NBA playoffs 2022 – For the Boston Celtics and Miami Heat, the most important ability has been availability

MIAMI — In late January, the San Antonio Spurs traded substitute Bryn Forbes for the Denver Nuggets. Five months later, that humble move had a major impact on the 2022 Eastern Conference Finals.

It was the opening of an opportunity for the Boston Celtics that was fully realized as they sidelined the Miami Heat after a 93-80 win in Game 5 on Wednesday and a 3-2 lead.

It had been eight years since the Spurs were ready to make a mid-season trade and the Celtics played a minor role, functioning as the deal’s third team. More importantly, it was the expected signal that the Spurs were open to trades – and the Celtics wanted to be in on it.

A few weeks, a few phone calls and lots of negotiations later, the Celtics pulled the sword out of the stone and landed guard Derrick White.

That’s not to say that white is the primary reason the Celtics took a win away from their first NBA Finals in 12 years. But having White, a starter-level guard who is a luxurious replacement for a title contender, is a cornerstone of why Boston is in this position.

The East had its most competitive regular season in a generation. Four 50-win teams were separated by two games in the regular season. One team with 44 wins (the Cleveland Cavaliers) didn’t make the playoffs — there have been several years in the last decade where they finished 5th in the East.

But injuries have tarnished what promised to be a potentially great East playoff bracket of all time. Joel Embiid’s thumb ligament tear, eye socket fracture and concussion all hampered the Philadelphia 76ers’ chances of progressing to the conference semifinals. Khris Middleton’s knee injury may very well have been the deciding factor in the Milwaukee Bucks’ seven-game series loss to Boston in the second round.

And now the Heat has been reduced to a partial accomplishment on their 53-win tally, with three of their best offensive players affected by injuries.

Kyle Lowry, who has played the last three games but as a shell of himself, went into Game 5 with 0 of 6 and is 5 of 23 in the series. His explosion and speed were stolen by a hamstring injury. Jimmy Butler plays on one leg, a sore knee stopping his ability to make a jump shot or get past defenders. After going to the foul line 26 times in Games 1 and 2, Butler has been there six times in the last three games.

In Game 5, the Celtics essentially stopped guarding him. They backed off from Butler, treating him as an unskilled screensetter, not the team’s most dominant offensive player.

“Butler didn’t want to score,” said Celtics coach Ime Udoka. “We wanted to keep an eye on him, play him like a big one.”

In the last two games and while struggling through a knee infection, Butler shot 7 of 32, which marks the worst two-game shooting streak of his career (with at least 25 attempts), according to ESPN Stats & Information research.

Tyler Herro has missed the last two games with a groin injury. Even with those postseason appearances, the Heat wouldn’t consider pushing Herro to play. Coach Erik Spoelstra said it would have been “irresponsible” to do so. Herro has been averaging nearly 21 points per game this season, and that performance has proved irreplaceable as Miami as a team has averaged 81 points over losses in Games 4 and 5.

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

White shot 5 of 6 and scored 11 of the Celtics’ 37 points in the first half, almost single-handedly keeping the team afloat. That was after his 13 points, eight rebounds, six assists and three steals instead of Smart in Game 4.

“Derrick has been fantastic in the last two games, his contributions to our team have been great,” said Jaylen Brown, who took the lead in the second half. “He was essential.”

The Celtics are devastated themselves. Smart’s right leg is a medical case study, Jayson Tatum is struggling with a right shoulder condition which has resulted in him firing some atypically heinous shots, Robert Williams III is coming back from late season surgery and is struggling with it on a daily basis a bruised bone in his left knee and Brown is recovering from a hamstring injury.

But in Game 5, the Celtics had their full roster available for only the fourth time this postseason and the first time in the series. Brown, who had 25 points, and Tatum, who had a bad shooting night at 22, were the leaders as always. But the reason they won was because they just had more healthy players at the right time.

A big reason the Celtics have persevered is the way the roster was built for this glove. White’s insertion and his ability to deliver within his role is perhaps the best example.

And of course luck also plays a role. Boston’s last two playoff opponents, defending champion Bucks and now top seed Heat, weren’t as well equipped or quite as healthy.

Some like to point out that certain years the title winner should have an asterisk because injury or other circumstances played a role in their victories. That’s nonsense, the act of surviving the NBA postseason marathon and its opponents is the very definition of what makes a champion.

The injuries have robbed the fans of the better quality in this series so far. But the Celtics deserved the lead. You exhausted your opponent. They had more when it mattered.

Boston’s journey to this moment wasn’t the most idyllic storybook story — at least not yet — but it was terribly effective nonetheless.

“The mental stress and strain that we put on some teams with our defense worked and got us through the playoffs at times,” said Udoka. “You saw at the Brooklyn [Nets] Series, guys started to wear themselves down. game 7, [Giannis] Antetokounmpo slowed down a bit. But having all these bodies that they have to keep throwing at people wears them down.”

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