On Thursday evening, the Boston Celtics will face off against the Miami Heat once again, and for the second straight game, their season will be on the line. After dropping the opening three games of the Eastern Conference Finals, every remaining game of the series could potentially send the Celtics on an early vacation.
As such, Boston needs every member of their rotation to step up and be counted — just as they did in game 4. Still, every playoff game is its own battle, as both coaches make adjustments and the players ramp up the intensity, meaning nothing can be taken for granted.
With game 5 set to take place at the TD Garden, in front of a hometown crowd, the hope is that the Celtics bring their A-game against a Miami team that will be missing one of their primary ball-handlers in Gabe Vincent. Still, anything can happen throughout a 48-minute contest, so with that in mind, here are three things to look out for.
Who steps up off the bench?
After a tumultuous playoff run that included getting curb-stomped by Joel Embiid, Grant Williams is finally being given a legitimate opportunity to make an impact. In game four, the upcoming restricted free agent was one of the Celtics’ best players and helped keep the pressure on Miami, both from the perimeter and when attacking close-outs.
Defensively, Williams’ versatility was an important cog in how the Celtics looked to stifle a Miami offense that had put them to the sword in three previous games. Now, heading into game 5 with the news that Malcolm Brogdon is playing through a partial tendon tear, all eyes will be on Boston’s bench to see who steps up.
In truth, the Celtics will need two of their three bench guys to step up to the plate, which means we’re likely banking on another solid night from both Derrick White and Grant Williams. However, Joe Mazzulla hasn’t been afraid to mix things up in recent weeks, so who knows, maybe Sam Hauser comes in and gets scorching hot from deep. Who gets hot doesn't matter; what does matter is the Celtics will need a legitimate boost off their bench.
Containing the stars
You’re not going to shut down Jimmy Butler. The same way you’re not going to shut down Bam Adebayo. What you can do, though, is contain them. In game 4, the Celtics did exactly that — forcing actions away from the middle of the floor and limiting Butler’s ability to build up momentum on straight-line drives.
Containing Butler and Adebayo in a single game is certainly encouraging; doing it on back-to-back occasions is a totally different story. Yet, with the Celtics' plethora of defensive talent, and a game plan that clearly paid dividends in their last outing, the hope is that they can replicate that rearguard performance to keep Butler and Adebayo at bay.
Of course, if one or both of those stars decided to play out of their minds, the gameplan then switches to shutting down the role players — after all, two guys can’t score enough points to beat you on their own, or so you would hope.
Can Jayson Tatum do it again?
Game seven against the Philadelphia 76ers, Jayson Tatum, comes alive to lead his team back to the Eastern Conference Finals. A do-or-die game 4 against the Heat, Tatum finds another gear once again. However, the Celtics need their star player operating at the level for the remainder of the series at a minimum, otherwise, their path back to the NBA Finals looks incredibly difficult.
For all the talk of Tatum not being a ‘big game player,’ he is building a nice reputation as a close-out player who plays his best basketball when his team’s future is on the line. Against a Heat team that is missing two key rotation players, Tatum should feel confident in his ability to get deep into his bag and produce a large scoring night to force a game six back in Miami.
Of course, if Jaylen Brown can also find ways to hurt Miami’s defense (which has been doing a good job on him all series), the Celtics will be in pole position to start putting some of the pressure back onto the shoulders of Butler and Adebayo.
At this point, we’re starting to get into the weeds of the series. Both sides know each other's playbooks and both coaches have begun to show their hands. Now more than ever, it’s about how badly the Celtics want it and how well they thrive under pressure. Because, make no mistake about it, the TD Garden is going to be loud, the fans will be passionate, and there is no way the Celtics will want their season to end in front of their own fanbase for the second straight year.
Jaylen Brown said the Celtics wanted to go back to Miami after this game, so let’s hope the Celtics put their money where their mouth is and continue to fight on every possession in the hope of making history.