For the first half of Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals, it sure seemed like the Boston Celtics were ready to leave the bubble and head on home. They came out slow and sloppy against the Miami Heat, looking very much like the same team that stumbled to a loss in Game 4 that put them in a difficult 3-1 deficit in the series. The Heat were putting up their usual performance of stingy defense and a cascade of dribble hand-offs to create offense and were perched on the edge of earning an unlikely NBA Finals appearance.
Then the second half started, and the Celtics suddenly realized they were very close to being eliminated. As such, they notched up their intensity on the defensive end to 11. Boston looked as aggressive as they had all series attacking the paint. Shots were falling, sure, but as Brad Stevens put in during a timeout in that second half, it was the first time the Celtics had played what would be considered Celtics basketball all series. They went hard downhill around screens, drew fouls, and made life difficult for Miami on the other end of the court. It was what they needed to stave off elimination.
It's how they'll have to continue to play if they want to stick around, too. Boston's problem this series has not been talent. Their starting five features four top-10 picks, with another in Gordon Hayward coming off the bench. It's just been sloppy, uninspired play. That isn't to take anything away from the Heat. They're ready to pounce on any mistake and ensure they never get too high or low on their play. But when Boston plays like they did, there's only so much Miami can do.
Boston's success getting into the paint is what breaks a 2-3 zone, like Miami has been playing basically all series. Stevens was shown before Game 4 imploring his players to aggressively attack the rim. They didn't really do so in Game 4, but did just that in Game 5. That forced Miami to mix in some more man-to-man, especially after Jayson Tatum was able to draw shooting fouls on several consecutive possessions. That's what the Celtics have to keep doing because while Miami is an excellent defensive team, they don't have many elite defenders.
Jimmy Butler is obviously excellent on that end, as is Bam Adebayo. Andre Iguodala's man-to-man defense and overall defensive IQ remains elite. But other than that, Miami's roster tops out as average defenders at best. Jae Crowder is big but not that quick, and was hunted by Tatum at certain points this series because he can't keep up with Tatum's first step. Tyler Herro and Goran Dragic compete but aren't stoppers by any measure. That's where Boston's advantage has laid all series, and Miami has been able to completely offset it by letting those guys linger in the corners of the zone so they're really only tasked with contesting corner three-pointers.
If the Celtics consistently penetrate the zone, Miami will turn to man-to-man. Pick-and-roll is the bread and butter of Boston's offense and is much more successful against that straight-up coverage as opposed to zone. And when the Celtics get into a rhythm like they did last night, they look like the championship contenders everyone had them pegged as after they took down the defending champ Toronto Raptors in the second round.
Boston just looked more crisp than they had at any point during the series. They executed their playcalls, sprinted the floor, and the shots fell as a result. Miami won't shoot as poorly as they did from three in Game 6 as they did in Game 5. They were one of the best shooting teams from deep during both the regular season and the playoffs; they're due for a regression towards the mean. But everything else the Celtics did was replicable.
A 3-1 deficit is tough but not insurmountable. The Celtics took one step towards forcing a Game 7 on Friday. They'll have to take the next step on Sunday night.