Seventeen minutes into their game with the Miami Heat, which was a statement game or litmus test, the Celtics were lethargic. They allowed the Heat to dictate the pace, get open 3-pointers or Bam Adebayo to have the entire half of the floor for his dribble drives.
The Celtics weren’t a match for the Heat, who raced to an 11-point lead and looked to notch consecutive wins at Toronto and Boston to declare themselves officially Eastern Conference contenders.
It was an important game for both teams. The Celtics are trying to prove they can play with the league’s contenders. Miami has been one of the surprise teams in the league, adding Jimmy Butler to a cast of unknowns and youngsters who have brought back the Heat’s workmanlike philosophy.
The Heat controlled their game with the Raptors for most of the night, and were catching the Celtics without Marcus Smart and Gordon Hayward.
But on their way to an easy victory, they watched the Celtics’ fortitude kick in.
Boston allowed the Heat to score 7 points in the final 7:26 of the second quarter and would never trail again.
The Celtics’ 112-93 win at TD Garden was one of their most impressive of the season because of the quality of the opponent, one they may see come late April. Miami had already won at Milwaukee, beaten Houston and Brooklyn, and had won nine of their previous 12.
And, for those first 17 minutes, they looked like the better team. And then the Celtics increased their defensive intensity, forced turnovers, and turned Miami into a one-man team.
Butler led the Heat with a game-high 37 points, but no other Miami player scored more than 12. While Jaylen Brown and Kemba Walker combined for 59 points and 11 3-pointers, the Celtics won Wednesday with defense, a collective effort not seen in a few weeks.
“We played really hard in the second and third quarters, defensively,” said Celtics coach Brad Stevens. “Two of our better quarters of the year. We’ve played a lot more like we have.”
The Celtics needed an easy victory. They hadn’t enjoyed a runaway victory since Nov. 18 at Phoenix. Two nights later, they went to overtime with the Los Angeles Clippers, then Walker got hurt in Denver and the Celtics have been scuffling ever since, good enough to win but not playing good enough to their liking.
“We were just more aggressive,” forward Jayson Tatum said. “I think we began the game too passive on both ends of the court. They’re a good team. They play physical and tough, so we just had to match that.”
Tatum was not good offensively — 6-for-20 shooting, 2 of 12 from the 3-point line — but he was a plus-31 in his 34 minutes because of the Celtics’ defense. There are going to be nights when the offense isn’t as efficient and the Celtics need to defend to win.
And there are nights like Wednesday when both sides are clicking and the Celtics make things easy on themselves.
They canned 16 3-pointers and reached the free throw line 32 times. One of the primary ways for the Celtics to become an elite team in the Eastern Conference is scoring easy points and also hitting open threes. Brown has tallied 59 points in the past two games since that bizarre 8-point outing last Friday against the Brooklyn Nets.
Brown got a strong dose of how defenses are going to play him as the third option behind Walker and Tatum. They are going to leave him free in the corner and dare him to shoot the three. They are going to single cover him on drives. They are going to force the “least polished offensive player” of the trio to beat them.
And if Brown is playing as he did Wednesday, the Celtics are capable of being real contenders.
“Just being more comfortable with the blitz [double team],” Brown said. “The blitz to Kemba and blitzing JT [Tatum] just being aggressive out of that, because they have to form three on the backside and I’m just trying to be aggressive.
“The last few games people have been blitzing the same way, so just being aggressive out of it and trying to make plays and hopefully they continue to blitz and continue to make plays. But, if they stop, then it will open up guys like Kemba and JT on some of those screens.”
That’s the benefit of having three premium scorers on the floor, especially Walker, who kept the Celtics close early with 3-pointers off the pick-and-roll, forcing Miami to blitz. Meanwhile, the Celtics allowed Butler to score — and he was brilliant — but stymied the remaining roster.
The Heat lacked a reliable secondary scorer behind Butler with Goran Dragic out and it showed. In the second half, Butler scored 23 of Miami’s 49 points and the remaining Heat players were 9 for 25 from the field. On the second night of a back-to-back, they had nothing left.
“We didn’t play together on either end,” Butler said. “On defense, on offense. That’s not how we’ve been winning games. This was one that we really wanted to win, because I feel like we could have proved to ourselves how good of a basketball team that we are. I thought we took a step back, back to the drawing board.
“I don’t think we brought the energy we are supposed to bring I don’t think we played the way we are supposed to play. That has nothing to do with the coaches. That’s all the guys that suit up, that’s everybody in this locker room. We didn’t bring it tonight.”