Conroy: Celtics suddenly feeling the Red Sox’ 2004 vibe

Asked what his team’s mindset was going into Thursday’s Game 5 against the Miami Heat, Celtics coach Joe Mazzula was succinct in his answer.

“Just win or die,” said the first-year coach.

Well, the Celts are a long way from living the life they should be, but they are not dead yet.

Maybe it’s the fact that the pressure is momentarily off them. Perhaps it’s a matter of pride kicking after being rag-dolled by their notoriously forgiving fan base after their pathetic no-show performance in Game 3 down in Miami that put them in an 0-3 hole. Or maybe they’ve finally come to the realization that they are the better team.

But it’s a series now, and suddenly the Celtics have that 2004 Red Sox vibe. There is belief now that the Celts can make history like their baseball brethren and become the first team in NBA history to climb out of the 3-0 series deficit, getting it back to 3-2 with a 110-97 victory at the Garden.

That the C’s, like the Sox, would be the first team in their respective leagues to turn the trick is about all these two runs have in common. As admirable as the Heat are, they are not the New York Yankees, the gold standard of American sports, one that had a particular psychic hold over your team for nearly a century.

But it still would be fun if the Celts pulled this off, wouldn’t it?

The Celtics produced their best, most balanced effort that would not have been in doubt after the first quarter, except for the fact that this is the Celtics we’re talking about. They had four players surpass the 20-point mark – Derrick White (24), Marcus Smart (23), Jayson Tatum (21) and Jaylen Brown (21). Tatum exploded out of the gates with 12 first-quarter points but when his shots stopped falling, he facilitated, dishing out 11 assists. Al Horford yanked down a team-high 11 rebounds and Smart led the C’s at plus-20.

Meanwhile, nemesis Jimmy Butler was held to just 14 points and he was a minus-24 before Heat coach Erik Spoelstra waved the white flag for this night early in the fourth quarter, letting Butler sit for the rest of the night.

After they stayed alive with the Game 4 win in Miami and then dominated Game 5 on Thursday, it’s almost is if the Celts realized they should not be losing to this team.

“It just says that our backs are against the wall and we’re sticking together and we’re competing at a high level to give ourselves a chance,” said Mazzulla after the game.

While tickets for this game were not nearly as hot as Taylor Swift ducats, the crowd was charged from the opening tap – and the Celts responded in kind. First it was Tatum and Smart throwing haymakers, then it was White and Brown. The Celts opened up a 15-5 lead on a Smart three-pointer and the advantage never sunk below double digits.

For a brief moment, it appeared Tatum was letting the emotion of the big game get to him. It’s not that he disappeared, as he had done in the fourth quarters of Games 1 and 2, but rather he was too hyped up. Early in the game, he emphatically dunked the ball and then hung on the rim way too long, earning himself a technical.

But that was just a blip. Smart hit two corner threes, the second of which forced Spoelstra to call his first timeout. Unlike earlier in the series, it didn’t stop the bleeding. Out of the stoppage, Tatum hit another three and White hit a short jumper. Eventually, another one-hand, monster dunk from Tatum and Spoelstra called another T.

The first quarter ended with White’s third three of the frame at the buzzer to give the C’s a 15-point bulge.

Even though Tatum went cold in the second quarter, the Heat showed just minimal push-back, getting it down to 11. But the Celts took a 17-point lead into the half. They even survived another Grant Williams bear-poking incident when, after he blocked Kyle Lowry’s shot, he demonstrably stepped over the prone Lowry out of bounds.

The third quarter had been the C’s bugaboo earlier in the series, but they maintained their lead and when the fourth came around, the Heat had nothing left to give.

Now it’s back to Miami for Game 6 on Saturday. If C’s owner Wyc Grousbeck had a sense of humor and history, he’d offer to buy South Florida residents Derek Jeter and ARod courtside seats for the game.

Brown, for one, is squeezing everything he can out of this Sox mojo.

“They let us get two,” Brown told the TNT crew. “So don’t let us get another one.”


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