BOSTON -- So you're saying there's a chance?
Looking back at the first three games of this Eastern Conference Finals showdown between Boston and Miami, it's unfathomable to think of how poorly the Celtics played.
But for the last six quarters, the team that Boston fans worshiped and praised throughout the regular season appears to be back.
Led by tone-setting defense and aggressive play from their starters, the Celtics beat the bricks off Jimmy Butler and the Heat in Game 5 at TD Garden Thursday night for a 110-97 victory.
Realistically, it wasn't even as close as the final score suggests. Boston never trailed, never let it get to single digits in the second half, and aside from a play here and there, they never lost focus or let their guard down. Heck, even head coach Joe Mazzulla called some timely timeouts to halt any sign of a Miami run.
Now the series shifts back to South Beach with the Celtics trailing 3-2. Sounds a heck of a lot better than 3-0, doesn't it?
"I think just having that defensive mindset, we were able to get stops which allowed us to get out and run and get good looks," said Derrick White, who finished with a game-high 24 points on 6-for-8 shooting from distance. White had 11 points in the first quarter alone, including a deep buzzer beating triple to close out the frame.
"We have to do whatever it takes to get a win, and (defense) is a big side of the ball," he added. "So we have to have that mindset for the rest of the series."
On most nights, especially throughout these playoffs, whatever Celtics team shows up in the first quarter is likely the team you're going to see the rest of the night. In Game 5, behind an anxious and deafening Garden crowd, Boston came out with intensity and poise and carried that through until the final buzzer.
Tatum (21 points, 8 rebounds, 11 assists) had a different vibe about him -- an aggressive, 'I'm going to eat' vibe -- and it rubbed off on his teammates. He attacked relentlessly early on, including throwing down a thunderous dunk in the lane after picking up a head of steam, and was low and engaged defensively.
In the second half, he deferred more to his teammates yet never altered his defensive mindset.
As is usually the case when the Celtics win, they hit the 3-ball with efficiency, too. Thanks to a 7-for-12 team clip from deep to open the night, Boston raced out to a 20-5 start and led 35-20 after one quarter. They were whipping the ball around like a pinball and generating open looks from beyond the arc, including a trio of wide open corner treys that sparked the hot start.
"Tonight we were the tougher playing team, we set the tone from start to finish and we had a great team win, we hit shots. They let us get two, so don't let us get another one," said Jaylen Brown, again referencing former Red Sox Kevin Millar's sentiments following game 3 of the 2004 ALCS before his team came back from 3-0 down to beat the Yankees.
The Celtics recipe to success on Thursday was simple: play with effort, play with fire and trust the things that got you to this point in the first place. Defense is at the top of that list, and Boston delivered in a big way on that end of the floor.
Led by five steals from Marcus Smart (23 points), Boston forced 16 Heat turnovers and turned that into 27 points. They were whistled for just nine fouls all evening, a true sign of defensive discipline, and snared 12 offensive rebounds that generated 17 second chance points.
Boston is the more talented, more well rounded team in this series. I don't think there's anyone that would argue otherwise.
Miami won games one, two and three simply because they played harder and wanted it more. For lack of a better term, they punked the Celtics for three straight nights.
Under head coach Erik Spoelstra, the Heat have a tremendous system and culture in place that gives role players confidence to thrive within that system. And they have a true superstar in Butler that refuses to lose.
Some of those role players -- Duncan Robinson (18 points, 9 assists), Haywood Highsmith (15 points) and Caleb Martin (14 points, 5 rebounds) were effective on Thursday, but Butler (14 points with a -24 plus/minus) was not. Boston simply has more firepower, and when they match the Heat's intensity and will, good things happen.
The Celtics still have to win two more games to advance to the NBA Finals against the Denver Nuggets; Miami needs just one.
But things are certainly getting very interesting now as Boston looks to become the first NBA team to ever come back from a 3-0 playoff series deficit.
"The season's nine months long and we just had a bad week," said Mazzulla. "Sometimes you have a bad week at work. We obviously didn't pick the best time to have a bad week but we're sticking together, fighting like hell to keep it alive and the guys are really coming together."