At one point during Boston’s 121-108 season-saving win over Miami, Brad Stevens was in the huddle with his players and alerted them to how they were playing Celtics basketball - something he had not seen much of during this Eastern Conference finals series with the Miami Heat.
There’s no question that Stevens’ players were much closer to being the best version of themselves on Friday night.
But just like he and his players have taken their share of heat - pun totally intended - of late because of their struggles, Stevens has every reason to take a victory lap following Game 5.
Because this was the rare game in this series where it felt Stevens was coaching in the moment, a moment that Boston had to absolutely find a way to win just to keep their season on life support for another day or two.
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Stevens tried some new and not-so-new things all game long, positioning the Celtics for what was a must-win kind of game.
The first notable move he made was putting Enes Kanter into the game early, in place of Daniel Theis.
Kanter is one of the best offensive rebounders in the NBA, and it didn’t take him long to remind us all of this fact.
The 6-foot-10 Kanter quickly got on the scoreboard with buckets at the rim.
And with the Celtics opening the game by missing 10 of their first 11 shots, Kanter’s early entry into the game and points that soon followed, allowed Boston to avoid sinking into the basketball abyss of a season coming to a sooner-than-expected ending.
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The way Kanter was playing, Stevens would have had every right to keep riding him out instead of turning to Daniel Theis who has had a whole world of problems in this series dealing with All-Star big man Bam Adebayo.
But Stevens’ instincts told him to ride out Theis to start the second half, a move that may very well have saved Boston’s season.
Theis, much like the Celtics, got stronger as Game 5 wore on before he finished with a double-double of 15 points and 13 rebounds.
“I just wanted to be myself, especially on the defensive end,” Theis said.
Indeed, Theis’ impact was felt on both ends of the floor for Boston.
“He started the game with good energy defensively,” Stevens said. “I thought he was one of our bright spots early. But then I thought in the second half he was excellent. We need him to provide what he provides. He was great in the middle of the zone. He caught it twice and scored. He was great there on the glass on both ends.”
But the play of Theis was just one of the many Celtics whose performance was aided in large part by Stevens’ ability to put him in the right spot at the right time.
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In the second half, we saw the Celtics run a lot more pick-and-roll action with Kemba Walker that often created a 3-point scoring opportunity for Walker who would finish the game with 21 points.
The game plan for sticking closer to Tyler Herro also worked.
He torched Boston for 37 points in Game 4, but was limited to just 14 in Game 5 with most of his scoring coming when the game was all but in hand for Boston.
Boston also made a point of punishing them on the boards (Boston won that battle 50-38).
Because Boston was getting a ton of boards, that allowed them to get out in transition quickly which led to a lot of easy baskets as Boston outscored the Heat 17-6 in fast-break points.
And of all that Boston did well, nothing was more important to their success than limiting Jimmy Butler down the stretch.
One of the most clutch players in the postseason, the Celtics kept Miami’s best late-game threat from making a single basket despite Butler playing all 12 minutes of the fourth.
He would finish the game with a near triple-double of 17 points, eight rebounds, and eight assists.
But Butler had just one point in the fourth, a clear indicator of just how good Boston’s defense was down the stretch in what was a must-win game.
Now comes the real challenge … doing it well enough to get a win that’ll force a winner-take-all Game 7.