BOSTON — As the Boston Celtics finished a film session Tuesday morning in Miami, an unlikely voice piped up. The season sat on the edge of destruction after three straight losses to begin the Eastern Conference finals.
“I have something to say,” Matt Reynolds began, as Derrick White detailed to The Athletic.
Reynolds, who joined the Celtics staff as a video coordinator in 2015 before eventually graduating into the role of assistant coach, doesn’t normally speak up in such a manner. Marcus Smart, who has been in Boston since before Reynolds arrived, said he had never seen the coach pull a similar move. But after looking like one of the best teams in the NBA for the entire season — and pushing through all types of adversity over the years — the Celtics were carrying themselves like a splintered team.
They unraveled at the end of Game 2 before getting blasted from the start of Game 3. Like anybody would under the circumstances, the Boston players brimmed with frustration. They were upset with each other. With their situation. With the way their season, so promising just a week earlier, seemed to be disintegrating in a rush.
“Matt’s really not really the guy to say too much,” Smart said. “He’s not a man of many words.”
At the moment, that didn’t hold Reynolds back. If anything, it only amplified his message. He only spoke for about 35 to 45 seconds, but the Celtics needed to hear the words, according to Smart. They needed something to shake them out of what Smart called a “slump” earlier in the series. Reynolds told the players they were having one bad week in a nine-month-old season.
“Don’t ruin the season off a bad week,” he told the players, as White recalled.
The Celtics controlled Game 5 on Thursday night, winning 110-97. Now at 3-2 in the series, the impossible could be within their reach. No team in NBA history has ever come back from a 3-0 series deficit, but they feel confident and together after handling the Heat two straight times. If the Celtics do advance, Reynolds’ talk should be looked upon as one of the nudges that sent them on their way.
“He killed it,” White said. “He killed it.”
Smart said the players all sat at attention as soon as Reynolds took the floor. To Celtics fans, he might be best known for his job of helping Joe Mazzulla decide when to challenge a referee’s call.
The players know Reynolds as a grinder who worked his way up from a student manager position at Syracuse to a spot as an NBA assistant. It takes a certain type of person to survive in an NBA video room. The role requires working long days editing video, while also putting in time on the practice court whenever players need it.
When Brad Stevens stepped down from his perch as head coach to take over as president of basketball operations, the team let go of a number of his staff members. Not Reynolds. The team kept him on as a special assistant. He earned a promotion to the role of assistant in 2022. With a sharp sense of humor and a relentless work ethic, he earned the respect of the players long before that.
“Everybody loves and respects him,” White said. “We see the work he puts in. We’ve got a lot of love for Matt.”
“He does all the little things for us to go out there and compete,” Smart explained. “He’s getting us the film, he’s done the film sessions, he’s doing the scouts. He’s out there giving us reads, watching film with us, going over the plays that we might see, going over the plays that we are going to see, going over the plays that we should be ready for. And just all the little things that you need for a team to win.”
Just never such a speech. Not until the Celtics needed it most. Mazzulla said Reynolds’ view put everything into perspective. Through a 57-win regular season and two rounds of the playoffs, this Boston team played like one of the title favorites.
“Sometimes you have a bad week at work,” Mazzulla said. “We obviously didn’t pick the best time to have a bad week, but we did, and we’re sticking together and fighting like hell to keep it alive, and the guys are really coming together.”
From the opening tip in Game 5, the Celtics were locked in. Bam Adebayo drove toward the paint, but Smart knocked the ball away from the help side and then dove on the court to seize possession. From his knees, Smart shoveled a pass to Jayson Tatum, who raced to the other basket and finished a left-handed layup over Kevin Love.
The Celtics took flight on an immediate 20-5 run by forcing turnovers and converting those into buckets. From there, they rarely stopped executing on either end of the court. They showed aggressive help on Adebayo and Jimmy Butler while still holding the Heat to 23 3-point attempts for the game. The Celtics pushed the pace, found open shooters and took care of the ball. While attacking all of the Heat’s defensive help, the Boston players stayed committed to moving the ball from side to side. The turnover battle has been a big one in this matchup; Boston only committed nine while forcing 16 for the second straight game.
On both sides of the court, the Celtics played their best brand of basketball — the brand that leaves them hopeful they can accomplish the unthinkable. After the Heat shocked them three straight times to start the series, the Celtics now need just one more road win to force a Game 7 at home. They jumped into the bottom of the deepest well, an awful habit of theirs, but nobody climbs out of such predicaments as they do.
“For some odd reason, even last year, we always seemed to make it a little bit tougher on ourselves,” Tatum said. “But what I do know is that you can see the true character of a person, of a team when things aren’t going well, and our ability to come together, figure things out when it’s not necessarily looking good for us. It’s unlike any team I’ve been on this year and last year, just the core group of guys being able to respond.
“I think that’s just a testament to our togetherness, obviously how bad we want it, and we’ve got a room full of determined, tough guys that push comes to shove, you look to the left and the right of you, believe that the guy next to you is going to do whatever it takes and go down fighting if it don’t work out.”
After Game 3, the Celtics looked like they might go down without a fight. Mazzulla called them disconnected. Robert Williams III agreed with the sentiment. Reynolds must have sensed it too.
“I’ve been here nine years and I haven’t really heard him be that passionate when talking like that,” Smart said. “But we’re all grown up. We’ve all grown together. And we all figure out ways to help this team win. And that was one way that he could figure out to help us. We needed it. We needed it a lot.
“Guys were not feeling good. They were a little bit down. We were losing. It’s never fun losing. It’s never fun losing the way we were losing, getting ready to get swept.”
The Celtics fought off the sweep in Game 4 and attacked throughout Game 5. They are awake now and have hope. They don’t expect anything to come easy over the rest of this series, but they are alive again. In a moment of doubt, Reynolds reminded them they could still rescue themselves.
“When you’ve got a guy like that who doesn’t really say much, he says it with a lot of conviction and a lot of passion, it definitely gets you going,” Smart said. “And we’re glad to have Matt here. And we were glad to have him be able to have that sense to say, you know what, I’ve gotta say something, let me say it. And it definitely fueled us.
“(After that) we were just excited. We were just excited to be together. We were just excited to have another opportunity to go out here and play the game of basketball. We worked our butts off all year and we let it slip. We had a bad week. And that’s exactly what he said. We had a bad week, guys. It can’t get any worse. So just keep playing and things will figure themselves out. Just continue to play the right way and trust each other. He just gave us the speech. And everybody was in that mindset. We all felt what he said. We took it to heart.”
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(Photo of Marcus Smart: Nathaniel S. Butler / NBAE via Getty Images)