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Are the Celtics Really About to Do This?

No team in NBA history has come back from a 3-0 deficit, but the Celtics appear to have as good of a chance as any. Boston finally looks like the team that dominated the regular season. Can it force a Game 7?

Getty Images/AP Images/Ringer illustration

In the life cycle of any great series, belief ebbs and flows between opponents. A mere four nights ago, a Miami Heat team that has played better than the sum of its parts all postseason practically had the series locked up, with a 3-0 lead. Two decisive wins later, and the Celtics have not only kept their season alive, but also stolen back the momentum.

In playoff history, 150 teams have found themselves in the dreaded 0-3 hole. Only three have even forced a Game 7, like the Celtics could do on Saturday. None have come back and won the series. Miami, with two more chances to close out, should still win the series. But after Game 5, in what was a collective triumph of effort and competency, Boston finally looks like what it’s been this whole time: the more talented, deeper team.

Jayson Tatum, who has struggled to balance nuance with aggression all series, broke through with an 11-assist outing in the Celtics’ wire-to-wire, double-digit win. He carried Miami’s extra defenders with him and made simple kickouts, greasing the wheels of an offense trying to rediscover its movement:

Embattled coach Joe Mazzulla was quicker to use his timeouts when the Heat made quick buckets Thursday. He stuck with starting Al Horford, who spaced the floor for Tatum and Jaylen Brown’s drives, and wisely kept the easily hunted Payton Pritchard on the pine. Robert Williams III came off the bench, gobbled up Jimmy Butler—who had generated 1.125 points per chance on 16 actions against him in the first four games, according to Second Spectrum—and burned Bam Adebayo in the paint.

Grant Williams contributed, and helped bump around, block, and bully guards like Kyle Lowry (four turnovers) in the paint. After an ugly first half, Lowry spent the second half holding on to his right wrist. Gabe Vincent, whose sprained ankle worsened Miami’s deficit of healthy guards, was sorely missed. Don’t put it past Butler to wake up the morning before Game 6 and decide to be Mr. Everything, but right now, it looks like the perfect storm could be brewing for Boston to do something that has never been done before.

The 3-point explosion has thrown a wrench into every facet of a series we all thought was over. It makes perfect sense that the variance it creates could also play a factor in breaking one of the NBA’s longest unbroken records. In fact, it’s one of the biggest reasons Miami—with all due respect to Butler, Erik Spoelstra, and Heat culture—has made it this far. But recently, the 3-point line’s boom-or-bust unpredictability has favored Boston.

The Celtics, now 38-2 when they shoot over 40 percent from 3 this season, have outscored Miami by 51 points from the 3-point line in their last two wins. Brown, who was shooting 12 percent beyond the arc in the series heading into Game 5, hit two zone-busting first-half 3s from the left wing:

Derrick White and Marcus Smart also rediscovered their range, combining for 10 triples—five of which were assisted by Tatum. The trio, alongside Brown, all broke 20 points despite sitting a good chunk of the fourth quarter with the outcome already decided. The Celtics need that faucet to stay running.

Speaking of boom and bust …

An NBA staffer texted me a few days ago posing an increasingly familiar question for this offseason: Should the Celtics trade Marcus Smart? Well, this kind of game is exactly why you don’t.

Take the Celtics’ first defensive possession of the game, shown above, as a perfect display of Smart’s unique skill set. There’s:

1. The attentiveness to notice how wide Adebayo’s dribble is
2. The quick-twitch decision-making to pounce in real time
3. The strength to strip the ball from a chiseled big and the accuracy to do it without fouling
4. The heart and reactivity to win a floor-dive against Butler
5. The awareness and chutzpah to shovel the ball from the ground to a running Tatum, who got a layup on the other end, giving Boston a lead it’d never relinquish

There’s a dark side to Smart’s intrepid behavior, especially on a team that has struggled with turnovers. He can see angles, on both ends of the floor, that few can. The problem is he also sees openings that aren’t there. But he is fiery, reactive, savvy, and he never stops talking, possessing a rare eye for the game that is common among elite but polarizing defenders. But he is far closer to Draymond Green on the risk-reward spectrum than Dillon Brooks.

Smart’s steals accounted for five of Miami’s 16 turnovers Thursday, and he had a hand in others. He also did the thankless work of timing switches perfectly and boxing out Adebayo, balancing out his overall risk by being consistent with the boring stuff:

These are the kinds of plays that allow the Celtics to switch liberally, keeping Butler away from the paint and Miami’s shooters at bay, without getting beat up on the interior. At his best, Smart is a versatility booster and a tone-setter, the heartbeat of a team that too often flatlines. “He’s just an emotional key for us,” said Mazzulla. “When he’s locked in and playing both sides of the ball at a different pace, it just kinda gives us our identity and our life.”

When you’re trying to overcome the odds that Boston is staring down, it helps to have a never-say-die momentum-shifter like Smart. A gamer. A fearless variable.

The key, for Boston the rest of the series, is preventing their aggression from teetering over to recklessness. Tatum’s who’d averaged only 2.3 turnovers per game in the postseason prior to the conference finals, has turned it over 4.2 times per game in this series. Two minutes into the fourth quarter, before both teams emptied the bench, Tatum got the ball tangled behind him and flung an underhand behind-the-head crosscourt rainbow pass several feet wide of a streaking Brown. It looked, frankly, like he was trying to get rid of it. When you’re up 24 points, mistakes are easier to swallow and risks are easier to justify. But the moment served as a reminder: Miami will surely come more prepared in Game 6. If the Celtics want to find their biggest postseason foe, though, all they have to do is look in the mirror.

“Only thing that can stop us,” Brown told TNT’s Allie LaForce after the game, “is us.”