Ranting about “crunch” time and the supposed implosion of Miami’s offense — and of LeBron James — in the most important moments on Tuesday wouldn’t be totally off the mark. The Heat weren’t in peak form on offense in their 94-90 loss to Boston in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals. They too often would run one quick-hitting action, perhaps a James/Dwyane Wade pick-and-roll, and stagnate from there, finally chucking a contested mid-range jumper or three-pointer as the shot clock ticked down.
This wasn’t just a fourth-quarter thing, either. James, after all, scored nine points in the final period and played at a high-octane level for about a two-minute stretch early in the quarter and again on certain later possessions. He drove at Kevin Garnett but had his layup blocked with about 3:20 remaining. On Miami’s next possession, he sliced into the heart of Boston’s defense to set up Mario Chalmers’ three-pointer that put the Heat ahead 83-82 with 2:33 to play. He made a similar move to create another open Chalmers three (a miss) with 41 seconds left and Miami trailing 90-86. But in between those stretches of aggression, James was mostly content to set a pick for Wade and roll quickly to the corner, where he became a non-threat.
James’ crunch-time performance was spotty again, but it did not cost the Heat the game and deal them a 3-2 deficit entering Game 6 in Boston on Thursday. If you want to rip apart Miami’s offense, you’d be better off focusing on stretches late in the second and third quarters, when the Heat collapsed as one of the perimeter stars rested. The Heat were plus-12 in the 37 minutes James and Wade played together in Game 5, meaning they were a whopping minus-16 in the 11 minutes when only one was on the floor, according to NBA.com. Those latter stretches included some ugly offense — one-set possessions that resulted in contested, lazy jumpers — with plays that broke down when that first action failed to yield anything and Miami was left to improvise with five guys standing still and the shot clock dwindling.
The Heat’s offense lacked a second oomph and a general vigor, and that is just not good enough against the league’s best defensive team. But here’s the thing: The Celtics have been among the two or three best defensive teams all season, and it wasn’t good enough for them to sniff title contention. They scored 98.9 points per 100 possessions in the regular season, the sixth-worst mark in the league, in a virtual tie with the Wizards. That number dropped to 95.0 against the Hawks and 97.0 against the Sixers in the first two rounds of the playoffs. Boston found a way to grind out those series while looking like the team many thought it was: a defensive juggernaut that just wouldn’t score enough to beat a truly great team. One-sided teams like this have basically no record of making the NBA Finals. In the last two-plus decades, only the 1998-99 Knicks have gotten so close to a championship while rating so poorly on offense.
In five games against Miami, Boston has scored 102.8 points per 100 possessions, a mark that would have ranked just outside the top 10 in the regular season. The Celtics have hit 5.8 threes per game, a hair higher than their regular-season average (5.5) and much higher than their average against Atlanta and Philadelphia. They have managed that uptick even though the pace of this series has been slower than Boston’s average regular-season game.
More remarkable, the Celtics have morphed from a chronically high-turnover team into one showing great care for the ball. Boston has turned the ball over on just 9.4 percent of its possessions in the conference finals, a rate that would have been the second lowest in the regular season, behind the Sixers, who set the record for lowest turnover rate in NBA history. That is a sea change for a Boston team that has ranked in the bottom six in turnover rate every season of this Big Three era.
If you want to know why Boston is, shockingly, one victory from its third Finals appearance in five years, start here. And if you want to condemn Miami for quaking in the clutch, start here, and not with some psychoanalysis of James’ tendencies on offense in the last minute of games. Boston is suddenly scoring at an acceptable rate both because it has risen to the occasion, with a newfound avoidance of turnovers and some brilliant adjustments, and because Miami has fallen on its face defensively. Boston doesn’t need 100 points to win; it just needs 90 or 95 instead of 85 or 90, and all these little things have added up to those extra precious points.
For the first six quarters of Games 3 and 4 in Boston, the Heat were a disorganized mess in the half-court. They botched rotations, appeared confused over how to defend basic plays (especially the pick-and-roll between Rajon Rondo and Paul Pierce), miscommunicated on switches and generally left Boston players open. No Miami player was blameless, and James, in particular, looked unfocused on help defense and in tracking Pierce on cuts to the basket. The Heat recovered in the second half of Game 4 but could not finish the job — punishment for failing to begin the work until after halftime.
Back in Miami on Tuesday, those half-court hiccups mostly disappeared. But the real breakdowns happened in transition, where Miami lived up to the pouting stereotype that Rondo conjured for the nation in his interview with ESPN’s Doris Burke at halftime of Game 4. Garnett’s “and-one” dunk in the third quarter? It came after James missed a shot, whined to the referees and watched Pierce — not exactly a speedster — beat him down the floor. Miami’s Mike Miller and Chris Bosh understood that someone had to account for Pierce, so they both chased him along the right baseline, leaving Garnett unguarded as James stood confused, defending no one at the top of the three-point arc.
Garnett, who finished with 26 points, recorded another “and-one” late in the second quarter on a transition play that again began with James complaining to the officials after Garnett stuffed him on the other end. Bosh, who was open under the rim, raised his hands in frustration as Boston ran the other way. Nobody stopped Rondo until he was in the paint for a floater, and only Miller was around to try to box out Garnett as he rose for the put-back.
And you can watch the tape as many times as you want of Pierce’s one-man slow break (after a Miami basket) that earned him a trip to the free-throw line in a tie game with 1:34 left, and you still won’t understand what James was thinking as he decided to jog away from Pierce, his natural matchup, in the backcourt.
You want to hit the Heat? Hit them here. They are a great defensive team experiencing an inexcusable level of slippage under pressure. It has been so bad that you have to wonder if the players, especially James and Wade, are wilting because of fatigue from a heavy minutes load and the burden to produce all of Miami’s offense in Bosh’s absence.
But also make sure to praise Boston, which has exploited those holes, made desperation hustle plays (Rondo alone had a half-dozen in Game 5, including that game-changing tip to Mickael Pietrus that led to a three-pointer midway through the fourth quarter) and tweaked its offensive philosophy in each game.
In Game 3, the Celtics came up with creative ways to get the ball to Garnett in the post. They cleared one side of the floor for lob passes that came from unpredictable angles and ran pick-and-rolls designed for the ball to swing around the perimeter while Garnett rolled into post position — and into a newly created passing lane. Boston continued that in Game 5, taking pages from playbooks across the league to free Garnett on the block and adding a few new plays of its own. More important: Rondo ran the pick-and-roll better than he ever has. The Heat didn’t sag off Rondo, but they didn’t blitz him with big men chasing him well above the screen and toward half-court. Miami settled for something in between as it had Chalmers chase Rondo over the screen while the big man defending Garnett (the screener) slid sideways to contain the Boston point guard’s drive.
Rondo, looking a lot like Chris Paul, just shredded it. Over and over, Rondo made his turn around the pick, watched Garnett roll to the hoop, scanned Miami’s defense for help patterns and broke them down. When a defender crashed from the wing to bump Garnett in the lane, Rondo faked a pass to the shooter that man had left open, forcing that defender to retreat — and giving Rondo an opening for a zip pass to Garnett in the paint. Garnett and backup center Greg Stiemsma got a half-dozen baskets like this. It just wasn’t something you saw from Boston’s pick-and-pop offense in the regular season. The Celtics on Tuesday read the defense and took what it gave them, looking almost like the Spurs when they’re humming.
The pick-and-pop didn’t vanish, either. Rondo has become a master at engineering space for Garnett and Brandon Bass by yo-yo-ing the ball with patient hesitation dribbles, confusing defenders and probing just a foot or two farther into the lane to clear things for his shooters.
Rondo has found another level in the playoffs, and the Celtics are scoring at rate they rarely touched against elite defenses all season. With the league’s best defense, Boston doesn’t need to score like San Antonio or Oklahoma City to win. Average will do, and the Celtics have gotten there, thanks to their work and Miami’s startling regression.