Early on, nothing went right for the Boston Celtics. They missed 11 of their first 12 shots in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals on Friday, and they were fortunate to trail by just seven points at halftime, considering all of the Miami Heat’s second-chance opportunities and free throws.
And then they came alive. On the brink of elimination, Jayson Tatum bought property in the paint and the free throw line. Daniel Theis was all over the place on both ends, challenging shots and hitting floaters. Kemba Walker got going in the pick-and-roll, Marcus Smart hit a stepback 3, Jaylen Brown filled in the gaps and Boston went on a massive, season-saving run.
Tatum finished with 31 points, 10 rebounds and six assists in the 121-108 victory, shooting 8-for-22 but making 12 of his 14 free throw attempts. Brown had 28 points and eight boards. Walker added 15 points and seven assists, but his game-high plus-21 was no accident: Much of the Celtics’ second-half success was based on him getting into the teeth of Miami’s defense.
Goran Dragic kept the Heat hanging around, finishing with 23 points on 8-for-17 shooting, but fouled out with four and a half minutes left. Duncan Robinson had 20 points, but 17 of them were in the first half. Bam Adebayo and Jimmy Butler had eight points and eight rebounds apiece, but once Boston got going, Miami couldn’t put the clamps back on.
The Heat shot a miserable 7 for 36 from deep, and their offense collapsed when Boston’s rim protection improved. The Celtics led by as many as 19.
Miami leads the series 3-2. Game 6 is on Sunday. Here are three takeaways from Friday night’s matchup.
1. The Celtics are here!
After the counterpunch, coach Brad Stevens told the team it was the first time they’d played Celtics basketball in a few games. Their defense was creating offense, their 3s were finally falling and the Heat’s defense was feeling the pressure.
When a reporter asked Stevens about Boston getting to the rim, he said it had been an emphasis since training camp started almost exactly a year ago. When a reporter asked him about contesting Miami’s jump shots, he said the same thing.
“That’s a huge emphasis for us, not only to stop the ball but then to fire out and play with multiple efforts and challenge shots,” Stevens said. “All this stuff is just kind of back to the basics.”
Brown said that the Celtics had to attack the basket with intensity even though the Heat’s length can make it seem like there are no driving lanes. Boston did that, and the offense appeared to have much more juice.
Although the Celtics might have looked more active, though, Brown attributed the turnaround to an improvement in the way they channeled their activity, not the sheer amount of it. At halftime, he said, Walker told the team to settle down — Boston hadn’t come out flat, it had come out tight.
Brown said the Celtics were “playing a little bit fast, a little bit antsy,” and once they got under control, they shot the ball better, played better defense, and “looked like the team we all know and love.”
Through five games, this series has been equal parts competitive and confusing. Take Boston’s offense against Miami’s 2-3 zone, for example: The zone clearly vexed the Celtics in Game 2, but they had scored pretty well against it in the opener. When they managed to get dribble penetration and pile up points in the paint a couple of days later, it seemed like they had solved the problem. But their rhythm has waxed and waned since then, both between games and during them.
Boston has tweaked its lineups and its approach, but the entire time it has been running high ball screens and trying to generate paint touches. The point of the zone is to mess with the Celtics’ system, make their playmakers rushed or indecisive and keep Adebayo near the basket. As encouraging as this win was, that zone has still worked more often than it hasn’t, and there’s no guarantee Boston will be this team again next game.
2. Big decisions
Stevens did all sorts of funky stuff with his rotation — Gordon Hayward at point guard, Grant Williams next to Enes Kanter in the frontcourt — when the Celtics were having trouble. Their much-discussed small lineup (Walker, Hayward, Brown, Tatum and Theis) had a short stint but didn’t bother the Heat.
“They really haven’t played a ton together,” Stevens said. “And I think the threat at the rim of the big makes a big difference for our offense for us. We’ll certainly have opportunities to go back to it, but there’s not like this obvious answer with big or small. I think Miami does a great job of punishing you when you go small, screening low so you can’t switch, stopping the screen short, rebounding against it. And then it’s harder to score because Bam doesn’t really lose anything guarding a small.”
Ideally, it would be nice to see that lineup get some more run, but this is a perfect explanation of the downsides. If the centerless Celtics are getting stops and running, that lineup can be devastating. In this series, though, Adebayo is a matchup problem, so Stevens has to be selective.
Kanter played 10 minutes, almost entirely in the second quarter. Predictably, this was a balancing act — he helped Boston’s offense get going, forced Miami to revert to drop coverage and had an enormous target on his back on the other end. Boston was plus-3 in his minutes, which must be considered a success.
Down the stretch, Stevens went with the guys he fully trusted. Brad Wanamaker didn’t play in the second half, and no one beyond the Celtics’ “six starters” got on the floor in the fourth quarter, even though Walker fouled out about halfway through it.
This will be something to monitor on Sunday (and possibly beyond), especially considering how much better Miami had been in second halves until Friday. Hayward has hit the 30-minute mark in each of his three games since returning from an ankle injury, and Theis sometimes fouls too frequently to play heavy minutes. Typically, this is when rotations shorten.
3. Bam blames himself?
Adebayo was despondent after the loss. He said he was a step slow, didn’t anchor the team like he usually does and he missed shots he should’ve made.
“This game is on me,” he said. “I played terrible. And that can’t happen. And I know that. And I feel like I let my team down.”
This is admirable but questionable, and Butler accurately said it was on the team as a whole. The Heat seemed to let mistakes snowball in the third quarter, and coach Erik Spoesltra suggested that they collectively allowed their cold shooting to carry over to their defense.
The truth is that unless Adebayo is committing blunder after blunder — and there has yet to be a game like that — Miami’s defensive struggles will almost never be on him alone. He is a special defender, the kind of player who can clean up a ton of mistakes, but it’s not as if the Heat funnel the ball to him all game like the Utah Jazz do with Rudy Gobert.
Adebayo is almost peerless when it comes to switching onto guards and making plays as a help defender, and Boston is smart enough to try to turn these positives into negatives. When he picks up a perimeter playmaker, the Celtics are trying to move the ball to someone else and remove him from the equation. They are also getting better at recognizing when he is overeager with his help and timing their cuts when he is at the bottom of the zone. If I were to rank the Heat’s vulnerabilities, though, this stuff would be nowhere near the top of the list.