The Celtics’ own version of ‘Heat Culture’ means East Finals aren’t over

Tomase: Celtics’ own version of ‘Heat Culture’ means series isn’t over originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

We know all about the Heat’s culture. I don’t need to hear another damn word about the Heat’s culture. They’re tough, they’re unified, Erik Spoelstra’s the master, Jimmy Butler’s a killer, everyone’s undrafted, we get it.

But the Celtics have a culture, too, and it’s every bit as flawed, messy, and unnecessary as you’d expect from this confounding group. But crucially, it turns out it’s not nothing.

Celtics culture is all about demonstrating self-inflicted resilience, to levels not seen since that hiker hacked off his own arm after falling into the canyon. Faced with the same scenario, the Celtics would probably lop off a leg, too.

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They’re capable of greatness, but it requires increasingly dire circumstances to access it. In the first round, they handed Game 5 to the Hawks when they could’ve wrapped up the series, and it took a late run in Game 6 after schlepping themselves back to Atlanta to reach the conference semifinals.

They blew Game 1 to the Sixers without MVP Joel Embiid, and we didn’t see their best until they made a furious comeback in Game 5, only to lose anyway and move their season to the brink. But Jayson Tatum awoke in the final minutes of Game 6 and then blew doors with 51 points in Game 7 to send the Celtics to a showdown with the Heat.

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They’ve really upped the ante against Miami, spotting the No. 8 seed a 3-0 lead that included their most shameful postseason performance since Paul Pierce bandaged his head like a combatant at the Battle of Bunker Hill in 2005. The Heat dunked all over the Celtics and then punked them in Game 3, too, with Butler mocking Al Horford’s timeout celebration and the hosts humiliating the C’s before hitting South Beach. If the Celtics had any pride, it was hard to find.

During the 48 hours between Games 3 and 4, the recriminations flew. The Celtics don’t like each other, suggested one report. They’ve lost respect for their coach, said another. Massive changes loomed this summer.

At this point it was fair to ask, “Are you sufficiently backed into a corner? Can we see the real Celtics now, please?” And lo and behold, they finally arrived.

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Their blowout win in Game 4 made Marcus Smart’s Kevin Millar-esque admonition to “don’t let us win tonight” qualify as prescient rather than performative. The Celtics improved to 3-0 in elimination games, including two on the road. They’re now 6-1 in such contests dating back to last year, and they’ll need to push that number to an improbable 9-1 if they’re going to give themselves a chance to raise Banner 18 vs. the Nuggets.

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Betting on that outcome remains unwise, but the sickening beauty of this group is that it continually finds ways to overcome adversity of its own making, the more hopeless the better.

This still feels pretty hopeless, but it’s worth remembering that the Celtics won 13 more games than the Heat this season and boast two all-NBA players in their prime in Tatum and Jaylen Brown, even if neither one has particularly played like it. I’m through saying the Celtics are the better team, but they remain the more talented one.

The Heat are trying to become the first team to reach the Finals despite posting a negative point differential during the season. They’ve caught fire, but they’re not some unstoppable force.

Meanwhile, the Celtics can have a hard time turning their engine over, but they’ve continually demonstrated an ability to engage once they do, whether it’s Game 6 in Milwaukee last year, Game 7 in Miami last year, or their various comebacks this postseason.

You would never, ever draw it up this way, but now that it’s here, might as well embrace it. The Celtics must effectively sweep the Heat to reach the Finals. They’ve shot off their own foot, burned down their own house, bankrupted their own business, and that can only mean one thing.

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They’re finally ready to play.

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