BOSTON — Before Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals, Boston Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla was asked about his team’s mindset entering a second straight elimination game.
“Just win or die,” he said.
After a dominant performance Thursday night, the Celtics are still alive.
Boston took control from the start and never looked back, shooting over 50% from the field, forcing the Miami Heat into 16 turnovers that became 27 points and having four players finish with at least 20 points in a wire-to-wire, 110-99 victory in front of a raucous crowd at sold-out TD Garden.
“Our back has been against the wall,” said Jaylen Brown, who finished with 21 points. “Obviously, we didn’t imagine being in this position, being down 3-0, but when adversity hits, you get to see what a team is really made of.
“It couldn’t get worse than being down 3-0, but we didn’t look around, we didn’t go in separate directions. We stayed together.”
The Celtics moved a step closer to becoming the first team in NBA history to erase a 3-0 deficit and win a best-of-seven series. In fact, across the 151 times a series has been at 3-0, the Celtics are only the 22nd team to fall behind 3-0 with a higher regular-season winning percentage than their opponent. The prior two that did so: the Washington Capitols against the Chicago Stags in 1947, and the Orlando Magic against the Celtics in 2010.
Now, the Celtics will try to do something those teams couldn’t: win in Miami on Saturday night and bring this series back here for a Game 7 on Memorial Day.
“For some odd reason, even last year, we always seemed to make it a little bit tougher on ourselves,” said Jayson Tatum, who had 21 points and dished out double-digit assists (11) for the first time this postseason. “But what I do know is that you can see the true character of a person, of a team when things aren’t going well, and our ability to come together, 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, just the core group of guys being able to respond.
“I think that’s just a testament to our togetherness, obviously how bad we want it, and we’ve got a room full of determined, tough guys that push comes to shove, you look to the left and the right of you, believe that the guy next to you is going to do whatever it takes and go down fighting if it don’t work out.”
In Games 4 and 5, Boston has resembled the team that played so well the first seven-plus months of the season.
After shooting 29% from 3-point range in Games 1-3, the Celtics have hit at least 40% in the last two, including a 16-for-39 showing (41%) Thursday night. Boston is now 38-2 this season when it hits at least 40% of its 3-pointers; it’s 29-31 when it doesn’t.
Turnovers also were key again. The Celtics forced 16 Heat turnovers in Game 4, turning them into 27 points. In Game 5, they forced … 16 Heat turnovers that became 27 points.
And their scoring was balanced. For the first time all season (regular season or playoffs), the Celtics had four players finish with at least 20 points — Derrick White (24), Marcus Smart (23), Tatum and Brown.
“I think we just consistently got good looks today,” White said. “[We were] able to get out and run, make that extra pass, and when you get looks like that with the shooters we have, we’re going to make them more than miss.
“Just continue to make that extra pass and find the right guy.”
Boston has been on a roller coaster of emotions for several weeks; it’s either won or lost consecutive times over its last 11 games, dating to Game 2 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Philadelphia 76ers on May 3.
The Celtics also continued on a potentially history-making path. Only three teams have forced a Game 7 after being down 3-0: the New York Knicks against the Rochester Royals in 1991; the Denver Nuggets against the Utah Jazz in 1994; and the Portland Trail Blazers against the Dallas Mavericks in 2003.
Boston is now 48 minutes away from becoming the fourth.
And while the Celtics have struggled mightily at the Garden the past two years in the playoffs (11-11), they’ve been a totally different team away from home. Including their Game 4 victory, the Celtics are 13-7 on the road since the start of the 2022 playoffs, and have won four consecutive road elimination games.
They’ll look to make that five with a win in Miami on Saturday.
“It’s going to take everything,” Brown said. “It’s going to be a dogfight. I imagine those guys will play better than they played tonight, and they’re going to come out aggressive.
“We’ve got to be ready to take their punch at home. We’ve got to be ready to be resilient and come out and do what we’re supposed to do.”