For the Boston Celtics, the first half of Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals was a tractor pull. They shot 25% percent from the field in the first quarter. Coming off a simple pick-and-pop with Jayson Tatum, Kemba Walker sent a pass into the hands of assistant coach Scott Morrison on the bench. On offense, the ball didn’t move, drivers were stuck in neutral, and the Celtics were slow to loose balls. But it wasn’t just a lack of rhythm or execution Friday; Boston looked like a team broken by frustration.
Over the next three quarters, the Celtics rebuilt their spirit piece by piece. They got a healthy serving of instant offense from reserve big man Enes Kanter. Jaylen Brown set an aggressive tone. Boston started protecting the basketball. After halftime, Boston ratcheted up the defensive pressure. Tatum started to attack the paint and drew fouls on demand. The offense exploited the middle of the Miami Heat’s zone defense.
When Game 5 was finally over, the Celtics had woken from their slumber, outlasting Miami 121-108 to narrow the Heat’s series lead to 3-2.
“We just knew in the first half that we were playing with a lot of energy, but it was kind of all over the place,” Brown said. “And we just had to dial it in. We had the right mindset from the beginning of the game, but it was a little bit all over the place. Once we settled in a little bit and kept that same intensity, it worked out for us.”
After the early hiccup, every member of the Celtics’ rotation performed their role to specification. Tatum and Brown led the way, opportunistic on the drive and quick on the release from distance. Marcus Smart showed off his first-team All-NBA Defensive bona fides at the top of the floor, and threaded the needle in the half court with crafty passes. Gordon Hayward wasn’t exceptionally sharp, but glimmers of the playmaking point forward with the full toolbox revealed themselves in the second half. Kanter did his Moses Malone impression. And after being a liability early, center Daniel Theis helped bust the zone and lorded over the offensive glass.
Both Theis and Kanter were also crucial in helping unlock point guard Walker who, despite an unremarkable stat line (15 points on 4-for-11 shooting and seven assists) and foul trouble, played the brand of basketball he prefers. Walker is a pick-and-roll virtuoso who can carve up defenses when he’s operating with confidence out of the action. But in the bubble, Walker has never quite found his game. He came into the restart nursing knee soreness. In the conference semifinals, he was the target of the Toronto Raptors’ box-and-one zone. And he encountered similar trouble against the Heat’s 2-3 zone scheme, never finding a way to show off his dance steps.
On Friday night, he finally got his chance to burst off a high screen and hide behind his big man to find space to launch from beyond the arc. His third-quarter performance was second only to Tatum’s in vaulting the Celtics from potential elimination to survival.
“We were just aggressive, really feeding off each other’s energy,” Walker said. “That’s who we are. We were out there encouraging each other … just really enjoying the game.”
Like Walker, Tatum came into Game 5 with an eye toward redemption. His scoreless first half in Game 4 was a source of embarrassment, and after another forgettable first half Friday, he found offense all over the floor in the third quarter. He connected on a couple from long distance but did most of his damage off the dribble, drawing fouls at will against Miami. The Heat simply couldn’t contain Tatum in the half court without hacking him. He controlled the pace of the game, frustrating a Heat defense that had cordoned off the lane for much of the series and allowing the Celtics’ defense to set on ensuing possessions.
Brown exacted his usual damage in both the half court and in transition. As is often the case, Brown discovered his offense in the flow, taking opportunities where he found him. He was also the first Celtics starter to shake off the doldrums in the first half and challenge the Heat’s defense.
During a huddle in the second half, coach Brad Stevens told his players that, for the first time in several games, they were playing Celtics basketball. Though this was probably obvious to anyone who has watched this conference finals series, it was a powerful statement that spoke to both how much of a departure the Celtics’ recent efforts have been from their ideal selves, and to Boston’s potential to be a two-way monster when the players are confident and aggressive.
“He was absolutely right, we didn’t play the way we wanted the whole series,” Theis said. “We didn’t play our defense, we did adjustments and we just went back to our system the way we played all year. Everybody felt comfortable in our system. You could tell in the third quarter everybody was just enjoying being out there.”
If the Celtics can sustain what they found in Game 5 for two more games, that statement can be a prophecy.