The Boston Celtics finally look like they want to beat the Miami Heat
Boston Celtics goaltender Marcus Smart is hard to miss. His jump shot can be an amusement park ride. He will occasionally attempt an alley-oop pass from midfield. He spoke earlier this month of the apparent brutality of a playoff game as “real dogfighting – scratching and clawing, biting, blood, everything”. He dyes his hair green.
It’s all part of the colorful package, and on Thursday night Smart showcased his role as the defensive-minded Agent of Chaos during the opening possession of Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Miami. Heat.
Smart was defending Jimmy Butler away from the ball near the top of the perimeter when the Heat’s Bam Adebayo headed for the basket. Smart reached for the ball, stripped it and dived to recover it near the foul line before shoveling it past Jayson Tatum for a quick layup and the game’s first points.
A game defines nothing, of course, especially in a post-season series. But that play — a clean flight before the Heat could even fire — seemed to hint at all that was to come in the Celtics’ season-extending 110-97 win. The Heat lead the series, 3-2. Game 6 is Saturday in Miami.
The Celtics, the No. 2 seed in the East, forced 16 turnovers in Game 5. They threw a full-court press at the Heat coming out of timeout. They led by no less than 24 points. In the fourth quarter, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra was pacing in front of the visitors’ bench with his hands on his hips, and Butler, who finished with just 14 points against a crowd of defenders, looked tired.
“I wanted to get us started,” said Smart, who left the game to a standing ovation after scoring 23 points. “I wanted to come in and energize my team, especially against a team like Miami.”
He added: “We did the trick tonight.”
The pressure is squarely on the Heat heading into Game 6. They would certainly welcome the return of Gabe Vincent, their starting point guard, who missed Game 5 with a sprained ankle. But in case anyone thinks he’s in shock, Butler offered a Namath-esque guarantee during his post-match press conference.
“We can and we will win this series,” he said. “We’ll just have to shut it down at home.”
Not too long ago, the Heat had all the momentum. In fact, at the start of the third quarter of Game 4 on Tuesday, they appeared to be closing in on a four-game sweep. There was possession in that game when three offensive rebounds led to a 3-pointer from Max Strus, pushing Miami’s lead to 9 points in front of a home crowd that was ready to celebrate a trip to the NBA Finals.
The Celtics could have crumbled like a sandcastle in Biscayne Bay. But a funny thing happened: they quickly went on an 18-0 run. The Heat’s zone defense was no longer such an enigma. Celtics 3-point shots were no longer going in and out. And the series result no longer seemed like a foregone conclusion after the Celtics’ 116-99 victory sent him back to Boston.
Several Celtics mentioned the importance of a team meeting between Games 3 and 4, which came at a time when almost everyone outside of their locker room thought their season was over. Coach Joe Mazzulla was answering questions about whether he had lost his team. Tatum and Jaylen Brown were scrutinized for their inconsistent play. Broadcasters were making jokes about impending trips to Cancun.
“I mean, Game 3, it was as low as it gets,” Tatum said. “The advantage of being that low is that you can only play better. It’s only from there.
After Thursday’s win, Mazzulla said one of his aides provided valuable perspective.
“The seasons last about nine months and we’ve just had a bad week,” Mazzulla said. “Sometimes you have a bad week at work. We obviously didn’t pick the best time to have a bad week, but we did, and we’re sticking together and fighting like crazy to keep her alive, and the guys are really coming together.
The Celtics have a habit of digging holes — they trailed the Philadelphia 76ers, three games to two, in their conference semifinal series — before MacGyvering got away with it. Smart acknowledged the Celtics may have been too lax in how they approached their streak with the eighth-seeded Heat.
“They surprised us and got us,” said Smart, who was asked to elaborate. “That’s the thing about sneaking up on someone: they’re not supposed to know you’re coming. So that’s what happened. We didn’t know. We didn’t see it, and they got us. It wasn’t like we were trying to have that mindset. It’s part of the game. It’s part of life. It’s part of the roller coaster to play in the NBA.”
Now the Celtics are halfway to one of the most curious and seemingly unbreakable streaks in professional sports. No NBA team has ever come back from a 3-0 series deficit. Earlier this week, the Los Angeles Lakers became the 150th team to try (briefly) and fail (woefully) when the Denver Nuggets swept them in the Western Conference Finals.
As for the Celtics, Smart held back looking past Game 6.
“First of all we have to worry about one – the next game, not two games,” he said.
On Thursday, Smart was a kinetic force. He connected on 3 straight points for a 10 point lead. He started the first half with a steal and punctuated it with another, pushing the ball away from the Heat’s Caleb Martin. He defended and scored, grimacing and scowling, finishing with five interceptions while shooting 7 of 12 from the field and 4 of 6 from 3-point range.
“He’s just an emotional key for us,” Mazzulla said. “When he’s locked in and plays both sides of the ball at a different pace, it kind of gives us our identity and our life.”