MIAMI — After Bam Adebayo hit a short jump shot to put the Heat up by 2 points with 20 seconds left in regulation Tuesday night, the Celtics had options.
They could have called a timeout and drawn up a play for star Jayson Tatum, who was the only obvious option while this shorthanded. But coach Joe Mazzulla did not want to allow the Heat to put a skilled defensive lineup on the floor, so they played on.
The Heat were aware that there was an MVP candidate on the floor, and they had no intention of letting him beat them. The Celtics were aware that the Heat were going to force someone else to score, and they believed they were prepared.
But as Tatum dribbled about 5 feet beyond the 3-point line and time began to run out, Miami sprung its expected double-team that presented challenges.
Robert Williams was well-covered as he rolled toward the hoop. Derrick White was open with a driving lane at the left arc, but Tatum saw Grant Williams in the left corner and tried a daring crosscourt pass that was intercepted by Tyler Herro, all but ending Boston’s hopes in this 98-95 loss, its second in two nights.
“I’ve got to put up a better play that allows [Tatum] to see that better,” Mazzulla said. “He couldn’t see the two-on-one well enough. So I’ve got to call a better play there.”
For the Celtics, it was a fitting conclusion to a grisly fourth quarter in which they stumbled through a 6-minute-28-second scoreless drought and saw a 10-point lead flipped into a 5-point deficit.
Boston is quite familiar with the Heat’s zone defense by now, especially after facing it frequently during seven grueling games in last season’s Eastern Conference finals. This time around, they just did not have nearly enough weapons to solve it.
The Celtics were without Marcus Smart (ankle), Malcolm Brogdon (personal reasons), Al Horford (rest), and Jaylen Brown (adductor strain management). Jimmy Butler was a late scratch for the Heat because of back tightness.
“We take pride in being the deepest team, so when people are out we have to have the next-man-up mentality,” White said. “Obviously, two games we dropped that we could’ve won, so we don’t look at who’s playing, who’s not playing. We missed those guys, but we still think we should’ve won.”
The Celtics have been held below 100 points just four times this season, and their two-game losing streak has accounted for half of that total. They lost Monday night to the Magic in Orlando, 113-98.
Tatum had 31 points, 14 rebounds and 7 assists against the Heat to lead the Celtics, but he also had 7 turnovers, including a pair of costly ones in the final minutes. He took responsibility for the team’s 13-point fourth quarter, insisting that he must do more.
“It’s on me in those situations to make quicker decisions,” Tatum said, “because when I do make quicker decisions, I feel like I’m extremely hard to guard. So, especially when we’re in a drought or late-game situations, just overall, I have to make better decisions to give ourselves a chance.”
Bam Adebayo led the Heat with 30 points and 15 rebounds. The Heat won despite shooting just 36.2 percent from the field, the lowest field-goal percentage for a Celtics opponent in a loss this season.
The Celtics took an 87-77 lead on a White alley-oop pass to Robert Williams with 8:47 left. The offense then froze up, with unsettled possessions going deep into the shot clock, and jumpers left short when they were finally hoisted up.
Miami’s Haywood Highsmith started Miami’s15-0 run with a pair of 3-pointers and Adebayo added a runner, dunk, and 15-footer before Herro, who was 2 for 15 up to that point, drilled a 3-pointer to cap the surge.
“They went to their zone and we just didn’t have the spacing we needed,” Mazzulla said. “We didn’t get the looks we should have.”
Tatum finally snapped Boston’s scoring drought with a 3-point play at the 2:19 mark. A runner by Herro stretched Miami’s lead to 95-92 with 57.2 seconds left before Grant Williams tied the score with a side-step 3-pointer with 42.6 seconds remaining.
Adebayo put the Heat back in front with his 12-footer with 20.4 seconds to play, then Tatum’s late pass to Williams never had a chance. Williams reached out and swiped Herro with two seconds left, but a whistle was not blown until a bewildered Williams turned and asked for it, with 0.9 seconds remaining.
The Celtics were frustrated by the delay then, and still talking about it in the locker room well after the loss.
“I felt like he called the foul late,” White said.
The Celtics were not yet in the penalty, so they needed to foul once more. Highsmith hit just one of two free throws with 0.6 seconds remaining, giving Boston a chance to tie. But Payton Pritchard’s 3-pointer from a few feet beyond the top of the key grazed the net as it fell short.
Adam Himmelsbach can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @adamhimmelsbach.