Following the Miami Heat’s dismantling of the Boston Celtics in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals, it seemed to be a foregone conclusion that the Heat would advance to the NBA Finals.
The question wasn’t if the Heat would advance. The questions that instead surrounded the series were, would the Celtics fire first-year head coach Joe Mazzulla? And would Boston finally break off their core of Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart after six consecutive postseasons of coming up short of a title?
Not so fast — Boston’s not done yet.
Following the Celtics’ own dismantling of the Heat in Game 5, Boston is suddenly looking to even up the series with a win in Miami in Game 6. Considering the Celtics already throughly dominated the Heat at Kaseya Center in Game 4, 116-99, it’s not so far-fetched to think Boston could head back to TD Garden for a Game 7 on Monday night.
“One of our assistants put it in great perspective,” Mazzulla said. “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.
Brown offered a stern warning following the Celtics’ 110-97 spanking of the Heat in Game 5 — don’t let them win another one.
“They let us get two, so don’t let us get another one,” Brown said via TNT.
For the second consecutive game, the Celtics came out with more energy. And when Boston comes out as the aggressors, it appears the Heat have no answer for the Celtics’ young guns.
Four Celtics players scored at least 21 points, paced by role player Derrick White’s 24 points. Meanwhile, Boston’s “Big Three” of Tatum, Brown and Smart combined to shoot 24-for 46 (52.1%) while scoring 65 points.
The most important stat? The Heat’s 16 turnovers, which directly led to 27 points for the Celtics off of turnovers. It was the second consecutive game Boston scored 27 points off turnovers, with Miami also committing 16 turnovers in their Game 4 loss.
The Heat averaged just 10.5 turnovers in their Game 2 and 3 losses.
“Our offense was disjointed a little bit,” said Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra after the game. “We weren’t able to initiate our offense, get the ball where it needed to go in the spots where you can operate.”
The offense’s inability to operate smoothly was a major reason why Miami’s performance was so bad from the opening tip. The Celtics blitzed the Heat 15-5 to start out the game before ending the opening quarter with a 35-20 lead. Miami never recovered — and never led — as they were pummeled into submission.
The absence of Gabe Vincent — one of the Heat’s several undrafted heroes — was felt throughout the game as Kyle Lowry was inserted into the starting lineup. Unsurprisingly, the 37-year-old looked old and slow, producing more turnovers than assists — four to one — and just five points.
By comparison, Vincent had averaged 17.5 points per game on 57.9% from the field and 50.0% from beyond the arc in Games 1 through 4 prior to his ankle sprain.
Most importantly, the MVP of the 2023 NBA playoffs — Jimmy Butler — was mostly a non-factor. Butler was out of sync, producing his lowest scoring output with 14 points on night when the Heat needed him more than ever.
While Butler scored 29 points in Game 4, he did so on 9-of-21 shooting from the field and 1-of-4 from beyond the arc. In other words, it was the third straight game where Butler was simply ineffective in overall scoring and efficiency.
Despite his — and the Heat’s — uneven performance for the second straight game, Butler will remains unfazed entering Game 6.
“We’re always going to stay positive knowing that we can and we will win this series,” Butler said. “We’ll just have to close it out at home.”
No team in NBA playoff history has come back from a 3-0 series deficit. It’s happened 150 times and not one team has won after trailing by three games.
While history points towards the Heat eventually closing it out, the idea of history being made is a very realistic one — the Celtics can pull this one out and advance to the NBA Finals for the second consecutive season.
Miami has arguably been the hottest team in the postseason. But remember that this is a team that lost to the Atlanta Hawks in the play-in game and very nearly missed the postseason altogether when they trailed the 40-42 Chicago Bulls by six points midway through the fourth quarter. It took a herculean effort — Butler scored 13 points in the final seven minutes — for the Heat to win.
The Heat are also missing key role players in Tyler Herro and Victor Oladipo and have relied on Butler carrying the scoring load along with key scoring and three-point shooting from the undrafted quartet — Vincent, Caleb Martin, Max Strus and Duncan Robinson — to advance this far.
If Butler is unable to turn in a typical scoring output by his standards — he’s averaged 28.8 points per game on 50.5% shooting in the playoffs — and the Heat’s role players are unable to take care of the ball and get hot from deep, the Celtics will likely win Game 6.
And if they do?
The Heat will have some real problems entering a potential Game 7 at the TD Garden.
History could be staring Miami right in the face and this time, the odds won’t favor them.