“Defense wins championships” is a cliche, but boy, does it seem like no truer words have been spoken after Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals.
The Celtics ended up winning in Miami 93-80. Down five at halftime, Boston put together a 32-16 third quarter and had the lead up to 23 in the 4th. Sure, shots started falling. In a nine-minute stretch between the final two frames, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown combined for 24 of Boston’s 30 points on 9-of-11 shooting. But ultimately, it was the Celtics defense, like it has all year, that lead to victory Wednesday night.
“The mental stress and strain we put on teams with our defense has worked and carried us through the playoffs at times,” head coach Ime Udoka said after his team held the Heat to 31.9 % shooting. “You saw it in the Brooklyn series. Guys started to wear down. (In) Game 7, it looked like (Giannis) Antetokounmpo slowed down some. Just having all those bodies to continue to throw at people wears down on them physically and mentally making it tough.”
In Game 5, much of that scoring burden fell on the shoulders of Jimmy Butler. After exploding for 41 points in the opener, Boston has whittled away at his scoring. He followed up a 6-point performance in Game 4 with thirteen points (4-of-18 from the floor) in Game 5.
“Our defense is key. Every night, we come out and hang our hat on that side of the ball. It was great to have, even in a limited role, Marcus (Smart) and Rob (Williams) to be able to be out there because their presence on that side of the ball is felt. Rob does a great job contesting shots, helps out with everybody. Marcus, of course, being on the ball, doing what he does.” Brown said.
Smart and Williams were both listed as questionable heading to South Beach on Tuesday and were considered game-time decisions before Game 5. They both started and played 23 and 26 minutes respectively.
When asked to describe Williams’ presence on the floor, Al Horford (16 points, 7 rebounds, and 5 assists) had one word: “huge.”
“Rob is obviously a very big part of what we do. I’m just impressed with him and his poise and just him being able to go out there and be put in different positions. He’s great defensively. We’re very grateful that he’s able to play and he’s given us some minutes. He’s huge for us,” Horford said.
After missing Game 3, The Time Lord returned in Game 4 in limited minutes. And just like he did on Monday night, he was a force not just in the paint protecting the rim, he held his own on the perimeter and recorded three blocks, two on corner threes. Per Second Spectrum tracking, Miami shot just 2-for-13 with Williams as the primary defender.
Just how good was the Celtics defense as a whole though?
- According to Elias Sports Bureau, Kyle Lowry and Max Strus went 0-for-15 in Game 5. That’s the worst 0-fer for a starting backcourt since they started keeping track of starters in 1971.
- Miami’s 7-for-45 from behind the arc was their worst shooting night in the regular season and playoffs this year.
- Here’s a play that’s indicative of how well Boston is moving on a string:
The Heat often went small with Bam Adebayo on the bench and P.J. Tucker at the five. However, that didn’t prevent Udoka from defending with his double big lineup with Horford and Williams in the frontcourt. With Horford in drop coverage on the pick-and-roll, Williams also drops into the paint to deter Butler at the rim knowing that, even on a balky knee, he can recover quick enough to the corner to contest Tucker’s 3.
“Our defense is key. Every night, we give ourselves a chance with our defense. We didn’t play great in the first half, but we only gave up 42 points and kept us in the game. We were down 5, got settled in the second half, and then the game opened up, and it was over from there.”
“Our defense is what continues to win us games. We gotta to continue hanging our hat on that side of the ball,” Brown said.