The good news for the Celtics after Monday’s 110-105 win over the Miami Heat was they didn’t melt under the intensity of having to hold a large lead for three quarters against a playoff-desperate team.
The Celtics jumped out to a 19-point first-quarter lead and spent the rest of the night staving off Miami rallies, including one that cut the deficit to 3 points in the final two minutes.
The fact they were able to withstand the pressure, the vintage Dwyane Wade buckets, the bull-like charges to the basket of Goran Dragic, and even a couple of key baskets from Kelly Olynyk indicates that this Celtics team is getting tougher when they need to be.
The Heat are really trying to make the playoffs in Wade’s final season. It’s critical to the franchise.
Question: Which team has the highest payroll in the NBA? Well that would be the Miami Heat, despite the fact they have a losing record (38-39) and no All-Stars, besides the 37-year-old Wade, of course.
The Heat’s two highest-paid players — Hassan Whiteside and Ryan Anderson — combined to play 23 minutes Monday and score 3 points. They are in a salary-cap abyss, so they might as well make the postseason and have something to show for money not well spent.
Miami coach Erik Spoelstra was quite concerned about whether the Celtics would play their full lineup, considering Kyrie Irving and Al Horford rested Saturday against Brooklyn. The Celtics fielded close to their full roster, besides Jaylen Brown (back spasms).
So the Celtics took this game seriously. They wanted a true playoff-caliber test and the Heat provided that after a ghastly first quarter, which ended up costing the visitors the game.
The Celtics are going to have to win games where they don’t shoot well. They shot 39.6 percent and 35 percent in the final three quarters Monday. They are going to have to win a game when Irving isn’t offensively dominant — he scored 25 points on 7-for-19 shooting and just 10 points in the second half. And they’re going to have to beat a team with real rim protectors — Miami alternated Whiteside and Bam Adebayo and the Celtics still won the rebounding battle (49-48).
Ignore the fact the Celtics nearly blew a 23-point lead. They jumped on Miami early and 20-plus point NBA leads are hard to retain for more than a quarter or two. Miami was going to make a run (or runs). Dragic and Wade are just too good not to. Dion Waiters is capable of hitting big shots and Olynyk plays well in his former NBA residence.
The Heat are enigmatic but talented and the push they gave the Celtics was much needed. Miami junked up the game, throwing a 2-3 zone that forced the Celtics to revert to their college days of passing until the open man flashed in the middle.
It was a frustrating process, but the Celtics made enough plays in the waning moments to hold on. So they take this experience, consider it a positive one and move forward to Miami on Wednesday.
“We needed to, like, have one of these where things were really going against us and we just found a way, right?” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “And unfortunately, we got two of these against these guys at home [this season], but that’s what they do. They keep coming, they’re really hard-playing, they’re really well-coached. And, like I said about the zone, I thought we just got stagnant. We showed that we can play great against it, and then we just slowed down a little bit too much.”
It was a ragged game. The Celtics shot 37.3 percent on 2-point baskets, too often taking the first open shot against the zone instead of the right one. Irving had five turnovers and took some questionable second-half shots. Aron Baynes took six shots in the fourth quarter and missed all six.
So winning ugly was relished because it was winning against a quality opponent that essentially had more to play for. The Celtics have three more major tests in the next five days, with games at Miami and Indiana (Friday) and a home contest Sunday with Orlando.
Coasting in blowouts won’t help this team that has lacked fortitude as much as winning grinding games like Monday’s.
“Things aren’t going to go our way in the playoffs [all the time]; we have to be able to play through adversity,” guard Marcus Smart said. “Especially everybody can play good when things are going their way, but you define the character in the player when things are going against you. When adversity hits you have to be able to respond.”
It was a step forward Monday. The Celtics jumped on a team and literally never trailed, which is difficult to do in the NBA. Style points or margin of victory don’t matter at this point, it’s responding better from adversity, avoiding those big runs by the opponent, and showing enough fortitude to restore order. And the Celtics did that, for the most part, against the Heat.