MIAMI — Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla was smiling as he strode into the interview room following his team’s tense 110-106 win over the Heat on Sunday.
“Man, too bad we can’t play again right now,” Mazzulla said with energy before even reaching the podium. “Can we check ball again now?”
Mazzulla has made it clear the past few months that he wants his team to experience as many unique lessons, situations, and scenarios as possible during the regular season, all to harden it for when things matter most.
In this game, his group returned for yet another matchup against a team that has been a nuisance, most recently and unforgettably during last season’s conference finals, when the eighth-seeded Heat roared to a 3-0 lead before holding off the Celtics’ attempt at a historic comeback and pummeling them in Game 7.
A notable difference Sunday was the absence of Heat star Jimmy Butler, who is taking a leave of absence due to a death in the family. Then during the game Miami’s depth was challenged more, when guards Terry Rozier (knee) and Josh Richardson (shoulder) were lost to injuries.
But the Celtics know as well as anyone that the Heat are tough and gritty. They knew they would have to find a way no matter who was on the court. And after the Heat pulled within 106-104 with 1:49 left, they were held scoreless until the final seconds.
“I enjoy watching physicality with poise and I thought our guys had that throughout tonight,” Mazzulla said. “Obviously you have to rise to the occasion. We said at halftime, we said before the game: ‘Expect it to be hard. Expect it to be difficult. Don’t wish for it to be anything other than what it is, and make sure you respond accordingly.’ ”
There was a fourth-quarter stretch when it appeared the Celtics might crumble. They had a relatively comfortable 96-85 lead with eight minutes left before Caleb Martin tossed in an improbable over-the-backboard floater just before the shot-clock buzzer. Moments later, Duncan Robinson and Jaylen Brown tangled near the sideline.
Robinson was called for a foul, but Brown then dislodged Robinson and sent him tumbling to the ground. Robinson clutched his shoulder and stayed down in apparent pain before bouncing up and voicing his displeasure with Brown.
After a review, it was ruled a flagrant-1 foul on Brown, and when Robinson stepped to the free throw line the two exchanged more words. Then Bam Adebayo converted a 3-point play.
In a blink, the Heat had gone on a 7-0 run in 15 seconds. Their crowd was ignited. But on the Celtics bench, there was a renewed sense of fight and urgency, too.
“I love it,” Celtics center Kristaps Porzingis said of the second exchange between Robinson and Brown. “I think we have to take those moments, those emotional moments in a good way, to make us fired up with control.”
Mazzulla shared a similar sentiment.
“I don’t necessarily encourage friction, but I encourage responding to the occasion,” he said. “We have an understanding of, ‘Hey, this is the environment and we have to adapt to the environment.’ Either we have to set the environment and at times where it’s not set, we have to adapt to that environment. I don’t think we need to go out looking for stuff, but at the end of the day, we’ve got to be ready.”
The Heat kept pushing, and consecutive 3-pointers by Tyler Herro pulled them within 106-104, but they would not score another meaningful basket.
After a Jayson Tatum miss, the Celtics did a good job blanketing Herro. He found a wide-open Haywood Highsmith, whose potential go-ahead 3-pointer was off.
Porzingis stretched the lead to 4 with a pair of free throws, and Tatum swarmed Adebayo before forcing a rushed 15-footer that missed.
The Celtics’ fourth quarter was not perfect. Boston committed five turnovers, did not force any, and started to unravel under tension. But then they found a way, as they have so often during this dominant season.
“[Miami is] a good team,” Tatum said. “They know what we’re trying to do. They’re not going to make it easy. They’ve got guys that play hard and are going to fight through it. We’ve just got to make adjustments. It’s not supposed to be easy.”
Tatum had 26 points, 10 rebounds, and 9 assists, and Porzingis added 25 points and nine rebounds. Herro had 24 points and Adebayo finished with 22 points and 13 rebounds for Miami (28-25), which sits in eighth place and continues to look like a potential first-round playoff opponent for Boston.
Rozier, a former Celtic, had success getting to the rim for much of the night, but with 4:43 left in the third quarter he injured his right knee when he fell after being fouled by Tatum.
Rozier was surrounded by teammates before being helped to the locker room, and the severity of his injury is unclear.
The Heat kept pushing despite all of its absences, but the Celtics did well keeping them at arm’s length. Late in the third, a pair of 3-pointers by Jrue Holiday, who was 5 for 6, provided a boost.
The Celtics would still have to face some adversity down the stretch, but they came out on the other side.
“You enjoy being a part of games like that,” Tatum said. “Everybody brings a competitive fire out of everybody.”