MIAMI — Midway through the third quarter of Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Marcus Smart had shot a combined 6 of 25 from the field. The trio also had committed eight turnovers, including a couple of egregious dribbling mishaps by Brown. the Celtics’ offense looked out of sorts.
But Boston led, 53-51, at that point.
So, how does that happen?
The top-seeded Miami Heat are worn down.
Even when their opponents are giving them every opportunity to pull away, they cannot. The Heat have said multiple times they don’t want to make excuses, but it’s clear that they don’t have enough to take down the Celtics. Jimmy Butler doesn’t look like himself with his right knee inflammation, Kyle Lowry is still battling a nagging hamstring injury, and Tyler Herro has missed two straight games with a groin injury.
The Heat are banged up and, as a result, find themselves on the brink of elimination. After heading into halftime with a 5-point lead that should have been double digits, Miami floundered to a 93-80 defeat Wednesday night at FTX Arena.
“I think we played a pretty decent first half, but you’ve got to play two halves to win against them,” Butler said.
Since Butler reaggravated his knee in Game 3, he hasn’t looked the same. He typically loves to attack in the restricted area — and did so at an extremely high frequency and efficiency this postseason — but his impact in that zone is now minimal. He’s not getting to the free throw line at a high clip, either, another primary element of his game.
Over the last three games, Butler has attempted just six free throws. This after he attempted 18 free throws in Game 1 alone. He’s also shot a combined 10 of 40 from the field.
It’s clear Butler is not 100 percent, no matter how many times Heat coach Erik Spoelstra reiterates the team isn’t making excuses for its subpar performance.
To start the fourth quarter Wednesday, Butler airballed a wide open 3-pointer. He barely got any lift on his shot. On Miami’s next possession, he attempted another shot, this time a mid-range jumper, and airballed that one, too.
Butler, who finished with 13 points on 4-of-18 shooting, won’t concede he’s hurting. He’ll only insist he needs to play better.
“If I’m out there, I’ve got to do better,” he said. “I’ve got to find a way to help us win and I haven’t been doing that. My knee is OK. I just have to be better.”
Lowry offered a similar sentiment about his own status. Wednesday marked the first time in Lowry’s 16-year career he did not record a point or assist in more than 15 minutes of playing time. He shot 0 of 6 from the field and turned the ball over three times.
“If I’m out there, I have to play better,” Lowry said.
Making matters worse for the Heat is that the rest of the team is struggling to contribute offensively, as well. After shooting 33.3 percent from the field in Game 4, the Heat did even worse Wednesday, connecting on just 31.9 percent of their attempts.
Starter Max Strus is 0 of 16 from the field over the last two games.
Guard Victor Oladipo, Miami’s spark in Game 4, shot 1 of 7 from the field for just 3 points in Game 5. With the Heat trailing by 4 with five minutes to go in the third quarter, Oladipo misfired badly on a wide-open three. Miami secured back-to-back offensive rebounds, giving Oladipo another chance, only for him to misfire again, just as badly. The ball hit the backboard — not even the rim — on both shots.
Center Bam Adebayo, the one Heat starter off the injury report, also has disappeared offensively after his breakout 31-point performance in Game 3 (when Celtics center Robert Williams was out).
The crowd at FTX Arena really wanted Adebayo to get going, cheering in anticipation every time he had the ball. But Adebayo never gave the fans what they wanted, staying passive even when Williams was off the floor.
Adebayo acknowledged his need to step up.
“[Jimmy and Kyle] are banged up,” Adebayo said. “They were going through shooting struggles. So, yeah, put it on me.”
With the series heading to Boston for Game 6 on Friday night, Spoelstra still expressed confidence in his team to force Game 7. It’s hard to imagine Butler or Lowry will sit in a must-win game, though Herro’s status is uncertain.
“We have the kind of warriors that are going to tape up, brace up, do whatever we have to do to get ready for the next one,” Spoelstra said. “We are not making excuses for anything. We are not deflecting anything.”
The Heat can avoid making excuses as much as they want, but their play speaks for itself. And if the past two losses are any indication of what’s to come in Game 6, the end is near for Miami.