MIAMI — In late January, the San Antonio Spurs traded backup guard Bryn Forbes to the Denver Nuggets. Five months later, this unassuming decision had a major impact on the 2022 Eastern Conference Finals.
It was the opening of an opportunity for the Boston Celtics that was fully realized as they pushed the Miami Heat to the brink after a 93-80 win in Game 5 on Wednesday and a 3-2 lead. in the series.
It had been eight years since Spurs were set to make a mid-season trade, and the Celtics played a minor role in it, acting as the third team in the deal. More importantly, it was the expected signal that Spurs were open to trade – and that the Celtics wanted in.
A few weeks, a bunch of phone calls and a lot of negotiations later, the Celtics pulled the sword from the stone and landed guard Derrick White.
That’s not to say White is the main reason the Celtics are one win away from their first NBA Finals appearance in 12 years. But having White, an entry-level guard who is a luxurious backup for a title contender, is a cornerstone of why Boston is in this position.
The East had the most competitive regular season in a generation. Four 50-win teams were separated by two games in the standings. A 44-win team (the Cleveland Cavaliers) did not make the playoffs; there have been several years in the last decade where it has earned you the 5th seed in the East.
But injuries have diminished what promised to be a potentially all-time great Eastern playoff roster. Joel Embiid’s torn thumb ligament, orbital fracture and concussion jeopardized the Philadelphia 76ers’ chances of advancing to the conference semifinals. Khris Middleton’s knee injury could very well have been the deciding factor in the Milwaukee Bucks’ seven-game loss to Boston in the second round.
And now the Heat have been reduced to a partial exit from their 53-game winning list, with three of their best offensive players hit by injuries.
Kyle Lowry, who has played the last three games but as a shell of himself, went 0 of 6 in Game 5, and he’s 5 of 23 in the series. His explosiveness was robbed by a hamstring injury.
Jimmy Butler plays on one leg, a sore knee preventing him from landing a jump shot or getting past defenders. After going to the foul line 26 times in Games 1 and 2, Butler has gone there six times in the past three contests.
In Game 5, the Celtics essentially stopped guarding Butler. They backed Butler up and treated him like an unskilled screener, not the most dominant offensive player on the team.
“Butler wasn’t looking to score,” Celtics coach Ime Udoka said. “We wanted to keep a big on him, play him like a big.”
Over the past two games and while playing against knee inflammation, Butler shoots 7 of 32, marking the worst two-game shooting streak of his career (with at least 25 attempts), according to ESPN Stats & Information research. .
Tyler Herro has missed the last two games with a groin injury. Even with those postseason stakes, the Heat wouldn’t consider pushing Herro to play. Coach Erik Spoelstra said it would have been “irresponsible” to do so. Herro has averaged nearly 21 points per game this season, and that production has proven irreplaceable, as Miami has averaged 81 as a team in Game 4 and Game 5 losses.
Let’s go back to that February deal. This is where Boston’s preparation saved them. Getting White has proven to be a vital addition, as Marcus Smart has missed three games this postseason with quadriceps, foot and ankle injuries. The Celtics are 3-0 in those games. And on Wednesday, when Smart was limited and shooting 1 of 5, White had 14 points, five assists and two steals.
White shot 5 of 6 and scored 11 of the Celtics’ 37 points in the first half of Game 5, almost single-handedly keeping the team afloat. That was after his 13 points, 8 rebounds, 6 assists and 3 steals in place of Smart in Game 4.
“Derrick, the last two games, have been fantastic. His contributions to our team have been tremendous,” said Jaylen Brown, who returned to the lead role in Wednesday’s second half. “He was essential.”
The Celtics are banged up themselves: Smart’s right leg is a medical case study; Jayson Tatum is struggling with a condition in his right shoulder that has caused him to vomit unusually hideous blows; Robert Williams III returns from season-ending surgery and struggles daily with a bone bruise in his left knee; and Brown just suffered a hamstring injury.
But in Game 5, the Celtics had their full roster available for only the fourth time this playoffs and the first time in the series. Brown, who had 25 points, and Tatum, who had a bad night of shooting for 22, were the leaders as usual. But the reason the Celtics won was because they just had more healthy players at the right time.
A big reason the Celtics persevered was how the roster was constructed for this gauntlet, with White’s insertion and ability to hold his own being perhaps the best example.
And, of course, fortune played a role. Boston’s last playoff opponents — defending champion Bucks and now top-seeded Heat — haven’t been as well-equipped or as healthy.
Some like to point out that in some years the title winner should have an asterisk because injuries or other circumstances played a role in their victories. It does not make sense; surviving the NBA’s postseason marathon and its adversaries is the definition of what makes a champion.
Injuries have robbed fans of better quality in this series so far. But the Celtics won the lead. They exhausted their opponent. They got more when it counted.
Boston’s road to this moment hasn’t been storybook idyll — at least not yet — but it’s been awfully efficient all the same.
“The mental stress and strain we put on some teams with our defense worked and got us through the playoffs at times,” Udoka said. “You saw in Brooklyn [Nets] series, the guys began to wear out. Game 7, [Giannis] Antetokounmpo slowed some down. But having all these bodies to throw at people is wearing them down.”