MIAMI — Marcus Smart said it at the Boston Celtics’ morning shoot-around prior to Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals: “Don’t let us win one.” Well, they got the one.
The Celtics caught fire in the second half on Tuesday and got out of Miami with a 116-99 victory against the Heat, trimming their series deficit to 3-1 and continuing an impressive streak with their backs against the wall.
Over the last two postseasons, Boston is now 6-0 when facing elimination against Eastern Conference competition. They’ll have to run that mark to 9-0 if they’re going to get out of this series alive. Can they do it? Not likely. There have been 150 instances of teams going down 3-0 in a playoff series, and not one single time has the team in the hole come back to win.
“We understand that the odds are stacked against us,” Smart said after the Game 4 win. “But we’re a team that believes no matter what, and we just got to keep going. All that matters is the next game.”
The next game is Thursday. In Boston. The Celtics are just 4-5 at home in these playoffs, so it’s not like this is some kind of lock, but there has to be a part of you that gives them the edge in front of the home crowd with the chance to push this thing to a Game 6, when suddenly, if it were to materialize, this series would get very interesting.
“We want to come back to Miami. If that happens, I feel like we’ll feel good about ourselves,” Jaylen Brown said. “The next one should be fun.”
So how does Boston get the next one? The blueprint was laid in Game 4, particularly in the second half, when Boston’s shots really started falling and Jayson Tatum, who had been held scoreless in the fourth quarter over the first three games of the series, asserted himself in superstar fashion, finishing with 33 points, including 14 in the fourth.
There will be people noting the “make or miss” aspect of NBA basketball, and it’s true to a degree. Boston made shots on Tuesday that it missed through the first three games, finishing with 18 made 3-pointers at a 40% clip. You can see below what a marked shooting jump that represents.
- Game 1: 10 for 29 (34%)
- Game 2: 10 for 35 (28%)
- Game 3: 11 for 42 (26%)
As important as the makes are, the 3-point attempts matter, too. Boston coach Joe Mazzulla talked about that prior to Game 3, how he wanted the Celtics to get more 3s up, to play the volume game, believing the math would eventually add up to a victory. It didn’t in Game 3. It did in Game 4, when Boston jacked up a series-high 45 triples.
“Well, last game, they had 42 threes. They had 45 tonight. So they are not going to shoot that poorly that many times in a row, particularly if they are getting some open ones,” Heat coach Eric Spoelstra said of Boston’s regression to their shooting mean. “They got a lot of clean [shots] tonight.”
How did Boston get those clean looks? The way Mazzulla said he wanted them to do it prior to Game 3, by playing faster, being aggressive early in the shot clock, before Miami’s defense could get set. Boston forced the Heat into 16 turnovers, and turned those into 27 points by getting out in transition, where the cleanest shots often present themselves as defenders are scrambling back.
“They’re a really good defensive team,” Tatum said of the Heat. “So, the more opportunities you can get to push the ball in transition, when their defense is not set, when they score, it’s easy to set your defense, but you’re getting stops, you’re getting turnovers, and you’re running, maybe it’s a cross match, you find a mismatch or something. That’s how we want to play with pace. So, getting stops and forcing turnovers and things like that is obviously helping for us.”
Even in the half-court, the Celtics attacked quicker, if not in early offense then from the point of initiation. You didn’t see as much surveying and dribbling in place. Tatum, for one, got downhill quicker from the top, collapsing the defense and firing passes to shooters, who were just as quick to fire. Al Horford nailed two early corner 3s on bang-bang catch-and-shoots.
That’s a real formula for Boston to ramp up the tempo, get the ball moving and attack the closeouts of a Miami defense in rotation. That’s how everyone gets into a rhythm. Smart, Horford and Derrick White all made three 3-pointers. Grant Williams made four, matching Tatum’s total.
But what Mazzulla liked most of all was that when the shots weren’t falling, as will happen at some point even on a hot shooting night, the Celtics held the fort down on the other end.
“We had an empty-possession stretch in both halves where we continued to defend at a high level,” Mazzulla said, noting that he liked Boston’s ball pressure.
The Heat thrive on beating the initial defender into the paint. When that happens, as it did all of Game 3, Boston’s defense has not been good in scramble mode. All series long they’ve been losing shooters and cutters once they have to collapse on a driver. The fix is easier said than done: Cut off the driver in the first place. Boston was much better at that in Game 4.
Mazzulla, himself, had a good game. Yes, coaches can have bad games, and a lot of people think that Mazzulla has been having a lot of those lately and this season in general. But on Tuesday, he went with Grant Williams heavy and it paid off. He used his timeouts! If he was to blame for not having the Celtics ready to play in Game 3, which he admitted to, then he deserves some of the credit for the urgency the Celtics showed Tuesday when they could’ve easily mailed it in.
Now, if Jaylen Brown could find his game, the Celtics might really be on to something. Brown has missed 22 of his 25 3-pointers in this series and is shooting under 40% overall. He’s turning the ball over, losing control in crowds he shouldn’t even be tempting in the first place. He has lost his man way too often defensively. He damn near air-balled a free throw Tuesday, when he went 2 for 5 from the stripe.
Brown is an All-NBA player, and he’s being outplayed by Caleb Martin. No disrespect to Martin, who is having a terrific series and is a good player, but that can’t happen if the Celtics are going to make this a series.
And, yes, they can still do that. It has never been done in history, sure. But you can at least connect the dots in your mind. They got Game 4. Getting Game 5 at home isn’t, or at least shouldn’t be, some monumental achievement. It’s right there for the taking.
So now you’re back in Miami for Game 6, and the pressure, at that point, will have swung pretty heavily to the Heat, who will be on the cusp of having to go back to Boston for Game 7, where, as we know, anything can happen.
That’s a long road to look down, but this is just us talking. That’s what we do. The guys who are playing are going to focus on the task at hand. One game. That’s all the Celtics have to worry about. Win on Thursday. Stay alive.
No team has ever overcome a 3-0 deficit, but it’s not a 3-0 deficit anymore. It’s a 3-1 deficit. Look at it like that. If you’re the Celtics, remind yourself that teams who go down 3-0 don’t typically have what most any basketball person would consider a pretty clear talent advantage over their opponent.
The Celtics are the better team in this series on paper. As we’ve seen, games aren’t played on paper. And the Heat certainly are not a typical No. 8 seed. But Boston was two wins from winning the whole thing last year — and they added Malcolm Brogdon for crying out loud. The way this series played out through three (and a half) games, and to a lesser degree the way Boston let Philly push it to the brink and allowed Atlanta to take it to six in the first round, has made us forget that this is, or at least should be, an awesome team.
Perhaps it’s only a matter of time until that team comes out again, and time, for now, is what Boston has bought. Buy a little more on Thursday, and you never know. History might be in the making.