Can the Celtics keep hitting shots in Game 6 or will home cooking turn up the heat?
MIAMI –The locker room wisdom that proved the Boston Celtics right for Games 4 and 5 of their Eastern Conference Finals series against Miami came from an unassuming source. Matt Reynolds, a member of Coach Joe Mazzulla’s staff, spoke after Tuesday morning’s movie session.
“Don’t ruin the season after a bad week,” one of the players said, recalling Reynolds’ message.
Simple but profound, this fitting remark for a fortune cookie made the Celtics forget about their miserable 0-3 start to the streak and about the team they had been, and how they had played, for most of this 2022 season. -23. They became much more aggressive defensively, filling the lane to harass the Heat on the inside. They stopped shooting early, got careful with the ball and started trusting each other again, which brought them back to winning streaks, 116-99 at the Heat on Tuesday and 110-97 at TD Garden on Thursday.
What Boston is facing now, however, might require someone with more oratorical chops. No levity for Reynolds, but it seems like a job more suited to a guy like Winston Churchill, the statesman who led Britain through World War II on the back of a fine cigar and microphone BBC radio.
Here’s one of Churchill’s quotes that seems most relevant today: “When you’re going through hell, keep going.”
Having to go to the Miami arena, still trailing 3-2 and facing Saturday night (8:30 a.m. ET, TNT) by a fully engaged and restless Heat team, is surely a version of basketball hell. Virtually no room for manoeuvre, no room for error, for already 96 minutes and, to succeed, another 96 minutes.
Sure, the Celtics have the momentum of the series and seem to have rediscovered their best. They are, by consensus, the most talented team and have recently put those talents to good use.
But Boston’s face-saving revival in the last six quarters of 16 so far in this competition — they were down 56-50 at halftime in Game 4 — has led to irrational exuberance. The chance that the Celtics could do something no NBA team has managed in the previous 150 tries – dig a 3-0 hole to win a playoff series in seven games – is now being talked about as if it were a given. in advance. Such is the verisimilitude of playoff basketball – the hot hand and the last story dominate.
The reality, however, is that Miami gets Game 6 at home, the first of two chances to knock out the Celtics and advance to the NBA Finals for the second time in four playoff series. Boston and its fans would switch positions in the blink of an eye. After spending the better part of the past two weeks leading the way in this area, there’s a returning sense of urgency for the Heat, a condition they generally respond well to.
Guard Gabe Vincent, who pushed Miami’s pace while averaging 17.5 points and hitting half of his 22 3-pointers in the first four games, missed Game 5 but sprained his left ankle. ‘improved. Actors Caleb Martin and Max Strus could once again feel more comfortable at home. And the Heat might have stumbled upon more help when forward Haywood Highsmith, after logging just a token minutes before Thursday, shot up 36 minutes for 15 points.
Above all, the two leaders of the Heat, Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo, face the greatest challenges. Neither played the last quarter of the last game, their team’s fate sealed, their performance lackluster. Adebayo had 16 points and eight rebounds, but also six turnovers. Butler took just 10 shots, scored 14 points, was team-worst at minus-24. Jimmy in the playoffs? More like Play-In Jimmy.
None of the Heat sounds like they’re accepting the idea that this one, Game 6, is already their Game 7. That is, loss on Saturday and loss to Boston on Monday is assured. Butler and Adebayo aren’t confusing Game 6 with anything else. They don’t plan on needing a Game 7, a big difference from a dreaded game.
“We’re always going to stay positive, knowing we can and will win this series,” Butler said. “We’ll just have to shut it down at home.”
Saïd Adebayo: “Why would we lose confidence? When we started this journey, no one believed in us. Everyone thought we were going to be eliminated in the first round. Everyone thought we were going to be eliminated in the second round. And now we are here at a game. For us, we have always had confidence and that is not going away.
One tactic Boston might want to try is to force Butler to guard and give him a few whistles. So far, the Heat forward has fired 38 free throws while committing just seven fouls. He stays on the floor as long as Miami needs him.
The Celtics, meanwhile, are riding a happy 3-point wave. They went 34 to 17 for Miami in Games 4 and 5, a 51-point advantage. In the first three games, the Heat had the advantage with plus-39 points. Boston has yet to demonstrate that it can win a close game or a game in which its bombs don’t land. Will Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart and Derrick White have the same bounce, the same energy at the other end?
It’s the kind of stuff that will determine whether it’s the series finale or whether teams play again Monday with history in play. Basketball factors and individual performance, not slumped shoulders or odds bettors.
“Who Cares About the Mood?” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said Thursday night. “I think a lot of that is overstated. It’s a competitive series. You always expect things to be tough in the conference finals. One game does not lead to the next game. Based on all the experience we’ve had, it doesn’t matter in the playoffs. It doesn’t matter if you lose by anything.
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Steve Aschburner has been writing about the NBA since 1980. You can email him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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