MIAMI — Back when the Celtics and Heat were wrestling for Eastern Conference supremacy in the early 2010s, Boston handed out playoff T-shirts that noted, "I am not South Beach. I am Causeway Street. I am a Celtic."
It might be time to order a reprint.
In this city defined by vanity, these Celtics don’t fit in here. Sure, they have moments of sexy basketball -- especially when they embrace ball movement -- but the calling card of this team has become its defensive tenacity. They are not the hardbodies at the rooftop pool, they are the workers in hard hats and neon vests building the latest waterfront high rise.
Boston's postseason run, one that is now one win away from the NBA Finals, has been highlighted by a defense that pushed three of the East’s best teams to the verge of submission.
This is the sort of team that first-year coach Ime Udoka envisioned when he got hired. He saw the potential for a switch-heavy defense that could play on a string and offer no exploitable weak link. In this postseason, Boston’s hounding defense has left everyone from Kevin Durant to Giannis Antetokounmpo and maybe now Jimmy Butler depleted, both physically and mentally.
As Udoka himself put it Wednesday night after Boston’s style-point-less 93-80 triumph in Game 5 at FTX Arena: "We wear teams out defensively and make it extra hard on them, mentally and physically. If we do that, we put ourselves in good shape."
Good shape for the Celtics is one win away from their first Finals trip since 2010. They have two chances to punch that ticket, starting with Friday’s Game 6 at TD Garden. And given the toll of these ultra-physical playoff series -- and with Golden State in position to clinch on Thursday night -- it feels vital that Boston get to the finish line of this series as quickly as possible.
A Game 6 closeout would afford the Celtics a few days of rest before trekking to San Francisco. The Finals tip off June 2.
That would allow some much-needed downtime for Robert Williams to rest his balky left knee; for Marcus Smart to rest a tender ankle and all the other maladies he’s nursed this postseason; for Jayson Tatum to rest a sore shoulder; and for Al Horford to get off his soon-to-be 36-year-old legs for a bit (even if he’s looked 26 for most of Boston’s playoff run).
There is undeniably still work to be done and the Celtics know better than anyone that a 3-2 series deficit is far from insurmountable, particularly with the Heat owning homecourt in a potential Game 7.
But the body language of the Heat during Game 5 suggested a defeated team. Miami is likewise dealing with multiple maladies and that’s further hindered an offense that can’t consistently score against Boston’s halfcourt defense.
In Game 5, the Heat had an impossibly low offensive rating of 58.8 in halfcourt sets. It was one of the lowest numbers in the NBA this entire season, per Cleaning the Glass data. Miami's 3-pointers that weren’t getting swallowed up by Robert Williams’ long arms were lucky to hit iron at all as the Heat airballed a bunch of their looks.
Maybe the best thing about Boston’s Game 5 win was the way the team played with a sense of urgency in the second half. Jaylen Brown’s first-half turnovers left steam coming out of Udoka’s ears, while Tatum spent most of the first 24 minutes clutching his right shoulder as shots routinely rattled out.
It felt like the sort of game that would have slipped away earlier in the year, and that would have left Boston with its back against the wall yet again.
Instead, the Celtics asserted their dominance in the second half. As soon as Tatum and Brown got hot, the game was over. And a loud tomahawk dunk by Brown put the exclamation point on Boston’s second-half smackdown.
Celtics fans, a sea of green amid the Heat’s “white out,” loudly celebrated the team’s victory. They mockingly cheered as Miami fans ditched the hardwood for the club starting early in the fourth quarter.
Boston players had a workman-like demeanor after the final buzzer. Tatum noted, "The job's just not finished yet,” and implored his team to keep going.
As long as the Celtics remembered to pack their defense -- and can keep the turnovers in check on Friday night -- there will be a chance to put this series to bed.
"Our defense is key," said Brown. "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 and Rob, to be able to be out there, because their presence on that side of the ball is felt …
"Every night we give ourselves a chance with our defense. … We've got to keep hanging our hat on the defensive side of the ball."