BOSTON — As the Celtics wrapped up a Tuesday morning movie binge in Miami, an unlikely voice came through. The season was on the verge of destruction after three straight losses to start the Eastern Conference Finals.
“I have something to say,” began Matt Reynolds, as Derrick White detailed to Athleticism.
Reynolds, who joined the Celtics staff as a video coordinator in 2015 before eventually graduating into the assistant coaching role, doesn’t normally speak that way. Marcus Smart, who was in Boston before Reynolds arrived, said he had never seen the coach make a similar move. But after looking like one of the best teams in the NBA all season — and going through every type of adversity over the years — the Celtics were performing like a busted team.
They crumbled at the end of Game 2 before blowing themselves up early in Game 3. Like anyone in the circumstances, the Boston players were overflowing with frustration. They were angry with each other. With their situation. With the way their season, so promising just a week earlier, seemed to fall apart all of a sudden.
“Matt really isn’t really the guy to say too much,” Smart said. “He’s not a man of many words.”
So far, that hasn’t held Reynolds back. On the contrary, it only amplified his message. He only spoke for about 35 to 45 seconds, but the Celtics needed to hear the words, according to Smart. They needed something to shake them out of what Smart called a “crisis” earlier in the series. Reynolds told players they had a bad week in a nine-month season.
“Don’t ruin the season after a bad week,” he told the players, as White reminded him.
The Celtics controlled Game 5 on Thursday night, winning 110-97. Now at 3-2 in the series, the impossible could be within their reach. No team in NBA history has ever come back from a 3-0 series deficit, but they feel confident and together after managing the Heat twice in a row. If the Celtics move forward, Reynolds’ speech should be considered one of the boosts that sent them on their way.
“He killed it,” White said. “He kill he.”
Smart said the players all sat to attention as soon as Reynolds spoke. To Celtics fans, he is perhaps best known for his work helping Joe Mazzulla decide when to challenge a referee’s call.
Players know Reynolds as a grinder who worked his way up from a student coaching job at Syracuse to an NBA assistant. It takes a certain type of person to survive in an NBA video room. The role requires working long days cutting film, while putting in time on the training ground whenever the players need it. When Brad Stevens stepped down as head coach to take over as president of basketball operations for the Celtics, the team let go of a number of its staff. Not Reynolds. The team kept him as a special assistant. He earned a promotion to assistant in 2022. With a sharp sense of humor and a relentless work ethic, he earned the respect of the players long before that.
“Everyone loves him and respects him,” White said. “We see the work he does. We have a lot of love for Matt.”
“He does all the little things to get us out there and compete,” Smart explained. “He is preparing the film for us, he has done the cinema sessions, he is doing the location scouting. He is there to give us readings, watch movies with us, review plays we might see, review plays we are going to see, review plays we should be ready for. And just all the little things you need for a team to win.
Just never such talk. Not before the Celtics need it most. Mazzulla said Reynolds’ perspective puts everything into perspective. Thanks to a 57-win regular season and two rounds of the playoffs, this Boston team played as one of the title favorites.
“Sometimes you have a bad week at work,” Mazzulla said. “We obviously didn’t pick the best time to have a bad week, but we did, and we’re sticking together and fighting like hell to keep him alive, and the guys are really coming together. “
From the start of Game 5, the Celtics were locked in. Bam Adebayo started driving for the paint but Smart shoved the ball away to the assist side and then dove downfield to gain possession. From his knees, Smart shoveled a pass to Jayson Tatum, who ran to the other basket and completed a left-handed lay-up on Kevin Love.
The Celtics took off on an immediate 20-5 run by forcing turnovers and converting them into buckets. From there, they rarely stopped performing on either side of the pitch. They showed aggressive assist on Adebayo and Jimmy Butler while holding the Heat to 23 3-point attempts for the game. The Celtics pushed the pace, found open shooters and took care of the ball. While attacking all of the Heat’s defensive help, the Boston players remained determined to move the ball from side to side. The turnover battle was important in this game; Boston committed just nine while forcing 16 for the second straight game.
On both sides of the court, the Celtics have played their best brand in basketball – the brand that gives them hope that they can accomplish the unthinkable. After the Heat shocked them three straight to start the series, the Celtics only need one more road win to force a Game 7 at home. They jumped to the bottom of the deepest well, a horrible habit for them, but no one gets out of such difficult situations as they do.
“For some strange reason, even last year we always seemed to make it a little harder for ourselves,” Tatum said. “But what I do know is that you can see the true character of a person, of a team when things are not going well, and our ability to come together, to understand things when things are not going well. necessarily good for us. It’s different from any team I’ve been on this year and last year only the core group of guys are able to respond. I think that’s just a testament to our unity, obviously how badly we want it, and we have a room full of determined, tough guys pushing things, you look left and right of you believe that the the guy next to you is going to do whatever it takes and fight if it doesn’t work.
After Game 3, the Celtics looked like they could go down without a fight. Mazzulla called them disconnected. Robert Williams agreed with the sentiment. Reynolds must have felt it too.
“I’ve been here nine years and I haven’t really heard him be that passionate when he talks like that,” Smart said. “But we are all adults. We all grew up together. And we all find ways to help this team win. And that was one way he could find to help us. We needed it. We really needed it. The guys weren’t feeling well. They were a little depressed. We were losing. It’s never fun to lose. It’s never fun to lose like you used to lose, to prepare to get swept away.
The Celtics fought off the sweep in Game 4. They attacked throughout Game 5. They are now wide awake. They have hope. They don’t expect anything to be easy for the rest of this series, but they’re alive again. In a moment of doubt, Reynolds reminded them that they could still save themselves.
“When you have a guy like that who doesn’t say a whole lot, he says it with a lot of conviction and a lot of passion, it really drives you forward,” Smart said. “And we’re happy to have Matt here. And we were happy that he could have the sense to say, you know what, I have to say something, let me say it. And that definitely fueled us.
“(After that), we were just excited. We were just thrilled to be together. We were just thrilled to have another opportunity to get out here and play some basketball. We worked hard all year and let it slip away. We had a bad week. And that’s exactly what he said. We’ve had a bad week, guys. It can’t be worse. So keep playing and things will sort themselves out. Just keep playing the right way and trust yourself. He just gave us the speech. And everyone was in that spirit. We all felt what he said. We took it to heart.
(Photo of Marcus Smart driving to the basket in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals: Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)