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Celtics fall in hole, rally, but can’t beat Heat in game with massive playoff implications — and other observations

Tristan Thompson and Jayson Tatum defended the Heat's Gabe Vincent in Sunday's game.Steven Senne/Associated Press

As the Celtics were getting pummeled during the second quarter of Sunday’s game against the Heat, the crowd at TD Garden seemed rather forgiving. It even tried to start some organic and supportive chants, without the help of artificial noise.

But then Miami kept getting whatever shots it pleased, the large deficit grew even larger, and the fans had seen enough. They booed the Celtics off the court after the Heat erupted for 79 first-half points and took a 26-point lead to the break.

The Celtics followed their usual blueprint by crafting a big comeback, but the deficit was once again too severe, as the Heat grabbed a 130-124 win and pushed Boston one step closer to the play-in tournament.


“If you just lose a game by 30 and the guys in front of you were just better, you can kind of look at the game afterwards and see where you kind of messed up and how you can do better,” forward Evan Fournier said. “But when you just fix things just by being more aggressive and turning it up, it just shows a lack of physicality in my opinion. And that’s something we can’t have.”

Fournier had 30 points and Jayson Tatum added 29. Boston lost despite shooting 54.2 percent from the field, mostly because the Heat connected on 57.3 percent of their attempts. Jaylen Brown missed his third game in a row because of a sprained ankle. Robert Williams returned after missing Friday’s loss to the Bulls with turf toe, but his pain returned and he sat out the second half.

Boston entered the game in seventh place in the Eastern Conference, one game behind the Heat. Miami seemed aware of these stakes during its dominant first half, while the Celtics appeared mostly indifferent. These teams will meet again at TD Garden on Tuesday, and a Celtics loss would almost certainly relegate them to the play-in tournament involving the 7-10 seeds.


“Everybody knew the circumstances, right?” coach Brad Stevens said. “Everybody knows where we stand. They know it, we know it, and they outplayed us. You’ve got to give them credit for that.”

The Heat shot 65.1 percent from the field and 55 percent from the 3-point line in the first half and had a commanding 79-53 lead at the break. But Boston needed just six minutes to pull within 12 points in the third.

Miami stretched its advantage back to 105-84 at the start of the fourth before the Celtics made another run. Kemba Walker scored inside to pull Boston within 113-107 with 4:51 left before Jimmy Butler answered with a 3-pointer. Fournier made it a 6-point game again with a 3-pointer at the 3:02 mark, but this time Duncan Robinson responded with a 3 at the other end.

Observations from the game:

▪ The Celtics have had some dreadfully slow starts recently, and this was one of the worst. The pattern is familiar by now. The large deficit arrives and the effort and intensity pick up in the second half. Afterward, the team vows to learn from those missteps, but then it happens again. No one seems to be able to explain why things have been this way

“The starts, I just think when we’re not completely engaged, for whatever reason, we’re just not good,” Stevens said. “And so, when we’re completely engaged, we’re a good basketball team. And when we’re not, we’re not even close to being able to compete with anybody.”


Stevens said several times in his postgame news conference that he needs to do more to ensure that these games don’t slip away early. There isn’t much time left to fix this issue now, of course.

“I know that we can do better, do more, especially in the beginning of the games,” Tatum said. “Just play with a little bit more toughness and play faster. When we get stops in the second half we play fast and play to our advantage, and we look pretty good. So we’ve just got to start like that.”

Aaron Nesmith has given the Celtics' a boost in limited action this year. Here, he and Jayson Tatum tie up Miami's Bam Adebayo in the fourth quarter of Sunday's game.Matthew J Lee/Globe staff

▪ Rookie Aaron Nesmith’s sudden ascension continues to be the most encouraging development of the past few weeks for Boston, both for this season and beyond. He helped the Celtics stay within reach in the first quarter by scoring 9 points in just six minutes, then played a role in the second half comeback and finished with 16 points. He was known as a knockdown shooter as a draft prospect, but he has really displayed his athleticism and his ability to get to the rim recently.

“Aaron has been tremendous off the bench,” Tatum said. “Shot-making and energy, doing little things. He’s definitely earned the time that he’s gotten out there and I’m happy for him because he’s worked his butt off all season.”

▪ Fournier is 34 for 51 from the field and 17 for 27 from the 3-point line over his last four games, an important stretch after he struggled so much when he returned from his COVID-19 absence. Three of the four games have been Boston losses, so the strong performances have not stood out as much, but if the Celtics make any kind of playoff run, he will be a key part of it.


Evan Fournier scored 30 for the Celtics on Sunday.Matthew J Lee/Globe staff

“The more I play, the more familiar I’m going to be with the offense and the defense,” Fournier said. “That’s the main reason why I absolutely wanted to come back as soon as possible from COVID. And so, yeah, I’m getting more comfortable out there, but I’m going to do a lot better, and I have to do more.”

▪ It was Tommy Heinsohn Day at TD Garden, in honor of the Celtics Hall of Famer and longtime broadcaster who died last November. A moment of silence was held before the game and tributes to Heinsohn were shown on the video board throughout the afternoon.

“I don’t know how many people over six decades could impact an organization and city with his play, his coaching, his voice, calling the games, the way that he did,” Stevens said. “Tremendous person. Not only loved listening to him and hearing him call games, but more so loved sitting in my office, closing the door, meeting him for lunch or talking to him on the phone, and just enjoyed his perspective.”

Adam Himmelsbach can be reached at adam.himmelsbach@globe.com. Follow him @adamhimmelsbach.