MIAMI — When the Celtics gave home-court advantage back to the Heat by splitting a pair of games in Boston, they mostly shrugged. When they stumbled through the first half of Game 5 on Wednesday night, the reaction was similar.
These Celtics are so far removed from being the early-season Celtics, who recoiled at the first sign of adversity, that it is almost hard to believe this is the same season.
They do not believe shooting slumps will linger. They have no concerns about winning in rowdy road environments. They are unflappable.
The Celtics calmly wait for small storm clouds to clear, and then they pounce. In this game, despite a beginning that felt like an endless blooper reel, they provided further evidence that they are the superior team in this series, just as they were in the previous two.
They outscored the Heat by 18 points during a dominant, thorough second half and pushed to a 93-80 win that gave them a 3-2 lead in the Eastern Conference finals.
“We know what we’re all about,” coach Ime Udoka said.
On Friday night at TD Garden, the Celtics will have a chance to advance to the NBA Finals for the first time since 2010. Although their potential opponent remains unclear, the Warriors have returned home to San Francisco with a 3-1 lead over the Mavericks.
That fact was not lost on the piles of Celtics fans who slithered into the vacated front rows after the final buzzer Wednesday night. They started chanting, ‘We want Curry!’ A reference to the Golden State superstar who goes by Stephen.
In the locker room after the game, the Celtics reminded one another that just two weeks ago they were the team facing a 3-2 deficit that went on the road and toppled the Bucks.
“We can’t think that it’s over with,” forward Jayson Tatum said.
Still, this feels different. The Celtics have wins over the Heat in this series by 25, 20, and 13 points. It’s hard to envision a scenario in which they won’t grab one more, especially knowing that their defense can always help them make up for inadequacies elsewhere.
“I think the mental stress and strain we put on some teams with our defense has worked and carried us through the playoffs at times,” Udoka said. “You saw in the Brooklyn series, guys started to wear down. Game 7, [Bucks forward Giannis] Antetokounmpo slowed down some. But having all those bodies to continue to throw at people wears down on them, physically and mentally.”
On Wednesday night, it was sometimes hard to tell whether the Celtics had worn down the Heat, or simply demoralized them. With Sixth Man of the Year Tyler Herro out for the second game in a row because of a groin injury, Miami’s offense veered between being clunky and disastrous.
The Heat made 31.9 percent of their shots and connected on 7 of 45 3-pointers (15.6 percent). Boston’s defense, which welcomed back Robert Williams and Marcus Smart, deserves some credit, but there were also plenty of open looks that skidded off of backboards or missed the target completely. The groans almost sounded more like gasps.
Still, the Heat climbed to a 5-point halftime lead anyway, in large part because the Celtics’ primary vulnerabilities in this series — committing turnovers and surrendering offensive rebounds — resurfaced.
And it did not help that star forwards Jaylen Brown and Tatum had combined to go 3 for 16 with six turnovers. All things considered, the 5-point deficit had created good reason for optimism, and Derrick White had done enough to keep the Celtics within reach.
“We didn’t like how we were playing,” Tatum said. “We were still only down 5. Basically just talked about, how much does it mean to us?”
Added Brown: “First half was [expletive]. Threw it away. Come out, play basketball in the second.”
Udoka told his players that in a bruising, ugly game such as this, even an average offensive run can appear gleaming. Brown, who dribbled the ball to nowhere during an awkward first half, started pouring in 3-pointers over outstretched arms.
Tatum, who spent much of the first half grabbing at his right shoulder that has caused some pain, began slicing through openings, welcoming contact, and finding open teammates.
The Celtics needed just 95 seconds to unspool an 8-0 run that gave them a lead. And with Boston ahead, 59-58, late in the third, it went on a 13-0 surge that knocked the hope out of the Heat.
“When we get the stops to get out and run,” Udoka said, “we’re kind of a lethal team on both ends.”
Brown finished with a game-high 25 points and Tatum added 22 points, 12 rebounds, and 9 assists. The Celtics shot 54.1 percent in the second half, and when the final buzzer sounded, they were suddenly within one win of the NBA Finals.
“It’s really experience, for us,” Al Horford said. “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 we’re better for.”