Just three days ago, the Celtics were reeling. They found themselves facing an unfathomable 3-0 deficit against the eighth-seeded Heat in the Eastern Conference finals, and it was unclear if there was time for them to climb out of the muck.
It was perhaps most concerning that this sudden tailspin just didn’t add up. This was a Celtics team that won 57 games during the regular season. A Celtics team that had just pummeled the 76ers in a high-energy Game 7. A Celtics team with more experience in tense moments than any team remaining in these playoffs.
Assistant coach Matt Reynolds, a holdover from Brad Stevens’s time as head coach and former team manager at Syracuse, was watching it all unfold from his seat behind Boston’s bench, where he is generally tasked with determining whether it is worth using a coach’s challenge. He is not a loud voice in the locker room, but he sensed that it was time to speak up.
He didn’t believe the Celtics’ collapse was due to something fundamentally wrong with their approach. He just thought their worst possible stretch had happened to come at the worst possible time. And when the Celtics gathered prior to Game 4 on Tuesday, that is what he told them.
“Matt’s not really a guy to say too much, and he was passionate, and we felt it,” guard Marcus Smart said. “He meant that. You know, we had a bad week, and unfortunately for us, that week had been magnified and really blown out for us. We’re on the biggest stage, one of the biggest franchises, and one of the biggest moments in athletes’ lives is to be in this postseason, and he just told us, ‘Guys we had a bad week. Stay calm. It’s got to shift.’”
Now, it appears the shift might have arrived just in time. After keeping their season alive with a resounding road win in Game 4, the Celtics returned to TD Garden for Game 5 and flattened the Heat, 110-97, on Thursday night.
Suddenly, they trail just, 3-2. Suddenly, the chance to snap an 0-150 drought and become the first team in NBA history to win a series after losing the first three games is appearing more likely than not.
“Sometimes, you have a bad week at work,” Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla said. “We obviously didn’t pick the best time to have a bad week, but we did, and we’re sticking together and fighting like hell to keep it alive.”
In Game 4, the Celtics needed to claw back from a 9-point, second-half deficit before overwhelming the Heat down the stretch. In Game 5, no such heroics were required.
On the game’s first play, Smart set the tone with a steal that led to a Jayson Tatum layup. It was clear then that the Heat, who are tough and physical and ready for anything, were going to feel the Celtics all night long.
The Celtics swarmed for offensive rebounds that led to a 17-0 edge in second-chance points that was reduced only when starters for both teams were done for the night. They smothered Heat star Jimmy Butler, the star of these playoffs who was the best player on the floor during his team’s hot start, and made every step a chore. They eschewed isolation play in favor of quick, precise ball movement that made 3-pointers seem like warm-up shots.
Even though this Celtics core has never experienced something quite like this before, it has been hardened and molded by so many teachable moments, and it’s beginning to show as it displays calm during a setting most other teams would find chaotic.
“Experience is the best teacher,” forward Jaylen Brown said. “We’re a resilient group. We’ve been through a lot. Obviously, it’s the first time being in this situation, but there’s a first for everything. So, we don’t look at it like we’re out . . . We just breathe, come out, play basketball, take our time and do what we’re supposed to do. I think we’ll be fine.”
On Thursday, the Celtics’ attack was complete and balanced and unrelenting. Their leading scorers were Derrick White (24 points) and Smart (23). In many cases, not having Brown or Tatum on that list would be fateful, and a sign that both had struggled mightily.
In this case, though, it was just the result of trust and cohesion and patience. Brown and Tatum scored 21 points apiece and combined to make 17 of 34 shots. Tatum added 11 assists, but deferred to the others afterward.
“That’s why it’s a team sport,” he said. “You need everybody at some point to come up big, and Smart and D-White is the reason we won tonight.”
The Celtics shot 50.6 percent from the field and connected on 16 of 39 3-pointers. The Heat, who were playing without injured point guard Gabe Vincent, lost despite shooting 51.3 percent from the field, undone by 16 turnovers, and the inability to mount a sustained run. Butler was held to 14 points, a series low.
Boston roared to a 35-20 first-quarter lead, stretched its advantage to as many as 24 points, and pushed back each minor Miami surge with aplomb. As the final minutes of the fourth quarter ticked down, the rowdy fans began to chant “Celts in 7!”
That possibility seemed quite improbable just three days ago. But now it’s well within reach.
“The next two games,” Brown said, “should be fun.”