BOSTON — Before Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals, Boston Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla was asked about his team’s mindset going into a second straight elimination game.
“It’s win or die,” he said.
After a dominant performance on Thursday night, the Celtics are still alive.
Boston took control from the start and never looked back, shooting over 50% from the field, forcing the Miami Heat into 16 turnovers that turned into 27 points and had four players finish with at least 20. scores in a wire-to-wire, 110-99 victory in front of a raucous crowd at the sold-out TD Garden.
“Our back has been against the wall,” said Jaylen Brown, who finished with 21 points. “Obviously, we didn’t imagine being in this position, going down 3-0, but when adversity comes, you see what a team really is.
“It couldn’t have been worse than going down 3-0, but we didn’t look around, we didn’t go in different directions. We stayed together.”
The Celtics moved one step closer to becoming the first team in NBA history to overcome a 3-0 deficit and win a best-of-seven series. In fact, across the 151 times a series has been 3-0, the Celtics are only the 22nd team to fall 3-0 with a higher regular-season winning percentage than their opponent. The first two to do so: the Washington Capitols vs. the Chicago Stags in 1947, and the Orlando Magic vs. the Celtics in 2010.
Now, the Celtics will try to do something no other team can do: win in Miami on Saturday night and take this series back here for Game 7 on Memorial Day.
“For some odd reason, even last year, we always seemed to make it a little bit tougher on ourselves,” said Jayson Tatum, who had 21 points and dished out double-digit assists (11) for the first time this postseason. “But what I know is that you can see the true character of a person, of a team, when things are not going well, and our ability to come together, to know things when they are not going well for us. unlike any team I’ve been a part of this year and last year, the core group of guys that can answer.
“I think that’s just a testament to our togetherness, obviously how bad we want it, and we have a room full of determined, tough guys that push to push, to look you to your left and to your right, believe that. The guy next to you will do whatever it takes and fight if it doesn’t work.”
In Games 4 and 5, Boston looked like the team that played so well in the first seven months of the season.
After shooting 29% from 3-point range in Games 1-3, the Celtics have hit at least 40% in the last two, including a 16-for-39 showing (41%) Thursday night. Boston is now 38-2 this season when it hits at least 40% of its 3-pointers; it’s 29-31 otherwise.
Turnovers are also key again. The Celtics forced 16 Heat turnovers in Game 4, which turned into 27 points. In Game 5, they were forced … 16 Heat turnovers that turned into 27 points.
And their score is balanced. For the first time all season (regular season or playoffs), the Celtics had four players finish with at least 20 points — Derrick White (24), Marcus Smart (23), Tatum and Brown.
“I think we always had good looks today,” White said. “[We were] able to get out and run, make that extra pass, and if that’s how you look at the shooters that we have, we’re going to make them more than miss.
“Just keep making that extra pass and find the right guy.”
Boston has been on a roller coaster of emotions for weeks; it has won or lost back-to-back times in its last 11 games, starting with Game 2 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Philadelphia 76ers on May 3.
The Celtics are also continuing a potentially history-making path. Only three teams have forced a Game 7 after being down 3-0: the New York Knicks against the Rochester Royals in 1951, the Denver Nuggets against the Utah Jazz in 1994 and the Portland Trail Blazers against the Dallas Mavericks in 2003.
Boston is now only 48 minutes away from being fourth.
And while the Celtics have struggled mightily at the Garden the past two years in the playoffs (11-11), they are a different team away from home. Including their win in Game 4, the Celtics are now 13-7 since the start of the 2022 playoffs, and have won four consecutive road elimination games.
They will look to make it five with a win in Miami on Saturday.
“It’s going to take everything,” Brown said. “It’s going to be a dogfight. I think those guys are going to play better than they played tonight, and they’re going to come out aggressive.
“We have to be ready to take their punch at home. We have to be ready to be strong and come out and do what we have to do.”