At halftime of Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals on Wednesday night, the Boston Celtics were trailing the Miami Heat by five points on the road. Despite this, the Celtics were in good spirits. In the first half, they couldn’t have played much worse, committing 10 turnovers and giving away nine offensive rebounds to Miami, allowing the Heat to take 14 extra shots.
“We weren’t playing our best, in a lot of ways,” Celtics coach Ime Udoka said. “Sometimes, all it takes is one guy getting back to his average game.”
Jaylen Brown was the worst player on the team. He shot 2-for-7 from the field and turned the ball over four times in the first quarter. The second half then began. And, as things turned out, Brown became the face of the team’s comeback.
Brown’s 19-point, 0-turnover second half, combined with Jayson Tatum’s 18-point second half, allowed Boston to finally crack open what had been a hard battle in the first half, as the Celtics won 93-80 over the Heat, putting Boston one win away from its first trip to the NBA Finals in 12 years.
“Same player,” Brown said from the first half to the second. “Just had to get settled in. That’s it. As the game wears on, some of that energy and some of that intensity start to wear off, so the game opens up a little bit. The game opened up for me in the second half.
“I didn’t want to get down. I didn’t want to look into the past and think that this game was over. My team needed me to come out and respond.
“First half was s—. Threw it away. [Just] come out, play basketball in the second half.”
After yet another dreadful stretch of play in this series for the Celtics in the first half of Game 5, it was uncertain whether Boston would be able to carry out Brown’s orders. However, unlike the other times in this series when Boston has gone off the rails, the Celtics did not allow the Heat to break the game open. It was a game that, like the rest of the series, could never be described as beautiful. However, for the Celtics, who have engineered their incredible midseason turnaround around a smothering defense, it was just the latest example of the physicality they have emphasized throughout the playoffs.
“You’ve got to enjoy this,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “You do. 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. Getting on to Boston and figuring that out collectively, are the emotions and the breakthroughs that you have that you remember for the rest of your life. Bring this thing back on the 29th. That’s all we talked about in there.”
“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,” Udoka said. “You saw in the Brooklyn series, guys started to wear down. Game 7 [last round against the Milwaukee Bucks, Giannis] Antetokounmpo slowed down some. But 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.”
In the second half, Brown and Tatum accomplished just that. Brown played the final three quarters without a turnover after those early problems. Brown stepped up to the plate in the second half, in a game that needed someone, anyone to take a shot after the first-half brick fest on both sides. He made the final shot of the third quarter (a difficult midrange basket) and the opening shot of the fourth (a wing triple) to extend Boston’s advantage to double digits for the first time. He made sure it stayed there by scoring 13 points on 5-for-6 shooting in the fourth quarter.
Tatum, who had been pulling at his shoulder during the first half, was visibly suffering from the nerve issue that had forced him out of Game 3 in the fourth quarter. But Tatum, on the other hand, kept trying to make plays for others in the first half, finally finishing with 22 points, 12 rebounds, and 9 assists in over 44 minutes, as he, like Brown, found his stride in the second half.
“Yeah, it was bothering me,” Tatum said. “We just figured it out.
“Obviously, they’re a really good team. Both teams play hard, compete, and do things like that. But guys like [Derrick] White, obviously [Marcus] Smart being out there, just his presence, and JB made some big shots. Everybody contributed from the beginning till the end.”
The series now returns to TD Garden, where Boston, in its sixth trip to the conference finals since last reaching the NBA Finals, will have a chance to advance to the league’s championship round. But, in a postseason that has already seen so many twists and turns for the Celtics, including coming back from a 3-2 hole on the road in Game 6 to upset the Bucks in the conference semifinals, Boston knows its work isn’t done.
“The mindset and the talk that we had after the game was we was down 3-2 last time, had to go on the road and win a Game 6, and we did,” Tatum said. “We can’t think that it’s over with. We need to go back home like we’re down 3-2, with that sense of urgency that it’s a must-win game, not relaxing because we’re up.
“It’s possible [for Miami to come back]. Obviously, we did it last series, so knowing that, talking about that, obviously enjoying this one, but not being satisfied knowing that we still got things to clean up, we still need to play better. The job’s just not finished yet.”