Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens hates the locker room cameras that sometimes spy on his pregame pep talk to his players. He detests the wireless microphone the NBA clips to his belt during playoff games and allow a national audience to hear his in-game musings.
But, on Friday night, as Stevens’ team found its missing resolve while rallying back from a 12-point first-half deficit with a jarringly dominant third-quarter effort, that microphone caught him with a refreshingly honest message to his team during a timeout.
"All sincerity, first time I’ve seen Celtics basketball in the last few games,” said Stevens.
He wasn’t lying. Sure, the Celtics were pretty good in Game 3 but their intensity at the starts of Games 4 and 5 was, well, pathetic. And that left the team on the brink of elimination. There were times in the first half where it seemed like Boston was content to watch its season slip away.
Then everything changed in the third quarter.
"I hate those [mic’d up] things,” Stevens offered during his postgame Zoom session before expanding on a frame in which his team scorched Miami for 41 points and, in the process, injected new life into this series. "I just thought we played with great tenacity, defensively, and our offense followed suit.”
It was Jaylen Brown who started the momentum shift. With Miami up nine early in the third quarter, All-Star big man Bam Adebayo caught the ball on the blocks with Brown defending and teammates cleared out to give him space to operate. Brown held his ground as Adebayo tried to maneuver towards the basket and forced a turnover. Brown then raced down the floor and finished a layup in transition.
The Heat would go more than four minutes without a field goal early in that third frame as Boston ratcheted up its intensity. It was Brown, sprinting out in transition, that finished a layup that gave Boston a lead with 7:50 to play in the third frame.
The Celtics were unrelenting on both ends. They answered every Miami make with one of their own. Jayson Tatum and Kemba Walker kept throwing haymakers and a Walker pull-up 3-pointer with 4:26 to play in the third frame had Boston owning a double-digit advantage.
That third quarter was a glimpse of a Celtics team that was hellbent on keeping its season alive. Boston was not content to go down without a fight.
"We got back to playing Celtics basketball,” said Walker. "We were just aggressive and just really feeding off each other energy. That's what we are, just out there encouraging each other.”
Enes Kanter had been an unlikely first-half hero and gave Boston a needed offensive jolt with interior presence. He played only 39 seconds in the second half but he lit the fuse for Boston’s eruption.
"Everybody was so anxious, eager to make a play, make something happen,” Tatum said of the team’s first-half struggles. "We know what’s at stake: We lose and go home. But, at the same time, we’ve got to relax a little bit. Take a deep breath. We know how important every possession is, but we’ve still got to just relax a little bit and play the game, and that was kind of the message at halftime.”
Said Jaylen Brown: "What I remember from halftime is Kemba saying, 'We just need to settle down a little bit.' We all felt the intensity that we all had in the beginning. I don't think we came out flat. It was different from Game 4 for us. We had the intensity, it was just coming out all over the place for us. We just had to dial in a little bit and once we did, I felt like we were fine.”
The question now is whether Boston can bottle up that intensity and carry it into Game 6. A 3-2 deficit is far less daunting than a 3-1 hole that Boston had been staring at. And yet there’s undeniably work to be done.
Boston needs a few more quarters of “Celtics basketball” to do more than simply stave off elimination.
On Friday night, Tatum played the entire third quarter. Big man Daniel Theis wasn’t far behind — and registered two key blocks, including a swat on Tyler Herro as Boston refuse to give up the momentum.
“[Stevens was] absolutely right, we haven’t played the way we wanted during the whole series,” said Theis. "We didn’t play our defense. We made an adjustment and we just went back to our system, the way we played all year and everybody feels comfortable in our system.
"You could tell in the third quarter everyone just enjoying being out there. In the first half it was just like a new situation for us, we were down 3-1 and we just came out and played basketball. Shared the ball, got stops, everybody rebounded and just run.”
If the Celtics team we saw in the second half of Game 5 shows up on Sunday, this series is far from over. For the past few weeks, the lament has been that Boston has lacked mental toughness and typically wilted when things went sideways.
On Friday, they played like a team that wasn’t content with, “3-2-1, Cancun!” They fought like a team that could actually overcome a 3-1 deficit.
Now they’ve got to do it again. And again.