The Celtics on Tuesday missed an opportunity to solidify the No. 3 seed, as they fell to the Heat, 112-106. Miami, which was without All-Star forward Jimmy Butler and playing for the second night in a row, never trailed. The Celtics now lead the fourth-place Heat by 1½ games with five games left.
Boston trailed by as many as 16 points before clawing back. A dunk by Daniel Theis with 4:41 remaining pulled Boston within 102-98, but it then went more than three minutes without a point. New Hampshire native Duncan Robinson (21 points) hit a pair of 3-pointers to essentially put the game away for the Heat. Jayson Tatum had 23 points to lead the Celtics.
“By the time we got going and started playing well and getting tough enough,” Tatum said, “they were already in a rhythm.”
Observations from the game:
▪ The Celtics unfurled their “best five” lineup for the final few minutes of the first half. That group includes the four top starters and guard Marcus Smart at center in place of Daniel Theis. Coach Brad Stevens has used that group sparingly this season, partly because Boston has rarely had all five players active at once, and partly because it’s risky to play with a 6-foot-4-inch center. This stint did not go well.
Heat All-Star Bam Adebayo punished Boston inside, getting to the free throw line eight times in just over a minute as Miami went on a 10-0 run.
“That might be a tough team to play five smalls against,” Stevens said.
▪ Tatum was scoreless for the first 11 minutes of the game before erupting for 8 points over the final 55 seconds of the first quarter, including a tough finish on a three-point play against Derrick Jones. But Tatum took just 11 shots in the game. That shouldn’t happen, especially when Kemba Walker’s playing time is limited and Smart fouls out in 15 minutes.
▪ Smart has plenty of tricks when matched up against opposing big men. But former Celtics teammate Kelly Olynyk seemed quite familiar with them in the first half. Olynyk patiently backed Smart down and avoided the power backdown that usually leads Smart to fall to the ground and draw an offensive foul. Instead, Olynyk remained patient, and he drew fouls on Smart on consecutive possessions. Olynyk (15 points) led all players with eight assists.
Smart had four first-half fouls and stayed in the game after picking up his fifth in the third quarter. Stevens generally does not react to foul trouble, but in this case it hurt him, as Smart collected his sixth foul after making contract with Gordon Dragic at the top of the key with 3:46 left in the third.
▪ Even though the Heat are back within striking distance of the Celtics, they are probably not a real threat to move into third place. The Celtics’ game against the Raptors is their only one left against a team with a winning record. The Nets and Wizards brought shells of rosters to Orlando. The Grizzlies are 0-3 in the bubble and just lost one of their best players, Jaren Jackson, to a knee injury. The Heat, meanwhile, still play the Pacers twice, as well as the Bucks and Thunder.
▪ Unfathomably, Celtics starters made 17 of 23 3-pointers in their win over the Blazers on Sunday. No one was expecting a repeat performance, but it’s amazing how much rockier an offense looks when those shots don’t happen to go in. The Celtics missed their first eight shots from beyond the arc Tuesday and finished 10 for 33. Jaylen Brown and Gordon Hayward combined to go 0 for 10.
But Sunday’s performance also might have been fool’s gold. Portland has the 27th-ranked defense in the NBA, and it looked like it. The eight likely Eastern Conference playoff teams all have top-14 defenses. The performance against the Blazers will likely be the outlier.
▪ Walker once again had his minutes restriction raised slightly, this time to 27. Walker averages just 31.4 minutes per game, so it’s reached a number that’s no longer glaring. Still, he has seemed understandably frustrated the last few games. On Tuesday he barked at the referees several times in the first half over a lack of foul calls.
But he seemed pleased to be on the floor during crunch-time minutes for the first time during this restart. He hit a pair of 3-pointers in the final 90 seconds, the second pulling the Celtics within 109-106 with 13 seconds left. Even though it wasn’t enough, it was an encouraging finish for him.
“It’s important,” Stevens said. “I wasn’t planning on doing that, but obviously with Smart fouled out I didn’t have much choice . . . He’s got to get as much reps as he can in that. Obviously those are good things.”
▪ Adebayo (21 points, 12 rebounds) did what he wanted with the Celtics in the post. He constantly used his speed, athleticism, and strength to overpower Boston and draw one foul after another. He attempted 18 free throws and was primarily responsible for getting the Celtics into extensive foul trouble. The only good news for the Celtics was that he missed seven of his attempts from the line.
“The post fouls they’re just getting it deep and they’re using their strength and size,” Stevens said. “So we’re going to have to not allow the ball to get deep. We’re going to have to figure that out. At the beginning of the year I thought we guarded with great intensity, we kept the ball out of the paint. We’re not doing as good of a job now.”