Jimmy Butler never uttered the word “guarantee.” But make no mistake: The Heat star promised his team would close out this suddenly tight Eastern Conference final series Saturday night in Miami.
“We’re going to keep it very consistent, knowing that we’re going to win the next game,’’ Butler said Thursday night, shortly after he and his teammates suffered a 110-97 Game 5 defeat that wasn’t nearly as close as the score indicated, a thoroughly one-sided TD Garden affair that pulled the Celtics within a game of tying a series they once trailed, 3-0.
Jaylen Brown didn’t use the word “guarantee” either. Nor did he frame his thoughts as a direct response to Butler. But when Brown later sat behind the same microphone and calmly said, “These next two games should be fun,” his promise was just as clear. The Celtics expect to take this series back to Boston for a winner-take-all Game 7.
The odds still say the Celtics’ job is tougher — because they are still down in the series, because they are still on the brink of elimination, and because they will play the next game on the Heat’s hostile home court. But it sure does feel like these last two games have flipped the series script. The heat has been turned up on the Heat.
For all the anticipatory joy at the prospect of being the first NBA team after 150 previous tries to win a playoff series from an 0-3 hole, there is the anticipatory dread on the other side of being the first team after 150 tries to lose a series after leading by a 3-0 count. That fear of stunning failure grows with each passing hour before game time, no matter how much the Heat want to believe it doesn’t.
More than once Thursday, the Heat had to face questions about their waning confidence, as if they are the underdogs now, despite being one win away from the Finals.
“The last two games are not who we are,” Butler insisted. “It just happened to be that way. We stopped playing defense halfway because we didn’t make shots we want to make. That’s easily correctable. We’ve got to come out and play harder from the jump.”
One more slow start and the Heat might tighten up beyond repair. The Celtics opened Thursday’s game on a 20-5 run. For the Heat, there has to be some creeping dread that the team they embarrassed only a few nights ago in Game 3 has been replaced for good by the confident, relaxed, high-octane team that won these last two games.
The Celtics bottomed out in that Game 3 debacle, but they didn’t fold. They didn’t panic. In a weird way, the embarrassment and ensuing evisceration of rookie coach Joe Mazzulla galvanized them in a way that has left them looser, more carefree, more comfortable.
“That locker room after Game 3 was the lowest you could be, and I think everyone just relaxed, honestly,” said Jayson Tatum, who continues to lead the climb out of the hole.
But as much as the Heat have to concern themselves with containing Tatum and his fellow J&J star Brown, they might be more afraid of the down-the-roster depth that fueled the Celtics Thursday, contributions from Marcus Smart, from Derrick White, from the Williamses (Grant and Robert), and from Al Horford.
While Heat coach Erik Spoelstra awaits news on injured guard Gabe Vincent and forges on without another injured starter, Tyler Herro, the Celtics come into town on a roll, feeling healthy (outside of sixth man Malcolm Brogdon) and happy.
“We’ve got a lot of love for each other, top to bottom,” Smart said. “We’re out there competing, and it’s a long way to go, and we got a lot of work to do, but it’s always fun competing with the guys in our locker room.
“Obviously Game 3 was a tough one, but throughout the whole year we’ve been connected in the locker room. We’ve got each other’s backs. I was confident we’d come back and compete. We’ve been doing that these last two games.”
Of course, it’s possible time will run out on the Celtics, that the Heat’s pride was wounded enough the past two games that it’s their turn to rise up and respond. But talent still favors the Celtics, and as they’ve shown us repeatedly this postseason, nothing seems to spur that talent like the threat of going home. They won both elimination games against Philadelphia, too.
“For some odd reason, even last year, we always seem to make it a little bit tougher on ourselves,” Tatum said. “What I do know is you can see the true character of a person, of a team, when things aren’t going well. And our ability to come together, figure things out when it’s not necessarily looking good for us, it’s unlike any team I’ve been on this year and last year.”
Spoken like a man riding a rising tide.
Not like one in retreat, wondering whether his team can still pull this off.
“Why would we lose confidence?” Miami’s Bam Adebayo said. “When we started this journey, nobody believed in us, everyone thought we were going to be out in the first round, everyone thought we were going to be out in the second round. Here we are, one game away.
“We’ve always had confidence. That’s not going to go away.”
But their 3-0 lead is gone. As Smart said before Game 4, “Don’t let us get one.” As Brown said Thursday night, “They let us get two; don’t let us get another one.”
Momentum has most definitely switched sides.