Before the Celtics faced the Heat Wednesday, word spread through the bowels of TD Garden that guard Dwyane Wade and center Hassan Whiteside would miss the game for Miami because of injuries.
For Boston, it seemed like good fortune. But in the locker room, it created some wariness. There was concern that these absences could affect their intensity and their focus. They tried talking about it, tried to stop it from becoming an issue. It didn’t work.
“You don’t go into the game saying you’re gonna let up, but it takes the pressure off you a little bit,” guard Isaiah Thomas said. “Then they put their foot to the pedal, and stomped on us.”
Playing free, easy, and confident, the Heat surged to a 22-point lead. By the time the Celtics found their rhythm, it was simply too late.
The Heat left the Garden with a 93-86 victory, and the Celtics left wondering how they had let an opportunity vanish. They were critical of themselves afterward, speaking sharply about their puzzling start to such an important night.
“To play like that in front of our home crowd, that’s not the way we play,” guard Marcus Smart said. “We embarrassed ourselves.”
The loss soured the return of Thomas, who had missed eight games with a bruised lower back. He entered to a roar midway through the first quarter, but it was evident he was not yet himself, not yet the player who had energized this franchise since being acquired in February.
Thomas registered 4 points, 3 turnovers, and 0 assists in 20 minutes. He is a career 86 percent free throw shooter, and he missed all three of his foul shots. He air-balled a 3-pointer. He had the ball ripped away on consecutive possessions, slapping his hands together in disgust after the second occurrence.
“I just didn’t have anything today,” Thomas said. “It just wasn’t there. I wasn’t decisive at all. I hurt us. I promise I’m gonna do better.”
It would have been a mistake to expect Thomas to provide an instant jolt, considering he had yet to even play in a five-on-five scrimmage prior to Wednesday. Yet there was an inescapable sense that even if he did not dominate, his return would be uplifting.
As the Celtics mounted a late comeback, Thomas watched from the bench with a heating pad on his lower back.
He said he was not in pain on Wednesday; he was just knocking away cobwebs. And that is good news for the Celtics, because they will need him as this postseason chase intensifies.
At 31-40, the Celtics maintained their hold on the Eastern Conference’s final playoff spot thanks to owning a tiebreaker against the Pacers. But behind them, the bottleneck is thickening. Boston is tied with Indiana, and the Nets and Hornets are just a half-game back. It is becoming increasingly likely that this race will, in some form, come down to the season’s final days.
“We’ve just got to know what’s at stake as a unit,” forward Jae Crowder said. “This game right now, we’re playing for something. If that doesn’t motivate you to come out and be prepared, I don’t know what will.”
The Heat shot 60 percent from the floor in the opening half and took a 57-40 lead to the third quarter. Such deficits — and leads — have routinely vanished in Celtics games this season, however, so there was no reason to panic.
But the start of the second half was no different, as the Heat entered the fourth quarter with an 82-62 lead. The Celtics finally found a spark from an unlikely lineup, as backups Jonas Jerebko, Phil Pressey, and Gigi Datome played almost the entire fourth quarter.
Datome hit a 3-pointer with 7:06 left that pulled Boston within 86-74, then added another at the 4:47 mark to make it 88-80.
The arena was shaking and the fans were chanting without being egged on by the scoreboard’s instructions.
With 1:59 left, Pressey scored on a difficult drive through the lane, making it 89-83. Crowder had a chance to pull Boston within 3 points with 1:15 left, but his off-balance 3-pointer was short and, ultimately, so was the comeback.
“We’re right there in a two-possession game and we shot some really tough shots,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said, “when I thought we could have kept moving it and got some better looks.”
The Heat went 3 for 17 in the final quarter but still won by 7, illustrating the thoroughness of their early dominance. Goran Dragic had 22 points and seven assists to pace Miami, which clearly found a way without Wade or Whiteside.