One major difference between the Celtics and Heat is deciding the East finals

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    Brian WindhorstESPN Senior Writer

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    • ESPN.com NBA writer since 2010
    • Covered Cleveland Cavs for seven years
    • Author of two books

MIAMI — In late January, the San Antonio Spurs traded backup guard Bryn Forbes to the Denver Nuggets. Five months later, that unassuming move has made a major impact on the 2022 Eastern Conference finals.

It was the opening of an opportunity for the Boston Celtics that has been fully realized, as they have pushed the Miami Heat to the brink after a 93-80 Game 5 win on Wednesday and a 3-2 series lead. It had been eight years since the Spurs offered to make a midseason trade. The Celtics played a minor role in the deal, as they were the third team involved. It was also the long-awaited signal that the Spurs were open for trades, and the Celtics wanted in.

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

This is not to say White is a main reason the Celtics are one win from their first NBA Finals appearance in 12 years. White, a starter-level player who is a luxury backup for a title contender is the key to Boston’s current position. The East had the most competitive regular-season in a generation. Four 50-win teams were separated by two games in the standings. A 44-win team (the Cleveland Cavaliers) didn’t make the playoffs; there have been several years in the past decade when that got you the 5-seed in the East. But injuries have hampered what was a potential all-time great East playoff bracket. Joel Embiid‘s torn thumb ligament, orbital fracture and concussion damaged the Philadelphia 76ers‘ chances of advancing past the conference semifinal round. Khris Middleton‘s knee injury very well might have been the deciding factor in the Milwaukee Bucks‘ seven-game series loss to Boston in the second round.

And now the Heat have been reduced to a partial output of their 53-win roster, with three of their best offensive players affected by injuries.

Kyle Lowry, who has played the past three games but as a shell of himself, went 0-of-6 in Game 5, and he is 5-of-23 in the series. A hamstring injury has hampered his explosiveness.

Jimmy Butler is playing on one leg, a sore knee halting his ability to get off 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 past three contests. In Game 5, the Celtics effectively stopped guarding Butler. They ignored Butler and treated him as a screen-setter, not as the team’s most dominant offensive play.

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

Over the past two games and all the while playing through knee inflammation, Butler is 7-of-32 shooting, marking the worst two-game shooting stretch of his career (with at least 25 attempts), per ESPN Stats & Information research.

Tyler Herro has missed the past two games because of a groin injury. The Heat won’t push Herro to play despite the stakes in the postseason. Erik Spoelstra stated that it would have been “irresponsible” to do so. Herro averaged almost 21 points a game this season, and that production has proved irreplaceable, as Miami has averaged 81 as a team over the losses in Games 4 and 5. Back to the February deal. Boston’s preparation saved them. Getting White has proved a vital addition, as Marcus Smart has missed three games this postseason because of quadriceps, foot and ankle injuries. In those contests, the Celtics are 3-0. And on Wednesday, when Smart was limited and shooting 1-of-5, White had 14 points, five assists and two steals.

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

“Derrick, the last two games, has been fantastic. His contributions to our team have been great,” said Jaylen Brown, who took over the starring role in Wednesday’s second half. He’s been indispensable. “

The Celtics are banged up themselves: Smart’s right leg is a medical case study; Jayson Tatum is dealing with a right shoulder ailment that has caused him to throw up some atypically hideous shots; Robert Williams III is coming back from a late-season surgery and is daily battling a bone bruise in his left knee; and Brown is coming off a hamstring injury. In Game 5, the Celtics had their entire roster available for the first time in this series and the fourth time in postseason. Brown, who had 25 points, and Tatum, who had a bad shooting night for 22, were the leaders, as usual. The reason the Celtics won was that they had more healthy players at the right time.

The main reason the Celtics have survived is because of the way the roster was constructed for this challenge, White’s inclusion and his ability to perform within his role being perhaps the best example.

And luck has also played a role. The defending champion Bucks, now the top-seeded Heat, are Boston’s most recent playoff opponents. They haven’t been nearly as well-equipped and as healthy as Boston.

Some people like to point out the fact that title winners in certain years should have an asterisk, because injuries or other circumstances played a role in their victories. This is absurd. The act of surviving the NBA marathon and its competitors is what defines a champion.

Fans have been disappointed by the lack of quality in this series. But the Celtics are now in the lead. They have defeated their opponent. They had more when it was important.

Boston’s path to this moment has not been the idyllic storybook tale — at least not yet — but it has been awfully effective just the same.

” The mental stress and strain that we put on certain teams with our defense has helped us get through the playoffs at times,” Udoka stated. “You saw in the Brooklyn [Nets] series, guys started to wear down. Game 7, [Giannis] Antetokounmpo slowed down some. However, having so many bodies to throw at people makes it harder for them. “

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