What once seemed quite improbable is now well within reach for the Celtics. Boston stormed to a 110-97 win over the Miami Heat in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals Thursday night to pull within 3-2 in the series, halfway to becoming the first team in NBA history to win a playoff series after losing the first three games.
As reserves from both teams played the final few minutes because the outcome had been decided, fans at TD Garden began chanting “Celts in 7!” There is still work to do, of course, but the thoroughness of these last two wins combined with the reality that the Celtics were the far superior team during the regular season certainly makes it appear possible.
The Celtics led by as many as 24 points Thursday and never trailed. Derrick White hit 6 of 8 3-pointers and led a balanced Boston attack with 24 points. Jayson Tatum had 21 points, 11 assists, and 8 rebounds for the Celtics, who shot 50.6 percent from the field and connected on 16 of 39 3-pointers.
Boston slowed down Heat star Jimmy Butler, limiting him to 14 points. Miami was led by Duncan Robinson, who scored 18.
The Heat lost despite shooting 51.3 percent from the field, undone by 16 turnovers, 17 Celtics second-chance points, and the inability to mount a sustained run.
▪ On the first possession of the game, a Marcus Smart steal led to a Tatum fast-break layup. And just like that, the tone was set. The Celtics’ defense was on a string in the first half, with quick rotations, a stout interior presence, and a relentless push into passing lanes. The Heat committed four turnovers in the first 4:24, with Kyle Lowry looking particularly perplexed as he started in place of the injured Gabe Vincent.
▪ With 8:42 left, Tatum drove and threw down a powerful dunk. He hung and swung from the rim and yelled at an official while he was up there and after he landed, claiming that Lowry had fouled him on the way in. He was whistled for a technical foul. That point didn’t really hurt, but picking up a technical that early is dangerous. If, for example, Tatum and a Heat player were involved in some silly altercation that resulted in a double-tech, Tatum would have been ejected.
▪ Jimmy Butler hung from the rim when he dunked as he was fouled with three minutes left in the second quarter. Smart made a plea for a technical, even pointing to the other end of the floor at the scene of Tatum’s tech. But Tatum’s wasn’t for hanging on the rim.
▪ That Butler sequence actually pulled the Heat within 53-41, the closest they had been since the first quarter. But the Celtics did not let it get any worse in the first half, as they instantly responded with an 8-0 run.
▪ The Celtics were 11 for 25 from the 3-point line in the first half. The misses can be dangerous because long rebounds sometimes ignite fast-break chances for the opponent. But the Celtics feasted on the offensive glass. Offensive boards led to a pair of successful 3-pointers. Those could be viewed as a 5-point swing. Boston held a massive 13-0 edge in second-chance points in the opening half.
▪ New Hampshire native Duncan Robinson helped keep the Heat from getting blown off the court in the first half. He was 4 for 5 from the field with 10 points. But he collected his third foul late in the half on a late call on a Smart drive. Referees have a tendency to wait to see if a shot goes in before calling a foul, but it’s a bad look. They did it once on each side in the first half.
▪ When it was announced that Vincent would miss the game, some Celtics fans were angst-filled about Lowry potentially having a turn-back-the-clock game in his place. But it didn’t happen in the first half. Lowry’s sloppy start helped the Celtics vault to their early lead, and he went to halftime with just 2 points and no assists. Maybe the Heat were just being safe with Vincent, knowing they would have at least two more games and that the Celtics would probably get a win on their home court regardless.
▪ The Celtics’ full-court pressure has been effective over the last two games. They don’t do it all the time, because you have to preserve energy somewhere. But the Heat’s offense is clunky as it is, so when they cross midcourt with just 17 seconds left on the shot clock it makes things even tougher.
▪ The Mazzulla call-a-freaking-timeout brigade must have been pleased with him Thursday. He used one to stop a 2-0 run after a Haywood Highsmith steal and layup in the second quarter. Then the Celtics’ offense was just a bit disjointed to start the third. Even though the Heat trimmed just 1 point off the Celtics’ lead in the first four minutes, Mazzulla stopped play to regroup. Then White calmly hit another 3-pointer.
▪ Malcolm Brogdon is still dealing with some forearm pain and it sure seems to be affecting his shot. He was 0 for 2 and scoreless in eight first-half minutes before later being ruled out with forearm tightness. The Sixth Man of the Year is 1 for 13 with 2 points over the last three games. The Celtics haven’t needed him recently, but certainly something to monitor. Payton Pritchard got a look in his place in the second half.
▪ Tatum was held scoreless for nearly two full quarters before hitting a jumper with 6:40 left in the third. But it was more indicative of him being a willing passer than a shooting slump. At the start of the fourth he had 17 points on 7-of-13 shooting.
▪ One positive development for the Heat: Highsmith, who had not played meaningful minutes in this series, had some productive stints in place of Vincent and probably earned some Game 6 playing time even if Vincent returns.
▪ Here’s what should be concerning for the Heat: They shot the ball really well from the field and the 3-point line and got blown out anyway.
Adam Himmelsbach can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @adamhimmelsbach.