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Gary Washburn | On basketball

Loss to Heat underscores that Celtics are more of a question mark now than last week

The Celtics were practically powerless to stop Bam Adebayo, the latest big man to control the paint.
The Celtics were practically powerless to stop Bam Adebayo, the latest big man to control the paint.Pool/Getty

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ORLANDO — What we’re finding out quickly is the resumption Celtics are much like the pre-pandemic Celtics. They have as much talent as any team in the league. They can be dominant defensively. They have a couple of elite scorers.

Getting all those elements together for 48 minutes is the issue.

The Celtics played a Miami club that was playing without All-Star forward Jimmy Butler (ankle soreness) and had just lost a heartbreaking game Monday afternoon to the Toronto Raptors.

And yet the Celtics turned this into an adverse situation. The Heat were the passionate and competitive team. They worked harder on defense, put themselves in position to succeed, and then got the breaks and whistles when it counted.

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The Celtics’ 112-106 loss to the Heat at HP Field House is nothing short of an embarrassment. Not because Miami wasn’t a formidable opponent, but the Celtics coasted into this game with no sense of urgency, thinking their previous two wins over the Heat and a strong offensive game Sunday against the Portland Trail Blazers would be good enough to collect an easy bubble win.

Instead Miami never trailed, and when the Celtics whittled a 15-point third-quarter deficit down to 1, they imploded again and allowed another Miami run.

When the Celtics needed everything to go right, they were bitten by karma. Miami got the breaks. Miami got the calls. Miami got the buckets and the Celtics were left pondering whether they are really on the level of a Milwaukee, Toronto, or even Miami.

Goran Dragic shoots against Semi Ojeleye in the second half of Tuesday's game.
Goran Dragic shoots against Semi Ojeleye in the second half of Tuesday's game.Kim Klement/Associated Press

The Celtics are 1-2 in this resumption, losing to the Bucks and Heat in games they barely led. And in their victory, they had to rally after losing a 24-point lead. If this is a championship-caliber team, it hasn’t show that yet in Orlando.

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While teams such as the Raptors, Suns, and Pacers are using this platform to gain momentum for playoff runs or even next season, the Celtics are a bigger question mark than when they got here.

It’s about time this team takes these seeding games seriously, because they are not experienced, savvy, or cohesive enough to “flip the switch” in the playoffs.

Celtics coach Brad Stevens wanted to use these seeding games to polish playing rotations, get some rust off Kemba Walker, and regain defensive cohesiveness. Instead, the Celtics are a mess on defense, allowing Miami to hit 10 first-half 3-pointers. Once they found a response to the Heat’s perimeter attack, they couldn’t stop Miami big man Bam Adebayo, who attempted a career-high 18 free throws.

It was so glaring that Celtics forward Jayson Tatum and Adebayo, who have known each other since their AAU days, joked about how much he lived at the free throw line.

“Miami had a lot to do with it,” Stevens said. “Miami was dictating how the game was played. They were great. Me talking too much about our approach would take away from them. I don’t want to do that. I thought they were great tonight. I thought that we started off defending really well, in the first three minutes.”

It’s typical Stevens that he doesn’t want to criticize his own team and rather take the Lou Holtz approach and make the Heat look like the ’96 Bulls, but there are some concerning issues with these bubble Celtics. The Heat’s game plan was apparent: either shoot the 3 or pound the ball into Adebayo, the latest big man to have a mismatch against any Celtics center.

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The result was 63 first-half points for Miami, which is the 15th-best scoring team in the NBA, and major Boston foul trouble. Marcus Smart fouled out in the third quarter. Tatum was given late technical for saying, “about [expletive] time” when a foul was called for teammate Jaylen Brown.

Jayson Tatum controls the ball against Bam Adebayo in the second half of Tuesday's game.
Jayson Tatum controls the ball against Bam Adebayo in the second half of Tuesday's game.Pool/Getty

While the officiating was shaky at times — it usually is — the Celtics created this situation with their poor approach. The Celtics lost this game in the first half because of their lackadaisical tactics. This current crew hasn’t won anything together, so it’s mystifying why they come into certain games with such arrogance.

“We let our emotions play too much of a part,” Tatum said. “We’ve just got to do a better job focusing on what we can control and not other things.”

When asked about constantly getting hit in the mouth first in games, Tatum said: “It has to be a preparation thing. By the time we got going and started playing well together and tough enough, they were already in a rhythm. They’re a good team. They’ve got good players. They hit some shots. They made it tough.”

It’s not that the Celtics have flawed game plans. They just aren’t executing those game plans early. The Heat were an angry bunch after blowing a fourth-quarter lead against the Raptors. It’s as if the Celtics didn’t even realize that. Duncan Robinson and Tyler Herro are good shooters. Miami leads the NBA in 3-point percentage. It’s as if the Celtics didn’t realize these things until the second half.

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As for Adebayo, he has attempted double-digit free throws just 12 times this season. He did not attempt any free throws in 32 minutes against Toronto. And suddenly he gets to the 18 times against the Celtics. That’s a problem.

“When we’re fouling, it’s because they’re getting the ball so deep [in the paint],” Stevens said. “We’re going to have to figure that out.

“At the beginning of the year I thought we guarded with great intensity and we kept the ball out of the paint, not doing as good of a job now. If it gets down there, we’re toast. So we have to keep it from getting down there.”

The Celtics haven’t proved yet prepared for this bubble, and that’s disappointing.


Gary Washburn can be reached at gary.washburn@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.