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Celtics 95, Heat 78

The Celtics proved they could play some defense as they shut down the NBA’s top offense

Boston Celtics center Al Horford (left) congratulates Jaylen Brown after Brown scored on a shot during the second half .Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

MIAMI — Ime Udoka was going hoarse the past few weeks promising his team was going to establish a defense-first approach. Despite having two All-Stars and a handful of scorers, games would be won by stopping opponents.

Something seems to have clicked over the past 48 hours, because the Celtics have suddenly become a stifling defensive bunch. It was one small feat to shut down the lottery-bound Orlando Magic, but a night later in Miami, the Celtics were brilliant on defense in the most impressive win of Udoka’s young tenure.

Fueled by a stunning second-quarter shutdown of Miami’s NBA-leading offense, the Celtics staved off one final Heat run and cruised to a 95-78 win at FTX Arena. It was Miami’s lowest point regular-season total since Jan 17, 2016.


And the credit goes to a defense that held the Heat to 34.6 percent shooting, prevented nemesis Duncan Robinson or Tyler Herro from getting into rhythm and collapsed on center Bam Adebayo every time he approached the basket.

It’s Boston’s second straight win since its meltdown Monday against Chicago and it came against the team with the conference’s second-best record. The Heat (6-2) have tormented the Celtics in recent years with Jimmy Butler, Adebayo and Herro and they added Celtics villain Kyle Lowry in the offseason. But Miami struggled to even get into an offensive set, as Boston’s switching defense got hands on loose balls, closed out on shooters and doubled in the post.

“In today’s NBA, to hold teams to 78 and 79 [Wednesday] is amazing, let alone a back-to-back against a quality team,” Udoka said. “That second quarter, we locked down there. Credit our guys, we switched up some coverages. We did a great job of limiting those guys. Defensively, that’s exactly what we want it to look like.”

It was an impressive display for a team that’s struggled on defense for more than a year. Miami had scored at least 100 points in six of its previous seven games and was the No. 1 scoring offense in the NBA — before Thursday.


“Boston played really well,” Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said. “Defensively, you have to give Boston credit. That is probably as poorly as we have played offensively all season, including preseason and training camp. These nights are going to happen. Sometimes, it is going to be ugly offensively.”

On a night when Jayson Tatum, mired in a slump, did not score until 11 minutes left, the Celtics got double-figure scoring from six players, led by Jaylen Brown’s 17. Brown hit some big buckets during the Celtics first-half surge but eventually left in the fourth quarter with right hamstring tightness.

Grant Williams and Robert Williams III cheer from the sidelines during the second half of Thursday's win.Marta Lavandier/Associated Press

With Josh Richardson out with a foot bruise, Udoka called on Aaron Nesmith and Romeo Langford, and each had their moments in a highly competitive game. Nesmith, who scored his first basket of the season Wednesday, tallied 13 points in 18 minutes. Langford, whose main obstacle has been health, added 12 in 27 minutes and was a plus-25.

“I think it was a statement game,” Nesmith said. “They’re No. 1 in the east and they’re playing well and for us to come out and hold them defensively, just carry this and move forward.”

Trailing, 51-33, at halftime, Miami made its expected third-quarter run, turning the game into a physical slugfest, testing the Celtics’ fortitude. After Brown’s 3-pointer gave Boston a 62-42 lead, the Heat went on a 14-2 surge, and the late-arriving Miami crowd roared in delight.


When it appeared the Celtics would again cough up a big lead, they stormed back with an 11-1 quarter-ending run, sparked by Dennis Schröder’s blazing speed on the fastbreak and a corner 3 from Langford.

All of this occurred while Tatum went scoreless for the first three quarters with four fouls.

The Celtics took control with a stifling defensive effort in the second quarter, holding the Heat to 9 points on 3-for-13 shooting. Miami couldn’t find an open shot. In one sequence, Butler spun on Marcus Smart for one of his patented bank shots and found Al Horford right there to swat it out of bounds.

Even players who have punished the Celtics over the years — Lowry and Adebayo — couldn’t get shots off without harassment. They were a combined 0 for 8 at the half as the Celtics turned a 28-21 deficit into a 51-33 halftime lead, a 30-5 run.

Miami went scoreless for 5:38 in that span, as Udoka’s vigorous work over the past several weeks finally appeared to be reaping results and bringing fire to a team that’s been battling confidence.

Jaylen Brown blocks a shot attempt by Miami's Jimmy Butler in the first half of Thursday's win.Marta Lavandier/Associated Press

Near the end of the second period, Brown stood near Miami’s bench for an offensive set and began jawing with the Heat bench. Moments later, he curled, took a pass from Smart and drained a long 3-pointer for the final bucket of the half. Brown then responded by growling some choice words for those same Heat players.


What’s more, the game included three technical fouls, plenty of trash talk and a thunderous soaring dunk by the 35-year-old Horford that sealed the game late in the third quarter.

“They’re a great team and we’re a great team, too and we knew that,” Schröder said. “Everybody was panicking seven games in but we just try to get better. We’re trying to put the puzzle together. Everybody was engaged, guys stepped up from the bench big time. It’s coming together, slowly.”

Gary Washburn is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at gary.washburn@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.