This topsy-turvy, injury-riddled streak between the Boston Celtics and Miami Heat has been so bizarre that the scale of tonight’s Game 5 in Miami almost surprises you.
Marcus Smart, Kyle Lowry, Al Horford, Jimmy Butler, Tyler Herro, Jayson Tatum and Robert Williams III have missed all or part of at least one game. This deprived this series of any rhythm. Each game was its own entity. It’s almost as if the real streak hasn’t started, yet a team tonight is giving itself two chances to win a game and advance to the NBA Finals.
Every chance at this late stage is precious. Miami has already pulled off one of the greatest instant rebuilds in modern sports history, pursuing its second final in three years despite having almost zero cap flexibility or tradable assets just half a decade ago. Its two most accomplished veterans, Butler and Kyle Lowry, are 32 and 36 respectively and suffer from lingering leg injuries.
The Celtics are in their fourth conference final in six seasons; they haven’t won one yet in this Tatum-Smart-Jaylen Brown era. Appearances in 2017 and 2018 were gravy – young teams exceeding expectations and (in 2018) pushing LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers to the limit.
Then the drama and the near misses. Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward returned to health in 2019, but the on-paper juggernaut disintegrated in the second round amid infighting and Irving’s wandering eye. The Celtics met Miami in the conference finals next season in the bubble, losing a six-game heartbreaker that is viewed internally as a painful missed opportunity. They then fell to the point of being a first-round patsy for the Brooklyn Nets. Other troubles followed. Another loss now, and regret creeps into the fabric of that core.
Both teams are as well equipped as anyone to defend the roaring Warriors machine, assuming Golden State holds up against the Dallas Mavericks. Boston in particular played well at Golden State during the Steve Kerr/Stephen Curry era. The circle of suitors will be more crowded next season.
And while it looks like the Celtics have the edge — they’re plus-28 in four games and have been the league’s best team since Jan. 1 — Miami has home ground. Funny things happen in stealth games. One or two variables reversing Miami’s path tonight – Butler’s return to form after 14 points on 6 of 22 shooting combined in Games 3 and 4, a scorcher from Herro (if healthy), random fouls to Tatum or Brown – and Miami could lead 3-2, with two cracks in the final. The Heat reminded us in Game 3 that they’re tough enough, solid enough on defense, to win even with Butler after halftime. Finagle another tonight, and all the pressure shifts to Boston.