Jimmy Butler is human after all – and he couldn’t have turned deadly at a better time for the Celtics.
Thanks to a rare disappointing performance from Butler, who was on a radiator heading into Games 3 and 4 of this very final Eastern Conference series, the Celtics forced a Game 5 with a 116-99 road win at Miami on Tuesday.
The Heat star still finished with 29 points on 9-of-21 shooting from the field, but Miami were outscored by 20 points in 39 minutes on the ground, and he spat out two costly turnovers as the Celtics eventually pulled off a double digits in the lead and never let go in the second half.
In Game 3, he scored 16 points on 5 of 13 shooting, but that game ended in a blowout victory.
Game 4 was different. Butler didn’t have the same bark or bite. It was the first time Boston looked like a team that belonged in the NBA title hunt this series after three embarrassing losses to start the Conference Finals – including a 25-point deflate that sent them into a streak hole. 0-3.
No team has ever come back from 0-3 in an NBA playoff, but the Celtics now have something going for them: only a third of the teams in this predicament have ever forced Game 5 in the first place.
It’s a lot harder than it looks: just ask the Los Angeles Lakers, who also lost 0-3 to the Denver Nuggets and trailed 15 in the second quarter of Game 4.
That was before the Joker – Nikola Jokic – proved too dominant a force, and LeBron James failed to achieve final possession of the game, allowing the Nuggets to sweep the Lakers off the floors of Crypto.com Arena.
Unlike the Lakers, the Celtics have life — and leave it to them, a team tied for the second-best NBA regular season record away from home — to find a pulse on the road. It is now the Heat who faces all the pressure in the world.
The Heat, after all, were supposed to run home business and dominate the Celtics the same way they had in the first three games.
Instead, Miami played a reverse Uno card: They pulled off 15 turnovers and shot a meager 25% clip from downtown. It’s the Heat who are now in danger of becoming the first team to miss a playoff series by up to 3-0.
And if Jaylen Brown can find some semblance of confidence on the offensive end, the Celtics just might have a chance to turn this streak around.
Jayson Tatum found that confidence in Game 4. He made very strong and decisive scoring attacks that were absent in Games 1-3. Tatum scored 30 or more in three of the first four games in this series, but in the Game 4, his 33 points felt more like 40. After shooting just 6 of 18 for 14 points in Game 3, the Celtics star showed why he’s in MVP conversations with a 14-of-22 shooting night.
Meanwhile, Brown is having the worst playoff run of his career – and while Tatum’s sensational Game 4 propelled the Celtics to victory this time around, you can bank on the Erik Spoelstra-coached Heat making adjustments that force Boston to get the ball out of the superstar’s hands forward.
And if the ball finds Brown — who’s been so cold from age three, he could freeze time — the Celtics might as well not show up in Game 5. Tatum’s co-star is shooting just 12.8% on three against the Heat. He’s missed 21 of 24 attempts from downtown, shooting less than 40% from the field and hitting less than 50% of his free throws.
Brown’s offensive confidence is shot. With a more than $200 million contract extension on the table this summer, and the Celtics in win-or-go-home territory behind the Heat, 1-3, he needs to step up for this team to have a chance.
The Heat, however, have already won in Boston – twice – including the series opener that stunned the Celtics on their home court.
Both teams are used to playing better on the road this season, but it’s clear, at least for one night, that the Celtics have woken up.
And if Brown can finally do the same, we might actually have a series on our hands.