MIAMI — With attrition taking its toll on both sides — any team still alive is festooned with injuries — the night began at a painful and groggy pace.
All it would take was even just one above-average night for someone to steal this one, and Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, both after slow starts, raised their respective shooting hands.
Tatum and Brown bounced back from sluggish first halves, combined to score every point in a 14-2 run early in the fourth quarter, including three treys from the last and one from the first, to clinch a 93-80 victory in Game 5 against Miami. . The Celtics thus took a 3-2 lead to the Eastern Conference Finals, with Game 6 and the chance to earn a ticket to the NBA Finals for the first time since 2010, scheduled for Friday night in the Garden.
“We just play basketball. We always talk to each other, we encourage each other,” Brown said of his working relationship with Tatum. “We know what we are capable of. Sometimes it’s more mental, trying to overcome adversity or sometimes we think a little too much. We just gotta go out and play some basketball. It feels like not many people can play basketball with the two of us. When he starts, when I start, we know we’re going to put ourselves in a good position to win.
Wednesday night, coupled with their usual defensive work, is what it took.
“My teammate for five years, watched a lot of movies together, talked a lot throughout the game. I knew he had,” Tatum said. “Kind of getting the ball up, things like that, trying to find him, finding the hot hand, getting him to score, making the right play. It’s just something we’ve gotten so much better at over the last five years.
Brown finished with 25 points, including 5 for 9 on 3-point shooting, and overcame a horrific first half with four turnovers — including three in the first quarter. Tatum broke out with a near-triple double of 22 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists after a 1-for-7 first half.
“I mean, it is what it is. I will continue to be aggressive. I’m going to keep getting into the paint, making them stop me,” Brown said, noting that Miami’s physical style has limited him in the paint. “I just have to do a better job of finding the right guy. Hopefully next game, some of these manual verification calls, I get one. But I will continue to be aggressive and continue to get into painting. Miami does a good job of slapping, reaching, and grabbing, making it difficult for you. It’s a bit of both. I have to do a better job, of course, but overall as a team we have to do a better job as well.
As evidenced by Jimmy Butler’s moderate night (13 points, 4 for 18), many players struggled with physical obstacles. Rob Williams (left knee pain) played for the second game in a row and once again forced Miami’s offense on the outside. Marcus Smart returned from an ankle-related one-game absence and, with the help of capable replacement Derrick White, guided the Celtics through a much improved second half.
“D-White for us was amazing tonight,” Horford said. “He was brilliant. His energy, his activity, such a smart player, made some really big plays. People probably won’t talk about it enough, but to me he was huge. The minutes he gave us, the impact he had on that game. It’s going to take different guys to be able to step in and do things like that.
Above all, they cleaned up an error-prone first half that allowed the Heat to score 34 of their 42 first-half points on second-chance points and Celtics turnovers. Udoka, in particular, had a soothing message for Brown after the latter’s error-prone start to the evening. The Celtics only turned the ball over five times in the second half.
“It’s the same thing, the crowd is there, you act like you’re surprised they reach for him and push him from behind,” Udoka said of his conversation with Brown. “It wasn’t really like live ball turnovers, trying to make a nice pass. He was literally taken away from us. Be strong with the ball. Five games now, we have too many turnovers like this, we are not strong with the ball in the crowd. He understood it. For your point, we talked about it at halftime. Them having (42) points, we’re giving up 34 of those with extra second chance points and turnovers. I knew if we cleaned this up, we’d be fine. Obviously, he and the rest of the group did a great job.
The Celtics, back to full health Wednesday night, are now 26-4 since January when they started training Tatum, Brown, Smart, Horford and Rob Williams. And at no time was the maturity of this formation more at stake than in the second half.
The Celtics closed out the third with a 10-0 run for a 69-58 lead. Tatum followed up a four-point first half with a nine-point third. Given how slow the game was, all it took was a moderate surge from one of the Celtics’ stars to open the game.
Brown then opened the fourth from the left corner, Tatum came back with five straight points, including a corner 3 on a flat home run from Horford, Brown added two more bombs, for an 83-60 lead under 14 -2 race.
Tatum then snuffed out a 6-0 push at Miami with a base jumper, and when Duncan Robinson cut downtown’s lead to 87-71, Brown split the lane with a soaring dunk.
Miami suppressed from there and cut the C’s lead to 13 points over a 3-point Gabe Vincent. But with 2:09 to go, after significant misses from both sides, Tatum struck twice from the line for a 91-76 lead. Brown raced into the lane the next time out to fend off the lead to 17 with 1:32 to go, and the subs ready to check in.
And now the finals are one game away. The goal Friday night is not to make it necessary to return to Miami.
“Don’t look past them. Don’t believe what you say on TV, that we’re going to the championship, because it’s far from over,” Tatum said. “We talked about it. We just went to Milwaukee and won a really big Game 6. So just know that it is possible. As if we came with the mindset tonight that it was a game to be won, that we had to keep going, going Friday as if we were losing 3-2.
“It’s a great team, well trained. They are not going to give up. It won’t be easy. So, you know, I can’t wait to be there. It’s going to be a challenge, but it’s going to be fun.