That upside-down, injury-plagued series between the Boston Celtics and Miami Heat has been so strange that the magnitude of today’s Game 5 in Miami almost creeps up on you.
Marcus Smart, Kyle Lowry, Al Horford, Jimmy Butler, Tyler Herro, Jayson Tatum and Robert Williams III all or part of at least one game missed. This has robbed this series of any rhythm. Each game was its own unit. It almost feels like the actual series hasn’t started yet, and yet tonight one team is giving themselves two chances to win a game and advance to the NBA Finals.
Any chance at this late stage is precious. Miami has already pulled off one of the biggest instant rebuilds in modern esports history, chasing its second finals in three years, despite having almost no cap flexibility or tradable assets just half a decade ago. His two most successful veterans, Butler and Kyle Lowry, are 32 and 36 years old respectively and are struggling with nagging leg injuries.
The Celtics are in their fourth conference finals in six seasons; They haven’t won one in this Tatum-Smart-Jaylen Brown era. Performances in 2017 and 2018 were juicy – young teams exceeded expectations and pushed (2018) LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers to the limit.
Then drama and near misses. Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward recovered healthy in 2019, but the paper juggernaut dissipated in the second round amid fights and Irving’s wandering eye. The Celtics faced Miami in the bubble in the next season’s conference finals, losing a six-game heartthrob internally viewed as a painfully missed opportunity. They then fell so far that they were a scapegoat for the Brooklyn Nets in the first round. More turbulence followed. Another loss now, and regret creeping into the fabric of that core.
Both teams are as well equipped as anyone to defend the whirring Warriors machine, assuming Golden State holds up against the Dallas Mavericks. Boston in particular played well above Golden State during the Steve Kerr/Stephen Curry era. The circle of contenders will be tighter next season.
And while it seems the Celtics have the edge — they’re up 28 in four games and the best team in the league as of Jan. 1 — Miami has a home game. Funny things happen in discrete games. A variable or two guiding Miami tonight — Butler’s return to form after 14 points on 6-of-22 shooting combined in Games 3 and 4, a scorcher by Herro (if sane), random foul troubles on Tatum or Brown – and Miami could be 3-2 ahead with two cracks in the final. The Heat reminded us in Game 3 that they are tough enough and strong enough on defense to pull off a win even if Butler is out after halftime. Finagle one more tonight and all the pressure will shift to Boston.