Jimmy Butler is human after all — and he couldn’t have become mortal at a better time for the Celtics.
Thanks to a rare underwhelming performance by Butler, who was on a heater before Games 3 and 4 of this very Eastern Conference Finals series, the Celtics forced a Game 5 with a 116-99 victory on the road in Miami on Tuesday.
The Heat star still finished with 29 points on 9-of-21 shooting from the field, but Miami was outscored by 20 points in his 39 minutes on the floor, and he coughed up two costly turnovers as the Celtics ultimately ran up a double-digit 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 hunt for the NBA title this series after three embarrassing losses to start the conference finals — including a deflating, 25-point walloping that sunk them into an 0-3 series hole.
No team has ever come back from down 0-3 in an NBA playoff series, but the Celtics now have something going for them: only a third of the teams ever in that predicament have ever forced Game 5 in the first place.
It’s much more difficult than it sounds: Just ask the Los Angeles Lakers, who were also down 0-3 to the Denver Nuggets and led by 15 in the second quarter of Game 4.
That was before the Joker — Nikola Jokic — proved too dominant a force, and LeBron James came up short on the game’s final possession, allowing the Nuggets to sweep the Lakers off the Crypto.com Arena floors.
Unlike the Lakers, the Celtics have life — and leave it to them, a team tied for the NBA’s second-best regular-season record away from home, to find a pulse on the road. It’s now the Heat who face all the pressure in the world.
The Heat, after all, were supposed to handle business at home and dominate the Celtics the same way they’d done the first three games.
Instead, Miami played a reverse Uno card: They forked up 15 turnovers and shot a meager 25% clip from downtown. It’s the Heat who are now in danger of becoming the first team ever to fumble a playoff series up 3-0.
And if Jaylen Brown can find some semblance of confidence on the offensive end, the Celtics just might have a shot at turning this series around.
Jayson Tatum found that confidence in Game 4. He made very strong and decisive scoring attacks that were absent in Games 1 through 3. Tatum has scored 30 or more in three of this series’ first four games, but in 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 is in MVP conversations with a 14-of-22 shooting night.
Meanwhile, Brown is having the worst playoff stretch of his career — and while Tatum’s sensational Game 4 powered the Celtics to victory this time, you can bank on the Erik Spoelstra-coached Heat making adjustments that force Boston to get the ball out of the superstar forward’s hands.
And if the ball finds Brown — who is so cold from three, he could freeze time — the Celtics might as well not even show up to Game 5. Tatum’s co-star is shooting just 12.8% from three against the Heat. He has missed 21 of his 24 attempts from downtown, is shooting worse than 40% from the field, and is hitting less than 50% of his free throws.
Brown’s offensive confidence is shot. With a contract extension in the excess of $200 million on the table this summer, and the Celtics in win-or-go-home territory trailing the Heat, 1-3, he must step up for this team to stand a chance.
The Heat, however, have already won in Boston — twice — including the series-opener that stunned the Celtics on their own parquet floors.
Both teams have had a history of playing better on the road this season, but it’s clear, at least for one night, the Celtics have awoken.
And if Brown can finally do the same, we may actually have a series on our hands.