BOSTON — “This Celtics team feels like a group that’s tired of fake liking each other.”
That was the dominant story making the rounds after the Boston Celtics dropped Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals to the Miami Heat, going down 3-0. A team that had struggled with consistency all postseason had seemingly finally met their match.
That was on Tuesday, May 23. On Thursday, May 25, the Celtics won Game 5, bringing the series to 3-2, inching closer to NBA history.
“When adversity hits, you get to see what a team is really made of,” Brown said after Game 5. “It couldn’t get any worse than being down 3-0. But we didn’t look around. We didn’t go in separate directions. We stayed together.”
The Celtics dominated the Heat in Game 5, earning a wire-to-wire victory, with four players— Jayson Tatum, Brown, Derrick White, and Marcus Smart — all finishing with 20-plus points.
While the Heat shot 51.3% from the field as a team, the Celtics honed in on Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo, holding the former to just 10 field goal attempts and forcing six turnovers against the latter.
It was a completely cohesive effort from a Celtics team that has failed to consistently deliver that sort of showing. Now more than ever, they’re relying on their togetherness.
“One of our assistants put it into great perspective. The season’s nine months long, and we just had a bad week,” said head coach Joe Mazzulla. “Sometimes you have a bad week at work. We obviously didn’t pick the best time to have a bad week, but we did, and we’re sticking together and fighting like hell to keep it alive. The guys are really coming together.”
Obviously, going down 3-0 wasn’t Boston’s goal. Every team that ever plays a sport wants to win every game they play. But that’s not reality.
The reality is that the Celtics backed themselves into a corner, and in order to get out of it, they cannot dwell on the past. Their chemistry needs to propel them forward.
And after losing Game 3, they had no intentions of going out sad.
“Just being together in moments of adversity,” Brown said. “Staying on the same page and sticking with it. Doubling down on things that we need to do better [and] holding each other accountable has been the key. I think once we get out ourselves together, we all looked each other in the eyes and said like, ‘hey, we’re not going out like this.’”
This Boston core has been together for roughly six years since Tatum’s rookie season. Obviously, there was a break in the middle when Al Horford left, but Smart, Brown, and Tatum have been the constant.
Championship-caliber cores have very short windows. The LeBron James Heat only got four years. The Kevin Durant-led Oklahoma City Thunder were only seriously competing for titles for five. The Golden State Warriors are the anomaly, not the rule.
The Celtics have been to four Eastern Conference Finals in six years and have been a steady force at the top of the East for Tatum’s entire career. Over the past two seasons, it’s seemed as though they’re ready to hit their peak, and Tatum can feel it in the locker room.
So even now, in a historically impossible hole, that’s what they’re banking on.
“You can see the true character of a person, of a team, when things aren’t going well,” Tatum said. “And our ability to come together and figure things out when it’s not necessarily looking good for us, it’s unlike any team I’ve been on this year and last year.”
And if the Celtics are truly “fake liking” each other, they should all be awarded Oscars for their starring roles in a “post-Game 5 locker room Rock-Paper-Scissors tournament.”
From Brown’s wide grin to Horford’s excitement to White’s happy dance to Smart’s cackle, the Celtics truly are amazing actors when they pretend to like one another…
“I’m off Twitter, so I don’t know what they said, what you guys said,” Tatum said when asked about the media narratives. “So, I don’t know how to answer that. Just trying to keep a clear mind. Good or bad. Just trying to focus on the task at hand. The next game. And it’s kind of just as simple as that.”
Instead of reading the headlines, the Celtics are focused. They’ve now won two games in a row and have a crucial Game 6 ahead of them in Miami.
It’s all-or-nothing. Win or go home. A chance at history.
But no matter how the Celtics finish, they’re doing it together.
“Backs against the wall. We don’t have a choice,” said Mazzulla. “It builds a connection and builds an opportunity. I’ve said it all year, the guys in that locker room, they always stick together. When our backs are against the wall, we just have to continue that.”