No team has ever come back from a 3-0 series deficit in the NBA playoffs but after their win at the Miami Heat on Tuesday, the Boston Celtics clearly sense a chance of history.
The Heat, now 3-1 up in the series, still only need one more win to progress to the NBA Finals against the Denver Nuggets and remain clear favourites, so long as their flat second half performance proves to be just an aberration.
But having responded to the threat of a clean sweep from the Heat, Boston are hoping that with a raucous home crowd behind them on Thursday at The Garden they can force a game six.
“As cliche as it sounds, we just tried to take it one game at a time. We tried to break it down. We didn’t play well the first three games, we didn’t deserve to win, but we didn’t want that to define us, define the season,” said Jayson Tatum, who led the Celtics with 33 points.
“We’ve still got a long uphill battle to go. But (this) was a good start. Just to try to carry this momentum towards Thursday”.
Another below-par performance, after Sunday’s heavy 128-102 loss on home court, would have raised questions about the team’s spirit and the future of head coach Joe Mazzulla.
But the Celtics again looked like the determined unit who finished second in the Eastern Conference regular season and dealt confidently with Atlanta and Philadelphia in the post-season.
“We didn’t want to come out and lay an egg. We wanted to come out and play together, wanted to come out and trust each other, come out and play some defense, have some pride about yourself and find a way to win a game. We’re all more than capable of doing it. We got it done,” said Jaylen Brown.
Heat fans had arrived hoping to celebrate a seventh NBA Finals appearance for the three-times champions but left the arena deflated.
The question is whether, after an unexpected run as the eighth seed in the East, the Heat players will suffer a similar loss of energy and spirit?
“I didn’t sense any of that,” said head coach Erik Spoelstra.
“At some point, this is great competition. You know, sometimes it can get skewed, because, whatever, the 3-0. But we have great respect for Boston, what they are capable of. They are a dynamic offensive team that takes extraordinary efforts and commitment to get the job done. Our guys really want this,” he added.
A common refrain from the Heat players after the loss was that the team, who lost to Atlanta in their first play-in game and then beat top seeded Milwaukee in the first round before dealing with the New York Knicks, have been at their best when under pressure.
“We know and everybody else knows, we don’t typically get things the easy way over here,” said small forward Caleb Martin.
“This is right up our alley. This is the way it goes for us and guys like us. Again, I think it’s only going to prepare us for the long run. This could be good for us.”
Heat star Jimmy Butler, whose post-season production has been at the heart of Miami’s run, was however under no illusions that the team cannot afford a repeat performance against a Celtics team that provided a reminder of their quality.
“They are talented, and I would tell you in every game they missed a lot of shots and tonight they made shots. But we didn’t do our job in making them miss those shots either. I think we let go of the rope on the defensive side of the ball, turned the ball over, didn’t get back in transition. All of the things we said we were going to go do, we did not, and that was the game,” he said.
“It got out of hand pretty early. Our energy was pretty low, which we cannot have, and it’s on myself and the starting group to make sure that doesn’t happen.”