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Celtics now smell blood and could make NBA history vs. Heat

Who could have possibly seen this coming?

The high and mighty Miami Heat have been humbled.

The same Heat team that bulldozed through both the Knicks and Milwaukee Bucks and took a 3-0 series lead over the Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals now look helpless, and after Thursday night’s Game 5 blowout loss in Boston, they could be beyond saving.

The same Miami dogs who nearly ripped out the Celtics’ hearts via the three series-opening victories now look like a herd of deer.

And with the Celtics closing the gap, the headlights are on.

Make it three straight disappearing acts by Jimmy Butler, who has scored just 59 combined points through the last three games despite opening this series with a 35-point night, followed by a 27-point outing in Game 2. Butler averaged 35 points in the first round against the Bucks but may have hit a wall here with a trip to the Finals on the line. He shot just 5-of-10 for 14 points in Miami’s Game 5 loss and is only two games removed from a 5-of-13 shooting performance for 16 points in Game 4.

“If we can get Jimmy in his comfort zones and his strength zones more consistently, he’ll be just fine, and we’ll work on that the next 48 hours,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said postgame. “But collectively, we do have to play with more intention and force and poise offensively, which they’re fully capable of doing.”

Butler’s 5-of-13 night came in a blowout victory. Thursday night’s puzzling performance was the byproduct of a blowout loss.

“I think today was our best defensive game, just how we were moving, how we were rotating,” said Jayson Tatum, who finished with 21 points on 8-of-16 shooting from the field. “We tried to make guys uncomfortable and we were just there for one another. It’s not gonna be perfect. You’re gonna get beat, you’re gonna fall for a pump fake, but it just felt like we were all connected defensively.”

And quite possibly the most important sign of a pulse for this Celtics team comes in the form of an awakening for their dormant star.

Jaylen Brown has finally arrived.

Brown made just three of his first 25 three-point attempts of the series before shaking loose in Game 5 to shoot 3-of-5 from downtown. He recorded just his second 20-point game of the series and only turned the ball over once on Thursday.

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Brown had six turnovers in Game 1 alone and 11 through the first three games of the series.

And now comes the historical context: The Celtics have already completed one of NBA history’s biggest feats.

The Celtics became the 15th team to have ever forced a Game 6 after trailing an NBA playoff series 0-3. Of the previous 14 teams, only three have ever forced a Game 7. No team has ever come back from down 0-3 to win a playoff series.

“Our backs are against the wall, and we’re sticking together and we’re competing at a high level to give ourselves a chance,” said Boston’s head coach Joe Mazzulla.

The Celtics, however, seem to have flipped a switch, and they’ve put the Heat in an unenviable position. The Heat were once the sharks, but now it’s the Celtics who smell blood. And after securing a Game 4 victory at Miami’s Kaseya Center, Boston has confidence. That team believes they can head to South Beach and do it again, and the Heat have to stave off a team that has now proven twice in a row they can beat them.

“Who cares about mood? We have a gnarly group. I think so much of that is overrated. It’s a competitive series,” Spoelstra said. “You always expect things to be challenging in the conference finals, and one game doesn’t lead to the next game. Based on all the experience that we’ve had, it doesn’t matter in the playoffs. It doesn’t matter if you lose by whatever. We beat them by whatever in Game 3. It just doesn’t matter. It’s about collectively preparing and putting together a great game. We’ll play much better on Saturday, and that’s what we have to focus on right now.”

The Celtics have been one of the NBA’s three-best road teams all season long. They’ll need one more victory on the road to force Game 7, and in front of those TD Garden fans — and potentially a Heat team devoid of confidence — the Celtics could have a chance to make history.

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