Boston Celtics coach Joe Mazzula is a man of few words. During an interview with TNT’s Allie LaForce between the third and fourth quarters of Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals on Thursday night, he said just 10 of them. The first seven stood out.
“It just starts with our defensive identity,” Macula said, when asked why the Celtics were the best version of themselves in a 110-97 win over the Miami Heat that kept their season alive and forced a game. 6 in Miami on Saturday.
If you’re just looking at the box score, it might not seem like a defensive masterpiece for the Celtics, but the Heat’s 51.3% shooting from the field and 39.1% from 3-point range don’t tell the whole story. Yes, they may have hit shots, but they never got into a comfortable rhythm due to the Celtics’ pressure right off the opening tip.
The Heat won that rebound and tried to set up Bam Adebayo with the post on the right side of the floor. Only, Al Horford forced Adebayo to catch the ball all the way to the 3-point line, meaning the Heat big man had to put the ball on the deck in the middle of the floor to get to the basket. That was a bad idea with Marcus Smart lurking; the Celtics guard reached for a steal, dove to secure the loose ball and found Jayson Tatum for a quick layup.
“Defensive physicality from the start,” Grant Williams said. “Smart set the tone on the first play of the game, which set up our defense for the rest of the game and we just have to keep that pressure going.”
The Celtics were completely locked down.
Their points were in the backcourt or right half court. They forced the Heat only to get into their sets, which they then had to start away from the basket. Here’s an example of four possessions from the first quarter.
The Celtics picked up the heat early and made them work
They built on their initial pressure by flying off the ball and being smart when and where they helped. Here’s a play late in the first half where Jaylen Brown jumps the passing lane for a steal and gets an easy layup. All of this happens because Smart is against Caleb Martin early, which makes the initial pass to the wing longer and more predictable, giving Brown the ability to time the steal.
In the third quarter, the Heat tried to set up Adebayo with Smart guarding him, so Horford dropped to the paint and made a solid double team. As Adebayo throws Jimmy Butler out, Derrick White has already slid to his elbow to clog up the lane Butler is looking to get into and steal.
On the occasions when the Heat were able to get into the lane, the Celtics’ discipline and rim protection made things difficult. Although the Heat generally shot the ball well, it was primarily about difficult jumpers; they were just 17 of 26 at the rim, 65.4% which was below league average, and they were 26 of 47 in the paint overall.
Just a few possessions in, White plays great defense and goes vertical to force Butler to miss.
Minutes later, Tatum does the same.
In the second half, White refused to bite on a pump fake by Butler, then Tatum stood up to fight off a wild running layup by Max Struss.
“Yeah, D-White, second team defense this year for a reason,” Tatum said. “He’s a big part of our team, our identity, the things we try and do defensively. He’s a very smart basketball player on both ends, and his awareness, his instincts, showed tonight.”
The Celtics don’t have the same level of defense as last season, but they still finished second in the league in defensive rating and can step it up when needed. That’s exactly what they did in Game 5 with a brilliant display that perfectly combined energy and organization. The result was 27 points off 16 turnovers, including 13 steals.
And they’ll need more of that type of intensity in Game 6 if they want to become just the fourth team in NBA history to force a Game 7 after being down 3-0.
“We played with a lot of intensity on defense and I think we just set the tone from the rebound,” Brown said. “We have to be able to do that and carry it over to the next game. We have to expect their best shot in the next game.”