2022 NBA Playoffs – For Boston Celtics and Miami Heat, the most important ability is availability

MIAMI — In late January, the San Antonio Spurs traded backup guard Bryn Forbes to the Denver Nuggets. Five months later, the humble move had a big impact on the 2022 Eastern Conference finals.

It was an opportunity for the Boston Celtics to fully materialize, as they pushed the Miami Heat to the brink after a 93-80 Game 5 win and a 3-2 series lead on Wednesday.

It’s been eight years since the Spurs were willing to make a midseason trade, with the Celtics taking a small part of it as the third team in the deal. More importantly, it’s an anticipation signal that the Spurs are open to a trade — and the Celtics want to join.

A few weeks later, after a bunch of phone calls and a lot of negotiation, the Celtics drew their swords from the stone and signed guard Derrick White.

That’s not to say White was the main reason why the Celtics reached the NBA Finals for the first time in 12 years with a win. But having White, a starting-caliber guard and a posh backup for title contenders, is the cornerstone of why Boston is in this position.

The East had the most competitive regular season in a generation. The four 50-win teams are two games apart in the standings. A 44-win team (the Cleveland Cavaliers) didn’t make the playoffs; there were several years in the past decade that landed you the No. 5 seed in the East.

But injuries have dented the Eastern Conference’s playoff potential. Joel Embiid’s torn thumb ligament, fractured orbit and concussion ruined the Philadelphia 76ers’ chances of advancing to the Western Conference semifinals. Khris Middleton’s knee injury was likely the deciding factor in the Milwaukee Bucks’ seven-game losing streak to Boston in the second round.

And now that the Heat have been reduced to part of their 53-win roster, all three of their best offensive players have been affected by injuries.

Kyle Lowry has played in the last three games, but as a shell of his own, he went 0-for-6 from the field in Game 5 and he went 5-for-23 in the series. His explosiveness was taken away by a hamstring injury.

Jimmy Butler plays on one leg, and a sore knee hinders his ability to shoot jumpers or pass defenders. After hitting the free throw line 26 times in Games 1 and 2, Butler has appeared six times in the past three games.

In Game 5, the Celtics largely stopped guarding Butler. They backed Butler as an unskilled screen setter rather than the team’s most dominant offensive player.

“Butler doesn’t want to score,” Celtics head coach Imeudoka said. “We wanted to leave a big guy on him and hit him like a big guy.”

According to ESPN Stats & Information, Butler, who has been playing with an inflamed knee over the past two games, is 7-for-32 from the field, the worst two-game field goal of his career (at least 25 attempts) .

Tyler Herro has missed the past two games with a groin injury. Even with these playoff stakes, the Heat wouldn’t consider putting Herro on the floor. Coach Erik Spoelstra said it was “irresponsible” to do so. Herro has averaged nearly 21 points per game this season, a performance that has proven irreplaceable as Miami averaged 81 points in Game 4 and Game 5 losses.

Back to the February deal. This is where Boston’s preparation saved them. Getting White proved to be an important addition, as Marcus Smart missed three games this postseason with quadriceps, foot and ankle injuries. The Celtics are 3-0 in those games. And on Wednesday, White had 14 points, five assists and two steals when Smart was limited and 1-of-5 from the field.

White went 5-of-6 from the field in the first half of Game 5 and scored 11 of the Celtics’ 37 points, almost single-handedly keeping the team afloat. That was after he had 13 points, 8 rebounds, 6 assists and 3 steals in place of Smart in Game 4.

“Derek, the last two games, have been great. He’s done a great job on our team,” said Jaylen Brown, who took over for the lead in the second half on Wednesday. “He is essential.”

The Celtics themselves got bumped: Smart’s right leg is a medical case study; Jayson Tatum is dealing with a disease in his right shoulder that caused him to throw some atypically scary shots. Robert Williams III is recovering from season-ending surgery and is battling a bone injury to his left knee every day. Brown is coming off a hamstring injury.

But in Game 5, the Celtics got their full roster for the fourth time in the playoffs and the first time in the series. As usual, Brown, who scored 25 points, and Tatum, who had a 22-night undershoot, were the leaders. But the Celtics won because they had more healthy players at the right time.

A big reason for the Celtics to stick around is how the team’s roster is built for this challenge, and White’s insertion and his ability to play in the role is probably the best example of that.

Of course, luck also plays a role. Boston’s newest playoff opponents — the defending champion Bucks and the current top-seeded Heat — aren’t as good or healthy.

Some people like to point out that in certain years championship winners should have an asterisk because injury or other circumstances played a role in their victory. This is nonsense; the act of surviving an NBA playoff marathon and an opponent is the definition of a championship.

Injuries have deprived fans of the better quality of the series so far. But the Celtics have taken the lead. They have exhausted their opponents. They have more when it matters.

Boston’s road to this moment isn’t idyllic — at least not yet — but it’s just as effective.

“The mental stress and pressure we put on some teams on defense at times played a role and led us to the playoffs,” Udoka said. “You saw that in Brooklyn. [Nets] Series, guys are starting to wear out. game 7, [Giannis] Antetokounmpo slowed down a bit. But having all these corpses keep throwing things at people will tire them out. “

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