By the fourth quarter of Wednesday’s Game 5, this is what the Heat had left in the tank:
And this is what the Celtics had left:
There’s more to it than that, of course, but if you’re looking for the CliffsNotes version of how a one-point nail-biter turned into a 23-point Boston lead in the six-plus minutes between the 2:44 mark of the third quarter and the 8:21 mark of the fourth, there are worse places to start. On one side: Jimmy Butler and Kyle Lowry, working their way into wide-open 3-point attempts and failing to even graze the rim. On the other: Jayson Tatum sprinting past his man before relocating to the corner to stroke a 3, and Jaylen Brown blitzing into the lane before finishing with a tomahawk jam.
After 19 quarters of a physically demanding Eastern Conference finals, Boston’s playmakers still had some juice left in their legs. Miami’s didn’t. And with a chance to draw within one win of the NBA Finals, that difference made all the difference in the world:
Brown and Tatum combined for 20 points while going a perfect 8-of-8 from the field during that six-plus-minute span, sparking a 24-2 run that toppled a Heat team bereft of offensive answers and sent Boston to a 93-80 win and a 3-2 edge in the best-of-seven series. The Celtics can close out and punch their ticket to the franchise’s first Finals appearance since 2010 in Game 6 on Friday at TD Garden. The Heat, on the other hand, will have to bounce back from consecutive dispiriting losses to stay in the fight.
Miami has done that once already this postseason, responding to a pair of losses against Philadelphia in Round 2 with two excellent performances to eliminate the 76ers on their home court. It’s going to be a hell of a lot tougher this time around, though. Scoring against this Celtics defense—the NBA’s stingiest unit in the half court during both the regular season and the playoffs; a group that has size, strength, speed, and switchability at every position—is a miserable task under optimal conditions. And the state of the Miami offense is pretty goddamn far from optimal right now.
Butler, on the short list of the best players in the postseason through two rounds and a dominant force in Game 1 against Boston, has looked like a shell of himself on offense since injuring his right knee in Game 3. He’s been devoid of burst off the dribble and lift on his jumper, and has gone just 7-of-32 (21.9 percent) for 19 points over the past two games, producing only four free throw attempts and five assists in 68 minutes of floor time. Lowry, imported in a sign-and-trade and handed a three-year, $85 million deal to be the steady veteran hand in moments like these, has dealt with a nagging hamstring issue since the first round against Atlanta; he went 1-of-12 with two assists and five turnovers in games 4 and 5 against Boston, scoring just three points in 46 minutes. Max Strus, the starting lineup’s primary long-distance option, has also had hamstring woes, and missed all 16 of his field goal attempts in the past two games. And Tyler Herro, the reigning Sixth Man of the Year and the most credible locksmith Miami coach Erik Spoelstra has to deploy against elite half-court defenses, missed games 4 and 5 with a groin strain.
The Heat persistently refuse to attribute their offensive struggles to injury, accepting no excuses for scoring a dismal 80.6 points per 100 possessions outside of garbage time over the past two games; for reference, the worst offense in the NBA during the regular season averaged 104.7 points per 100. At a certain point, though, if the only perimeter players you’ve got who can beat an opposing defender off the dribble, get into the paint, and create an open look are Victor Oladipo (who went 1-of-7 with four turnovers in Game 5 after his breakout Game 4) and Gabe Vincent (who was Miami’s most effective player for large stretches of Wednesday), then you don’t have enough to beat a Celtics defense that’s this good and at something resembling full strength, with Marcus Smart (ankle) and Robert Williams III (knee) both back in the lineup. You need to do something different. You need to tilt the math. And Spoelstra had the Heat ready to try to do that entering Game 5’s first half.
Spoelstra dialed up actions designed to move Williams, an absolute menace of a paint protector when healthy in this series, away from the basket to create driving lanes and scoring chances on which Time Lord couldn’t make an impact. He instructed Miami’s players to crank up their aggression on the offensive glass, especially if Williams had been pulled out of the paint, and to prioritize those extra possessions as a vital source of buckets against this Boston D. The result: a 9-2 offensive rebounding edge in the first half, and a 16-2 advantage in second-chance points.
Spo implored the Heat to not just settle for the first contested look they stumbled across, but rather to redouble their efforts to generate the kinds of attempts that they feasted on all season. To accomplish that, the coach mothballed struggling backup center Dewayne Dedmon and leaned hard on small-ball reserve lineups featuring P.J. Tucker at center. The idea was to spread the Celtics out and facilitate high-percentage looks. Sure enough, after taking just five corner 3s and 13 shots at the rim in Game 4, Miami attempted seven corner 3s and 16 shots at the rim in Game 5’s first half.
The Heat also emphasized the importance of forcing Celtics ball handlers into the kind of live-ball miscues that can lead to transition opportunities. After creating just nine turnovers in Game 4, Miami induced 10 in the first two quarters of Game 5, four of which belonged to Brown. Add it all up, and the Heat were winning the possession game—more offensive rebounds, fewer turnovers, way more field goal attempts—which allowed them to hang around despite going just 18-of-48 from the floor and 4-of-21 from 3 through two quarters.
It wasn’t pretty, but Spoelstra and his staff had managed to help a banged-up roster duct-tape-and-bubblegum its way to a halftime lead by grinding Boston’s offense to just 37 points on 38.2 percent shooting. The Celtics’ offensive struggles, combined with Tatum frequently rubbing his right shoulder, combined with the pressure of playing a swing game on the road, combined with Boston’s creeping dread of a fourth conference finals trip in six seasons coming to naught … well, maybe it’d make the C’s blink and buckle in the second half.
Or, you know, maybe not.
“We kept our composure. We still relied on our defense, stayed solid there, and knew if we got our offensive game going, taking care of the ball, getting shots up, we’d be in good shape,” Celtics coach Ime Udoka told reporters after the game. “... We knew we were guarding at a high enough level that if we just turned the corner offensively, we would be in good shape. That’s what the message was: We’re not playing our best, [it’s still a] close game, and if we just have a decent, above-average half, we’ll be in good shape.”
The Celtics coughed up only five turnovers the rest of the way, with Brown, in particular, making sharper decisions with the ball. He used quick drives and quick decision-making to score 19 of his game-high 25 points in the second half. (Asked to evaluated the difference between Brown’s first half and his second, Udoka responded simply, “He didn’t turn it over.”) By not giving the ball away, Boston forced Miami to try to crack its set defense—a process made tougher by Udoka benching Payton Pritchard, his lone sub-excellent defender, and instead giving more minutes to Smart and Derrick White (who’s been fantastic since returning after missing Game 3 for the birth of his son). Udoka also shuffled Boston’s assignments on Miami’s frontcourt players.
He moved Smart off of Butler, putting Al Horford and Grant Williams on the Heat star instead. “Butler wasn’t looking to score,” Udoka explained after the game. “He was more of a screener, making plays in the pocket. He was slipping behind some of our switches. We wanted to keep a big on him, play him like a big.” That shifted Smart onto Tucker, allowing the Defensive Player of the Year to play more of a roving free safety role helping off of the corners, and moved Time Lord onto Bam Adebayo, whose tendencies toward more passive play when faced with longer defenders—see: his struggles against Brook Lopez and Giannis Antetokounmpo when Miami was swept by the Bucks last postseason—have manifested in significant drop-offs in production when Williams is prowling.
And with no one on Miami seemingly capable of throwing a marble into the ocean as of late—the Heat went just 7-of-45 from 3-point range in Game 5, and are down to 29.2 percent as a team for the series—Udoka has been emboldened to let his bigs sit back in drop coverage, plug up the paint, and dare the Heat to make the C’s pay for it. They couldn’t:
When those long-distance tries missed, Boston was ready for it. The Celtics sought every opportunity to grab a defensive rebound and beat the scrambling Heat back in transition. Miami did rebound 10 of its misses in the second half, but scored only eight points off of them; Boston, meanwhile, got nine fast-break points, largely by using the Heat’s aggressiveness against them. “When we get the stops to get out and run, we’re kind of a lethal team on both ends,” Udoka said.
The Heat can be, too, when everything is clicking. After Wednesday’s game, Spoelstra repeatedly expressed confidence in the kinds of looks Miami was able to generate before the end of the third quarter, saying he felt the Heat more broadly resembled the sort of offense they’ve been throughout the season “if you remove the emotion of the misses.”
Then he looked down at the box score, and not even he could remove the emotion of the misses.
“OK, yeah, that’s not a great 3-point percentage,” Spoelstra said with a laugh. “We all felt it. We all saw it … Look, they are a great defense. It’s not like we are going to score 130. What I’m looking at is are we getting shots in our wheelhouse, shots that are in our strength zones. If we are missing some of those shots, you can’t just panic and try to reinvent things.”
That’s what a defense as great as Boston’s can do, though: make you panic, make you rush, make you see ghosts. Take away the paths to points you’ve used for seven months, and force you to find new ones on the fly. Over the course of a seven-game series, that can grind even elite competitors down to a nub. That’s what Udoka is counting on.
“I think the mental stress and strain we put on some teams with our defense has worked and carried us through the playoffs at times,” he said. “You saw in the Brooklyn series, guys started to wear down. Game 7 [against the Bucks], Antetokounmpo slowed down some. Having all those bodies to continue to throw at people wears down on them physically and mentally, making it tough. As long as we don’t give them easy baskets in transition, with our guys, we’re always confident they’ll get it going and figure it out eventually.”
Maybe Herro will come back on Friday, giving Miami another creator to reduce some of that stress and strain. Maybe Adebayo, who scored eight points in a two-minute span in the fourth quarter after the game was largely out of hand, can carry that aggressiveness over to Game 6. (“Put it on me,” he said after the game, which I’d imagine prompted no small number of Heat fans to think, “We’ve been trying to, man, but you don’t seem all that interested in looking at the rim most of the time.”) Maybe some heretofore untried treatment can put some juice back in the legs of Butler and Lowry; maybe a couple of early buckets can get Strus off the schneid; maybe Spo can find another source of offense somewhere deep in his playbook. The Heat have already won a game in Boston in this series, and the Celtics know all too well that a team fighting for its season down 3-2 on the road can be dangerous; just ask Milwaukee.
“You know, if you want to break through and punch a ticket to the Finals, you’re going to have to do some ridiculously tough stuff,” Spoelstra said.
Watching these past two games, though, it feels like that’s all that Miami has left: maybes. And with one more overwhelming defensive performance, maybe the Celtics will take those away, too.