Miami has been outscored by 8.7 points per 100 possessions during the series, made just 29.2 percent of its 3-pointers, and has already been handed three double-digit defeats.
Herro’s status for Game 6 is unclear, and the Celtics are on track to again have their full roster available, a rarity during these playoffs. Nevertheless, they are not approaching Friday night as if it will be easy.
“This is a great opportunity,” Brown said. “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. Let’s come out Friday on our home floor, and play the best version of basketball we played all season.”