Just play like that.
It seems so simple, doesn’t it? Just play like that. And anything, including the unprecedented, is possible.
There’s no secret here. Never has been with this Celtics team. We know what they have to do to be at their best. They do too.
When they dedicate themselves to playing relentless defense without wavering, play with pace and purpose, and share the ball so that everyone is shooting in rhythm, they are a delight to watch and extremely difficult to beat.
When they don’t? When they are inexplicably disjointed and disconnected? Then they are nothing short of exasperating, and disappointment seems inevitable.
Thursday night, for the second straight time after losing the first three games of the Eastern Conference finals, the Celtics were the best version of themselves.
They survived their fourth elimination game of the postseason and second of this suddenly verrrry interesting series with a suspense-free 110-97 win in Game 5.
As you may have heard, there have been 150 occasions in NBA history in which a team lost the first three games of a playoff series. You also may have heard that there have been exactly zero times when a team rallied to win from that 3-0 hole.
But as the 2004 Red Sox can tell you — and Kevin Millar is available for interviews if you do require confirmation — just because something hasn’t been done doesn’t mean it’s impossible. It just means that the right circumstances, the right players, and right attitude haven’t perfectly conspired yet.
The Celtics are a better team than the Heat. By all serious accounts, they remain a unified one.
Of course it is annoying that they often must teeter on the edge before they play with the necessary focus and poise. But you know it, I know it, the Heat definitely know it, and the Celtics do too. If they continue to play the way they did Thursday night, they can chart their own distinct place in NBA lore.
“Obviously, we didn’t imagine being in this position, being down 3-0, but when adversity hits, you get to see like what a team is really made of,” said Jaylen Brown, who scored 21 points in Game 5.
“I mean, it couldn’t get worse than being down 3-0, but we didn’t look around, we didn’t go in separate directions. We stayed together. We doubled down on what we’re good at on defense, and now I think it’s a series.”
Jayson Tatum, who played a well-rounded, disciplined game in finishing with 21 points, 11 assists, and 8 rebounds, echoed Brown’s sentiments on the determination to stick together even when they appear to be going haywire on the court.
“Even last year, we always seemed to make it a little bit tougher on ourselves,’’ said Tatum. “But what I do know is that you can see the true character of a person, of a team, when things aren’t going well, and our ability to 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, just the core group of guys being able to respond.”
The Celtics played with crackling energy from the start, building leads of 15-5 and then 23-7 in the first quarter and never allowing the weary Heat, who were playing without dogged guard Gabe Vincent (sprained ankle), to build any momentum or tension.
It’s interesting that Tatum included in his observation last year’s team, which lost to the Warriors in six games in the NBA Finals, because Thursday night it was almost if the Celtics had melded their identities from last season (all good things start with ferocious defense) and this one (get open looks from 3-point territory and let ‘em fly).
The contributions came from just about everyone. Brian Scalabrine put it perfectly at halftime on NBC Sports Boston: “I feel like everyone is doing their job and they’re being a star in their role.” That remained the story throughout the entire game.
Derrick White drilled six 3-pointers and set the pace with 24 points, punishing the Heat time and again for leaving him open to send double-teams at Tatum.
Al Horford, 36 years old, played with the bounce of a player a decade younger, grabbing 11 rebounds — five on the offensive end — and dishing out five assists.
And then there was Marcus Smart, the longest-tenured and most polarizing Celtic, who deserves special acknowledgment for delivering one of the finest all-around performances of his nine-year career.
He did it all, and he did it from the get-go. Smart scored 23 points on 7-of-12 shooting, hit 4 of 6 3-point attempts — including back-to-back corner threes early in the first quarter — and set and maintained the defensive tone, finishing with 5 steals, including one from Bam Adebayo on the first play of the game.
“Smart was just a beast tonight,’’ said Brown.
Come Saturday night in Miami, Smart and Tatum … and Brown and White … and Horford and Robert Williams … and every other Celtic who sees meaningful minutes in their third straight elimination game, must play with the same determination, unity, and poise as they did in front of a spectacular Garden crowd Thursday.
“I know I’m going to look to my left and my right when all hope seems to be lost, when the game is on the line, our backs are against the wall, that everybody is going to go down fighting and give everything they have,” said Tatum.
“That’s contagious because we truly — whether it’s an ignorant belief — we do believe at all times that we still have a chance, that anything can happen.”
The shot-making may ebb and flow. That is survivable. But the effort cannot waver.
The Celtics know this. They know they have to play together, with unselfishness and unrelenting intensity.
If they can do that — if they can play like they did in Game 5, just like that — we can start to ask ourselves a question that might have been unthinkable just a few days ago:
So how does 1-150 sound?