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BOSTON — In a series this strange, the simplest explanation might be the best.
"Taking care of the ball is huge," Boston Celtics coach Ime Udoka said following his team's 102-82 victory against the Miami Heat in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals, which tied the best-of-seven set, 2-2.
The Celtics would hold a commanding lead of the series if not for two terrible six-minute stretches of basketball in Games 1 and 3, both marred by turnovers that bled into transition opportunities for the Heat.
Miami blitzed Boston in the first six minutes of the third quarter of Game 1 by a 22-2 margin, flipping an eight-point deficit into a 12-point advantage it would never relinquish. Likewise, the Heat raced to a 24-7 lead in the first six minutes of Game 3, withstanding a comeback the Celtics could never quite complete.
Aside from two disastrous six-minute spurts, Boston has outscored Miami by 65 points over the remaining 180 minutes of the series. The Celtics' top-rated defense has dominated in the halfcourt, holding the Heat to 41% shooting from the field and 32% accuracy from 3-point range outside of those 12 chaotic minutes.
"I mean, I don't know how to explain it," said Heat guard Victor Oladipo. "It's wild, right?"
Statistically, the Celtics have been themselves through four games, outscoring the Heat by 7.7 points per 100 possessions, matching their regular-season margin that led the East. Boston's offense and defense are operating at the same elite level, while Miami's efficiency compares to the 27-win Portland Trail Blazers.
"Obviously, we had some really bad quarters but had been overall consistent before that," added Udoka. "It's an inconsistent series from both teams at times, and it's an odd one, honestly, when you look at some of the numbers tonight, the way we didn't shoot or play offense that great and having a 30-point lead."
Yet, the conference finals are not decided by advanced analytics. The Heat have won as many games in this series as the Celtics through sheer force, even if in half-quarter flurries, and they will host two of the final three games if the series goes the distance. If all it takes is a haymaker, Miami has the upper hand.
"Sometimes when you have two really competitive teams, it doesn't necessarily mean it's going to be a one-point games," said Heat coach Erik Spoelstra. "It means it can be flammable either way. Both teams are ignitable. ... The margin for error for either team — whatever they have done to us, we can do to them."
Boston has worked the body, losing only three of 16 quarters — one of which was the meaningless fourth quarter of a lopsided Game 4 — but the judges have scored the two title contenders even so far in the fight.
"I think we have to have that mindset going into Game 5 that it is a must-win game, because tonight was essentially something like that," Celtics star Jayson Tatum said of his team's wavering sense of urgency.
Any other analysis of this slugfest should be dismissed. Nobody can predict how the next three games might unfold. The Heat have led by 20 in each of their two wins, and the Celtics have led by 30 in theirs. The odds of both teams maintaining that volley seem slim, reflected by the 1.5-point spread for Game 5.
Both teams have taken their lumps. The Heat were without Kyle Lowry (hamstring) for the first two games of the series and Jimmy Butler (knee) for the second half of Game 3. They entered Game 4 with six players listed as questionable on the injury report. All but Tyler Herro (groin) played in Game 4, albeit like they were feeling the attrition of taking the court every other night. Lowry and Butler combined for 4-of-20 shooting.
Celtics guard Marcus Smart missed Game 1 with a right mid-foot sprain, returned for Game 2, finished Game 3 on a badly sprained ankle and sat Game 4. Teammate Robert Williams III underwent left meniscus surgery in late March, returned three games into the playoffs, missed the final four games of the conference semifinals with a bone bruise in the same knee, played Games 1 and 2 of this series, sat Game 3 and returned again in Game 4, only to be resealed for the final 19:26 of the blowout. Throughout his 31-point performance on Monday, Tatum worked through soreness in the right shoulder he injured 48 hours earlier.
You could tell me any of them or none of them would be available for a Game 7. Williams conceded after Monday's victory that the travel between games for the remainder of the series will not help his swelling.
"Once you have an injury," said Williams, "it's rare that you feel no pain."
About the only thing we know for certain in the East at this point is that the winners must peel themselves off the mat for Game 1 of the NBA Finals on June 2, four days after a potential seventh game in this series. Meanwhile, the Golden State Warriors are one win from sweeping the Dallas Mavericks on Tuesday night and securing eight days of rest for a veteran core that has largely gone untested in pursuit of a fourth title.
The bell rings for Game 5 on Wednesday. Who will answer it on the Heat and Celtics is anyone's guess.
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