BOSTON — The seasoned Celtics fan has learned, the hard way, over and over and over, not to pre-celebrate a game that seems to be hurtling toward the W column.
Game 5 of this Eastern Conference finals, in which the Celtics roared to a 110-97 victory over the Miami Heat Thursday night at TD Garden, was different, And it’s not just that the Celtics never trailed in this one, or that they built a 23-7 first-quarter lead over the Heat while the fashionably late were still settling into their seats, or that Boston led by as many as 24 points.
This time, the Celtics seemed to answer anything that had so much as a whiff of a Miami comeback and in headachy case, they responded by doing something brassy and loud — a blocked shot by Derrick White, a 3-pointer by Marcus Smart, a deftly made pass from that ol’ playmaker Jayson Tatum, who had 11 assists to go along with his 21 points.
And whereas the Celtics seemed to have a hell of a lot of fun beating the Heat in Game 4 in Miami — that’s how Jaylen Brown put it, you’ll remember — this time the Celtics played with a mood that alternated between anger and a businesslike detachment.
“The first play on defense, where (Marcus) Smart dives on the floor, gettin’ up on transition, that was contagious,” said Tatum. “Smart played his ass off tonight.”
There was a lot of that going on. Four Celtics scored 20 or more points — White (24), Smart (23), Jaylen Brown (21) and Tatum (21) — and White and Smart combined for 10 3-pointers. As if to illustrate their mettle — again, Tatum said it all began with Smart diving the floor — the Celtics outscored the Heat 17-7 on second-chance points.
We mentioned the anger. Tatum got called for a technical foul during the raucous first quarter after making a dunk — “I thought I got pushed,” he later said — and Boston’s reaction to the tech, this after Jimmy Butler hit on the free throw, was to go on a 17-0 run. The run included five 3-pointers, two of them coming on back-to-back no-doubters from the corner by Smart.
It’s true that the Heat, already hurt by a short bench, were without guard Gabe Vincent, who’s dealing with an ankle injury. But that, unto itself, doesn’t explain Boston’s swarming defense, its balanced offense, or a determination not to let this one slip away. Vincent’s absence doesn’t explain Smart diving onto the parquet just seconds into the game. Vincent’s absence doesn’t explain those back-to-back, nothing-but-net 3-pointers from the corner by Smart.
From down 3-0, the Celtics now trail 3-2 in the series, with Game 6 in Miami Saturday night. If the Celtics tie the series, the for-all-the-marbles Game 7 is Monday night in Boston. And let’s all gather ’round the campfire and say it once again: No team in NBA history has won a playoff series after being down 3-0.
But while there are a million basketball reasons why the Celtics have won two straight games, we must turn, once again, to that now-famous “galvanizing” meeting that took place in Miami the night after the Celtics embarrassed themselves in Game 3.
Everything has changed since then. Whatever happens from here on out, it can be rightly said the Celtics got their dignity back as a result of that meeting.
Brown said as much with this comment: “Just being together in moments of adversity, staying on the same page and sticking with it, doubling down on things that we need to do better, holding each other accountable, has been the key. Once we got ourselves together we all looked each other in the eyes and said, ‘We not goin’ out like this.’ One, we represent the organization, but we also represent ourselves and our families. And obviously, we didn’t perform like we needed to perform. So that Game 4 was part of that atonement.”
The mere fact that Brown mentioned their own families is telling. How often does that happen? Players no doubt think in those terms, but how often do they share it?
And atonement? Atonement? Really? This is some serious stuff, and it helps explain why the Celtics doubled down in the first quarter of Game 5, showing everyone that this time a safe lead simply wasn’t enough.
After the game, Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla disclosed that one of his assistant coaches, later identified as Matt Reynolds, put things “in great perspective. The seasons are like nine months long, and we just had a bad week. Sometimes you have a bad week at work. 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.”
Given the entire theme of this season — “Unfinished Business” — the Celtics still need to win a championship for the rebound from the bad week to have any lasting meaning. If that happens — that is, if the Celtics make it to the NBA Finals and topple the Denver Nuggets for banner No. 18 — it’ll lead to the usual rollout of books, documentaries, special sections and guest hits on the couch next to Jimmy, Seth and the other late-night hosts.
What’ll really be needed, though, are books, documentaries, special sections and guest hits that are devoted solely to that meeting Monday night in Miami.
(Photo of Jayson Tatum dunking in Game 5: Chris Marion / NBAE via Getty Images)