For months, this once-promising Celtics season has seemed destined to end with a whisper. And when All-Star forward Jaylen Brown was ruled out for the season with a left wrist injury Monday, whatever hope and optimism that remained began to evaporate.
On Tuesday, Boston inched one step closer to an inglorious finish. Two nights after the Heat walloped the Celtics at TD Garden, they came back and mostly did it again, controlling a 129-121 win that put Boston on the brink of the play-in tournament.
“We wouldn’t like to be here, obviously,” point guard Kemba Walker said. “But whenever you have opportunities to still make the postseason, you can’t complain about that. So we’ve got to find a way to be better together and find a way to win.”
The Celtics (35-34) can no longer finish ahead of the Heat or Hawks, because they lose tiebreakers to both teams. But they still have an outside chance of catching the Knicks, who lost to the Lakers in overtime, 101-99, in Los Angeles late Tuesday night. If New York loses its last three games and Boston wins its last three, the Celtics would finish ahead of the Knicks because of a tiebreaker. But that result is unlikely.
“I’m sure everybody is kind of writing us off, especially losing [Brown],” Jayson Tatum said. “But myself and everybody in that locker room, we’re still fighting. We still believe in one another.”
On Tuesday, the Celtics played like a team that understood its fate was all but sealed. The Heat were crisp and precise, and they wore down the Celtics in the second half. When yet another double-digit deficit arrived, there were no real signs that Boston would be able to do anything about it, even if a mild flurry made the final score look respectable.
Walker had 36 points and Tatum added 33 for Boston, which lost despite shooting 52.3 percent from the field. The Heat made 57.3 percent of their shots in Sunday’s win and somehow improved that mark Tuesday, when they connected on 59.3 percent.
When there was defensive resistance, the Heat usually found ways to score anyway. But most often, Miami just did as it pleased.
“Individually, we’ve just got to kind of all look in the mirror and ask ourselves, ‘Are we giving it every single thing we have at that end of the floor?’ ” Walker said. “And to be honest, we’re not, not on every possession. It might be a few possessions, it might be a few in a row, but then we take a few off. That’s all of us.”
Observations from the game:
▪ Heat star Jimmy Butler was inadvertently poked in the eye by Marcus Smart near the end of the second quarter and did not play in the second half. That essentially canceled out Brown’s absence and should have given the Celtics a real opportunity to wipe away a 6-point deficit.
But the Heat crushed the Celtics with their constant movement and cuts, leading to open shots and obvious Celtics frustrations. New Hampshire native Duncan Robinson was a nuisance, drawing fouls, hitting open teammates, and finding open space for 3-pointers, like his dart with 1:46 left that gave his team an 86-75 lead.
“We had so many un-solid [defensive] possessions,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “But, ultimately, we were off the bodies of shooters early, and then we switched out of convenience and not necessity, and it really hurt us. And, as a result, later in the game, there was more indecision.”
The Heat made 53.3 percent of their 3-pointers (16 for 30).
▪ Walker missed the first 11 games of the season to strengthen his left knee and was rusty after his return. But his play in the second half of the season has been one of the few bright spots for Boston. He has been quick, confident, and explosive, and Tuesday provided another example.
“Kemba is obviously an enormous key for us,” Stevens said. “I thought he did a lot of good things tonight. His energy is something that we need at a high level for us to be the best that we can be. We need it from everybody but certainly he’s had a good couple of weeks here, from an individual standpoint.”
▪ After the game, Tatum made it sound as if Brown was contemplating postponing his wrist surgery until after the playoffs.
“From the beginning, I told him I always support people doing what’s best for them and taking care of his self and his body first, and we’ll go from there,” Tatum said. “Obviously, we need him and we would love to have him, but we know that health comes first, and I told him that I was supportive of that, him getting surgery and getting it taken care of right away.”
Last year, Romeo Langford tore the same ligament in his wrist and continued to play before his season ended because of an adductor strain.