BOSTON -- The Celtics ran away with Game 5 on Wednesday night when their star players started to put the ball in the basket. That is a pretty important aspect of the game of basketball.
The Boston offense has occasionally gone amiss this series, which spotted the Heat a pair of victories in the Eastern Conference Finals. What has been consistent throughout the series -- and all season, really -- is that the Celtics defense is downright filthy. Shutdown-level filthy.
It's that defense that had the Celtics still feeling great about their chances of winning Game 5 on Wednesday night despite the team scoring just 37 points in the first half. That defense held the Heat to 42 points over the first 24 minutes, and most of Miami's offensive output came because the Boston offense was either turning the ball over, or the Celtics were letting Miami clean up on the offensive glass. Of those 42 points that Miami put on the board in the first half, 28 of them were products of a Boston turnover or second-chance by the Heat.
Even after a frustrating first half, the Celtics were confident because their defense was so locked in. It stayed locked in, and as expected, the offense found its way because of the defense. The Celtics erupted for 32 points in the third quarter while holding the Heat to just 16 points off 4-for-24 shooting.
That was par for the course with the Heat on Wednesday night, as Miami shot just 31.9 percent overall (30-for-94) and a woeful 7-for-45 from downtown. It didn't matter if the Celtics were giving up extra possessions; their defense forced Miami to miss just about any shot they put up.
"As I always say, we rely on the defensive end. We know our offense will pick up eventually," Ime Udoka said after holding the Heat to just 82 points. "When we get the stops to get out and run, we're kind of a lethal team on both ends."
"Our defense is key. Every night, we give ourselves a chance with our defense," said Jaylen Brown, who turned his game around in the fourth quarter to finish with a game-high 25 points. "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 five, 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," Brown added. "We've got to continue hanging our hat on that side of the ball."
The Boston defense is a beast that simply whittles down its opponents. If it's not a shot in transition or an easy look after an offensive rebound, the Celtics are going to make you work for it. And even those transition shots won't always be easy, because guys like Derrick White, Marcus Smart and Robert Williams can chase guys down to block the shot or make it difficult.
Brown and Jayson Tatum continue to play strong defense, but the unit is anchored by Al Horford and Robert Williams. The 35-year-old Horford will bang bodies with anyone, and Williams' versatility to either lock down the paint or jump out to block a corner three (which he did three times Wednesday night) had Miami searching for answers and seeing ghosts.
Jimmy Butler is at his best when he's getting bumped and exploding to the hoop. He poured in 41 points in Game 1 and followed that up with 31 in Game 2, but has had nothing to offer offensively over the last three games. He's 10 for his last 40 with just 27 points over the last three games, and was a horrid 4-for-18 in Game 5.
Something is clearly up with Butler, as he lacks his usual burst to the bucket. But with the Celtics packing the paint with plus-defenders like Horford and Williams, getting to the rim isn't a very appealing move for anyone.
"I think the mental stress and strain we put on some teams with our defense has worked and carried us through the playoffs," Udoka said Wednesday night. "You saw in the Brooklyn series guys started to wear down. Game 7, [Giannis] Antetokounmpo slowed down some. But having all those bodies to continue to throw at people wears down on them physically and mentally, making it tough."
Miami's struggles weren't just limited to Butler. The Heat backcourt of Kyle Lowry and Max Strus combined to go 0-for-15 on Wednesday night. Bam Adebayo scored 18 points off 8-for-15 shooting, but was nowhere near the impact player that he was in Game 3. He's a different guy when Rob Williams takes the floor for Boston.
The Celtics defense has been suffocating opponents all postseason. They shut down Brooklyn's star duo in the first round, exhausted the best player in the league in the second, and have now done the same to a Miami offense that was one of the NBA's best in the regular season. The Heat have now been held to 82 and 80 points, respectively, over the last two games.
Boston will look to put the finishing touches on the series Friday and punch its ticket to the NBA Finals. Miami is going to throw everything at the Celtics to try to force a Game 7, but there doesn't appear to be much left in the tank. Playing six grueling games against the NBA's best defense will do that to a team.
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