By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The Celtics were back at full strength in Game 3, which meant Brad Stevens could finally deploy his five best players all at once. It paid some big dividends for Boston, sparking a key second-quarter run that was a big part of the team’s 116-107 victory.
When Gordon Hayward went down with an ankle injury in Boston’s first game of the postseason, it robbed the Celtics of the chance to send their “Best 5” lineup going forward. The lineup of Kemba Walker, Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, Hayward and Jayson Tatum (playing center in this small lineup) was something fans salivated over during the regular season but rarely got to see due to various health maladies.
And when that quintet did take the floor, the results weren’t very glorious. They played just 21 minutes as a unit during the regular season, and touted a 97.4 offensive rating and 118.9 defensive rating. Those are the worst ratings that any of the five players had with any grouping during the regular season, and a net rating of minus-21.5 certainly doesn’t seem very imposing at all.
Maybe it was all just a ploy, a ruse for opponents to feel a little too comfortable when the lineup would finally take the floor in the playoffs. Because that lineup was a force in their six minutes together in Game 3, with a plus-86 rating in that brief span of time.
No, that’s not a beefy sample. But that fivesome played some dominant defense in their time together, leading to some easy offense and great things on the scoreboard.
It was the final 2:40 of the second quarter that really stood out, as Boston’s “Best 5” closed out the first half on a 12-2 run. After Hayward knocked down some free throws to give the C’s a 52-48 lead, Brown forced a turnover by Jimmy Butler that led to an easy dunk for Tatum. On the other end, Tatum pulled down a Tyler Herro miss and his quick outlet pass led to an easy dunk by Brown.
The run closed with a Smart jumper and a Walker three sandwiched between a pair of Goran Dragic free throws, and the Celtics took a 63-50 lead into the locker room.
Play like that from Boston’s top five players have given the series a whole new outlook heading into Game 4. The return of Hayward, and not just alongside Boston’s four other stars, gives Stevens another playmaker on the floor, someone who is more than willing to help set up his teammates rather than force his own shot. It led to some much improved ball movement in Game 3, which helped stabilize the Boston attack whenever Miami went on its own run.
“We need to just find the best shot for our team, and that’s going to be centered around our best players,” Stevens said earlier this week. “But it’s not ‘we have to get this person to get 20,’ or ‘this person needs to get 20 shots.’ We just want to make the right read, and [Hayward is] good at that. He’s good at playing off the ball, cutting, and making the next right play. If he doesn’t shoot it 15 times, it doesn’t bother him one bit.”
“It was great to have Gordon there and play with that lineup,” said Tatum, who had 25 points, 14 rebounds and eight assists in Game 3. “It’s been a while, we haven’t had opportunity to play with those guys that much this season. Just having him back was extremely helpful.”
With four above average defenders and all five players possessing fantastic passing skills, it’s a lineup that Stevens should feel comfortable sending out as the Celtics look to close out games. Closing time has been the team’s enemy this postseason, but that “Best 5” lineup could be the answer.
“It seems like a group we might see a little more often, especially at the end of games. We have to be great,” said Brown. “We have to be aggressive, we have to rebound and we have to make the right plays. There are a lot of good players on the floor at the same time, and I believe in that group.”
With the Celtics finally back at full strength and Miami’s lead now 2-1, Boston is feeling pretty good heading into Game 4. But they aren’t going to take the floor too confident on Wednesday night, knowing that it was their complacency that got them into an 0-2 hole to start the series.
“We are still down 2-1, so it’s never a time to relax in a series until it’s over. There’s even more sense of urgency when you’re down,” said Tatum. “We’re still losing and we know that. We won’t get it all back in one game, just have to take it one game at a time.”