With five games in the books, the Boston Celtics and Miami Heat would very likely attest that, second only to the opposing team on the court, the biggest obstacle in the 2022 Eastern Conference Finals may in fact be the schedule itself.
This postseason, playoff games have come and gone in a rather inexorable fashion. With few exceptions, the second round and onward have proceeded with just one day off in between games in a given series, even when teams need to travel between cities. This has benefits from a viewer’s perspective, as days without playoff basketball have been generally rare. But from a performance standpoint, these teams are being driven hard, and the consequences are becoming evident on the court.
Wednesday night’s Game 5 tilt between the Celtics and Heat illustrated this effect. It was an absolutely grueling rock fight of a game, with two teams who looked visibly exhausted and injured to varying degrees. Jayson Tatum labored through a shoulder stinger, Marcus Smart played through a still-swollen ankle sprain and half the Miami lineup entered the day listed as “questionable” and looked like they were playing at far less than their best. The two teams combined to shoot just 38% from the field in the first half.
While both teams are undeniably fatigued and banged up, this has been a particularly grueling stretch of basketball for the Celtics, who haven’t had more than a single day off in between games since a three-day layoff between Games 2 and 3 of their semifinal series against the Milwaukee Bucks in early May. Their reward for a seven-game victory over the defending champs was an immediate plane ticket to Miami for more of the same, adding up to a stretch of 10 games in just 19 days through Game 5 of the series. Factoring in all their injuries, it can’t be overstated just how impressive this team’s response has been to a uniquely brutal schedule.
Now, with one win standing between the Celtics and the NBA Finals, another obstacle arises: Game 1 of the Finals is scheduled for Thursday, June 2. You may already see the dilemma here. The Celtics, bruised and tired as they are, could face as little as three days of rest before an appearance in the NBA Finals if they advance past the Heat.
What’s more: the ever-formidable Golden State Warriors await, fresh off their five-game series triumph over the Dallas Mavericks, with six full days of rest between them and hosting Game 1 of The Finals. The Warriors haven’t had a clean slate of health themselves, losing rotation contributors Gary Payton II, Otto Porter Jr. and Andre Iguodala missing significant chunks of time this postseason. But their core has remained largely unscathed since Steph Curry’s return from a foot injury in the first round, and they haven’t had to deal with nearly as dense a schedule after winning their first three series in five, six and five games, respectively.
Altogether, these factors make it that much more imperative for the Celtics to put away the Heat in Game 6. A win on Friday night would give Boston five days off before taking the court for The Finals — five days that Tatum’s shoulder, Smart’s ankle/foot, Robert Williams’ knee and Al Horford’s soon-to-be 36-year-old body would doubtless greatly appreciate. Lose Game 6, but win in Miami in Game 7, and that rest time dwindles down to just three days — which, mind you, includes a cross-country trip to Oakland. That’s a significant difference.
There are obviously plenty of more direct reasons why a Game 6 win is the preferred outcome here. The Celtics have all the momentum, as the first team in the series to pull off consecutive wins, and they’ll be defending their home court against a desperate and beat-up Miami team with a chance to advance to The Finals for the first time in more than a decade. Nobody wants to lose a Game 6 at home and set up a do-or-die Game 7 on the road — this Celtics organization knows that as well as anybody.
That said, the season doesn’t end if the Celtics triumph over the Miami Heat. There will be one more dragon yet to be slain. A win is a win, and a Game 7 victory would be obviously preferable to the season coming to an end. But the Celtics have shown their ceiling is as high as any team’s this season, and they’ll need every advantage they can get to fulfill that lofty potential. That starts with a Game 6 win over the Miami Heat, and some much-deserved rest for this battle-hardened roster.