Training camp started for the Boston Celtics one year ago in the longest season ever, making it understandable if they chose to take the easy way out and bow out to the Miami Heat.
Their second-half Game 5 Eastern Conference finals blitz in Friday’s 121-108 win kept them alive for another 48 hours, two wins from the NBA Finals, one loss from a trip away from the mental and physical exhaustion the Orlando bubble represents.
More than ever, the Celtics proved they are the more talented team, possessing players who are proven commodities even at tender ages. They shook off an uneven Game 4 and similar feeling start to Game 5 to pull themselves from elimination and offseason questions surrounding the makeup of the roster to at least restore belief this team is capable of a Finals run.
They’re more than capable of making history to come back from a 3-1 deficit, but these Miami Heat aren’t a team that will beat themselves, or collapse under the weight of expectations. The Los Angeles Clippers, they are not.
Recent history says it’s more than possible, especially considering the Celtics’ elevator goes higher than this opponent.
Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown played more to their experience than their ages in that devastating third-quarter run that turned the game on its head, and given the tone of these insane playoffs, perhaps the series, too.
Brown has been opportunistic up until this point, and luckily the Celtics finally started looking for him as he hit corner three’s and defended Miami’s Bam Adebayo so well that Adebayo blamed himself for the loss.
“This game’s on me, I played terrible, I feel like I let my team down today,” he said. “I gotta play better. That can’t happen.”
The styles are so contrasting, it’s easy to tell which team is dictating the terms of engagement without looking at the score. The Miami Heat drag the Celtics into the muck better than any team they’ve faced in the last three years, a place the Celtics don’t care to be. Once the Celtics increased the pace, shared the ball and harnessed their nervous energy that was so obvious to start the game, the series result was no longer a foregone conclusion.
“We were playing with a lot of energy but it was all over the place,” Brown said. “We had to dial it in. We were playing a little bit fast. A little antsy.”
Celtics coach Brad Stevens wouldn’t even credit himself with making adjustments after being outmaneuvered by Erik Spoelstra in the first five games, essentially telling his team in the decisive third quarter that they looked like the Boston Celtics for the first time in a long time.
‘We looked like the team we all know and love,” Brown said. “We came this far, sacrificed so much and been here a long assed time. If we’re gonna go down, we’ll go down fighting.”
It’s a far contrast to the scattered bunch that went down in flames well over a year ago, losing four straight to the Milwaukee Bucks in the second round that prompted Stevens to blame himself, Terry Rozier to point out his sacrifices and Kyrie Irving to head out of town.
Tatum and Brown were there for that catastrophe, and their collective tones ensured some of the frustration that poured out of their locker room following Game 2’s loss between Brown and Marcus Smart didn’t lead to dissension.
For a team that lacks any graybeards — a rarity for a team making it this deep into the playoffs, given NBA history — they make up for in practical experience. Tatum and Brown speak of basketball and life with the sage wisdom of men twenty years their senior, able to weave between issues of racial strife and their occupations seamlessly.
When the Celtics struggle, it’s easy to diagnose. Kemba Walker is going through his first conference finals and his size makes him a target on defense. Gordon Hayward hasn’t found his legs yet and won’t force the action.
Tatum struggles but it’s not for long stretches. He makes internal adjustments midstream, and even though Game 5 was his worst shooting night of the series (8-22), his 17-point third quarter ensured a Game 6 would be necessary.
Their dual focus makes it easy to see how submitting to Miami’s will wasn’t an option on this night, as Tatum nonchalantly said “there’s no fun being down 3-1” to describe the team’s mood in the last few days.
“We can cover for our mistakes if we play hard enough,” said Brown, which described the Celtics treading water for 24 minutes, looking as if they were waiting on the inevitable knockout punch before they delivered a haymaker of their own.
Usually, Game 4’s reveal which team will win the series, even if the eventual winner loses that game. The how is much more important than the result as the series takes full shape and there’s a quiet acknowledgment which team is best.
The prevailing feeling was Boston was likely the better team but Miami stayed true to itself longer, concentrated harder and put the Celtics on their heels more times than not.
They turned the tables, but Miami isn’t shaken.
With the exception of LeBron James, who in this final four has experience in closing a series? Denver has a rap sheet of coming back from deep deficits, using a combination of luck and youthful ignorance to ride through the first two rounds. Miami’s star, Jimmy Butler, has never been beyond the second round until this year.
Brown and Tatum were babies when the Celtics gave James’ Cavaliers a seven-game run for his money in 2018, losing the decisive game on their home court.
In a way, there’s just as much of a chance for the Celtics to pull the improbable as it is for the Heat to gather themselves, play a full game and enforce their will to move onto the Finals.
But the Celtics’ two stars are experienced enough to know better and young enough to no longer care, making Game 6 impossible to predict.
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