Things can change quickly this time of year for an NBA team.
One moment, it’s a colossal failure; the next, it’s on the doorstep of history — that’s the unique position the Celtics find themselves in.
They have gone from heavy favorites to playing the role of the underdog, halfway to the greatest comeback in NBA history, yet still just one loss away from a series defeat that won’t be easy to erase.
It will be fascinating to see how their Eastern Conference finals series against the Heat, which will continue Saturday night with Game 6 in Miami, plays out.
After an ugly Game 3 loss put Boston in a 3-0 hole, first-year head coach Joe Mazzulla’s job was thought to be in serious jeopardy.
Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown were being criticized for failing to show up.
The Celtics were the butt of jokes.
Now, they are being compared to the 2004 Red Sox, gritty champions who ended the Curse of the Bambino and are revered in Boston as the only team in MLB history to overcome a 3-0 deficit, beating the Yankees in the ALCS.
Prior to Game 4 of this series, two Celtics, Brown and Marcus Smart, took a page out of the Red Sox’s playbook.
They told reporters, “Don’t let us get one,” reminiscent of Kevin Millar’s rallying cry, “Don’t let us win today,” after the Yankees won the first three games of that 2004 series. There is one major difference: These Celtics were supposed to cruise, unlike the 2004 Red Sox, who were facing bitter rivals they couldn’t get past, until they finally did in that series.
“For some odd reason, even last year, we always seemed to make it a little bit tougher on ourselves,” Tatum told reporters after the Celtics’ 110-97 home win over the Heat in Game 5 on Thursday. “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.”
The Celtics’ two dominant wins to dig themselves out of that 3-0 series hole are evidence they are the better, deeper and more talented team. The Celtics weren’t a heavy favorite coming into the series by accident. They were supposed to waltz to a second consecutive NBA Finals after they got past the 76ers in seven games in the conference semifinals.
But the Celtics can be frustrating. They didn’t play nearly hard enough, or with the needed focus and desire, in the first three games against Miami.
They were outworked by the less-talented Heat, who have been without key players Tyler Herro and Victor Oladipo. But Boston flipped the switch in the last two games, and it’s not a surprise the result was two wins by a combined 30 points.
The Celtics are halfway to becoming the first NBA team to rally from three games down in a best-of-seven series. They are one of 15 teams to fall behind 3-0 and force a Game 6 and one win from joining the 1951 Knicks, 1994 Nuggets and 2003 Trail Blazers in forcing a seventh game after losing the first three contests of a series.
“Our back has been against the wall,” Brown said. “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.”
Much remains up in the air for the Celtics. A loss Saturday night would eliminate all the good vibes of the last two games. The discussion would swing from the potential of a historical comeback to how and why the Celtics failed to show up at the start of this series.
There really is no in-between for the Celtics: They either will become the first team to rally from 0-3 down to win a series or they will be remembered as huge underachievers.
Mazzulla could be out of a job. Tatum and Brown will face major questions, particularly Brown, who has just one year left on his contract.
Pat Riley once said: “There’s winning, and then there’s misery.”
For the Celtics, that line fits like a glove.
The difference between winning the next two games and not getting it done is enormous.
They will either be immortalized or ridiculed.