MIAMI — The Boston Celtics were on the street behind the Miami Heat at halftime in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals at five Wednesday night.
And yet the Celtics felt good. They couldn’t have played much worse in the first half, committing 10 turnovers and giving nine offensive rebounds to Miami – allowing the Heat to make 14 extra shots.
“We didn’t do our best in many ways,” said Celtics coach Ime Udoka. “Sometimes it just takes one to go back to his average game.”
Nobody played worse than Jaylen Brown. He went 2-for-7 from the field and committed four turnovers – all in the first quarter.
Then the second half began. And as it turns out, Brown was the face of the team’s turnaround.
Brown’s 19-point, 0-turnover second half — coupled with an 18-point second half from Jayson Tatum — allowed Boston to finally break up what was a rock fight in the first half as the Celtics won 93. 80 over the Heat, putting Boston on another win from its first trip to the NBA Finals in 12 years.
“Same player,” Brown said from the first through the second half. “I just had to get used to it. That’s it. As the game progresses, some of that energy, some of that intensity, drains away, so the game opens up a bit. The game opened up for me in the second half .
“I didn’t want to come down. I didn’t want to look into the past, think this game is over. My team needed me to come out and react.
“The first half was s—. Throw it away. [Just] Come out, play basketball in the second half.”
It was unclear if Boston would actually be able to heed Brown’s directions after another ugly stretch of basketball in this series for the Celtics in the first half of Game 5. However, the difference from the other periods where Boston has run out of Rails in this series is that the Celtics didn’t allow the Heat to open the game.
Instead, things were just as ugly on Miami’s side of the ledger. While Tatum and Brown scored 10-33 in the first half and the Celtics threw the ball around, Miami couldn’t score either. His starting backcourt of Kyle Lowry and Max Strus combined went 0:15 from field and 0:12 from 3-point range for the game. Jimmy Butler, playing through a knee problem, finished only 4-for-18. And overall, the Heat finished a dismal 7-for-45 from 3-point range.
“You have to enjoy that,” said Heat coach Erik Spoelstra. “You do. You know, if you want to break through and snag a ticket to the finals, you’ve got to do some ridiculously hard stuff. Coming to Boston and figuring this out together, these are the emotions and the breakthroughs you have that you will remember for the rest of your life. Bring this thing back on the 29th. That’s all we talked about there.
It was a game that, like the rest of this series, will never be called pretty. But for the Celtics – a team that built their remarkable midseason turnaround around a suffocating defense – it was the latest example of the physicality they prided themselves on during the playoffs.
“I think the mental stress and strain that we put on some teams with our defense worked and got us through the playoffs at times,” said Udoka. “You saw on the Brooklyn series the boys were starting to wear themselves down. Game 7 [last round against the Milwaukee Bucks, Giannis] Antetokounmpo slowed down a bit. But having all these bodies that have to keep throwing at people wears them down physically and mentally, which makes it difficult as long as we don’t give them easy baskets in the transition.
“We’re always confident with our boys that they’ll get it going and they’ll figure it out eventually.”
Brown and Tatum certainly did that in the second half. After those early struggles, Brown went the final three quarters without a turnover. And in a game that was crying out for someone – anyone – to put up a shot on either side after that Brickfest in the first half, Brown stepped to the plate in the second half.
He hit the final shot of the third quarter (a hard midfield bucket) and the first of the fourth (a three-pointer down the wing) to finally push Boston’s lead into double figures. He made sure it stayed there by scoring 13 of his points on 5-for-6 shooting in the fourth quarter.
“Only guys who have settled in, continued to be aggressive, stop flipping the ball,” Brown said. “We gave them a lot more shots than we did in the first half. We were only at the back at five. We knew if we took care of it we would get some open chances and take them down.
“So just keep playing basketball, be aggressive. That’s why basketball lasts 48 minutes.”
It was a similar turnaround for Tatum, who repeatedly grabbed his shoulder in the first half as he was clearly suffering from the nerve issue that briefly knocked him out of the fourth quarter of Game 3.
But Tatum kept trying to play for others in the first half, eventually ending the night with 22 points, 12 rebounds and nine assists in over 44 minutes when – like Brown – he finally found a rhythm in the second half advanced.
“Yeah, it bothered me,” Tatum said. “We just figured it out.
“Obviously they are a really good team. Both teams play hard, compete against each other and things like that. But boys like it [Derrick] White, obviously [Marcus] Smart being out there, just his presence, and JB has had some great successes. Everyone contributed from start to finish.”
Now the series returns to TD Garden, where Boston — on its sixth trip to the conference finals since last reaching the NBA Finals — will have a chance to finally make the final step into the league’s championship round.
But after playoffs that have already seen so many twists and turns for the Celtics — including returning from the exact same deficit the Heat found themselves 3-2 on the road in Game 6 to beat the Bucks in the conference Semifinals – Boston knows its work is not done yet.
“The mindset and the conversation we had after the game was last time we were down 3-2, we had to hit the road and win a Game 6 and we did that,” Tatum said. “We can’t believe it’s over. We have to go home like we lost 3-2 with a sense of urgency that it’s a game to win and not relax because we’re up.
“It is possible [for Miami to come back]. Obviously we did it in the last series, so we know that when we talk about it, we’re obviously enjoying this one but not satisfied because we know we still have things to clean up, we still need to play better. The job just isn’t done yet.”