MIAMI — The Celtics and Heat have both avoided long ruts this year, and as the season surges into February it appears increasingly likely that they will be tussling for playoff seeding when mid-April arrives.
So their games against each other can be important for that purpose, but they can also create blueprints and confidence that could be useful if they end up meeting in the postseason.
Thus far, the returns have been encouraging for the Celtics. They stormed to a 19-point win at TD Garden in December, and on Tuesday night they stayed in control for almost the entire game before closing out a 109-101 win. It was just the Heat’s third home loss of the season.
Last month’s win came despite the absences of Gordon Hayward and Marcus Smart, and Tuesday’s came when Boston was without Jayson Tatum and Enes Kanter.
“I think we’re getting back to Celtics basketball, how we started the year,” forward Jaylen Brown said. “Getting back to being a team that’s aggressive, being a team that’s coming out and looking for bodies rather than a team that’s sitting back on our heels.”
With Tatum out and Kemba Walker scuffling through a 5-for-19 night, Brown and Hayward stepped in and stepped up when they were needed most.
Hayward had 29 points and nine rebounds and Brown added 25 points and five assists. The two wings combined to make 20 of 30 shots overall.
Hayward consistently looked to overpower smaller defenders who were trying to slow him. When he wasn’t pulling up for close-range jumpers, he was drawing contact. He attempted 10 free throws, his second-highest total this season.
“Just trying to have an attacking mind-set,” Hayward said.
The Heat tried creative ways to flummox Boston’s offense, extensively using a kind of 1-3-1 matchup zone in which its longer, athletic players roamed the perimeter. It caused some issues for the Celtics during the second quarter, in which they shot 27.3 percent and missed all six of their 3-pointers.
But at halftime the Celtics studied video from those grisly moments and adjusted by attacking more frequently and finding seams for close-range jumpers.
Hayward said the Celtics were aware of Miami’s wrinkles, but a jam-packed January had kept them from really working against a facsimile in real time, and it was jarring at first.
“The key was trying to get it to the middle there,” he said. “But they do a good job, and their big guys are up, and it’s a little bit different than most zones, so sometimes it is hard to see, and they make you kind of hold the ball up at the top. That stifled us there for a little bit but then we started to get into the teeth of the zone and we were getting some easy stuff.”
While they started to deconstruct Miami’s zone, their own man-to-man sets caused headaches for the Heat at the other end.
“Their guys kept us from keeping our normal ball movement and triggers where we can go from good to great,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “That’s a credit to their defense. They did a good job making second and third rotations in a possession.”
These stops by the Celtics consistently smothered Miami’s runs before they could turn into anything alarming. Boston never trailed in the second half.
With Tatum, Kanter, and even reserve forward Javonte Green all out, coach Brad Stevens elected to tighten his rotation considerably rather than count on the fresh legs of players who might not have been ready to contribute. Just eight players appeared in the game, and reserves Brad Wanamaker, Semi Ojeleye, and Grant Williams all provided important lifts.
The trio combined for 18 points, 13 rebounds, and 4 assists in about 57 minutes. Williams and Wanamaker teamed up for one of the game’s biggest plays.
After Dion Waiters drilled a 3-pointer in the final minute of the third quarter to pull Miami within 77-76, Walker missed a 3 at the other end. But Williams smothered the offensive rebound and fired a pass to Wanamaker, who drained a 3-pointer to extend the lead to 4.
“A lot of them were second-chance points that basically took our spirit when the game was right there and it looked like it can go either way,” Spoelstra said. “Every time we got close, they hit a big second-chance opportunity.”
The Heat lingered for much of the fourth quarter, but never made a serious run and never whittled the deficit below 5 points.
“It’s been a hard trip,” Stevens said. “Obviously these games are tough. I’m happy that we played a little bit better so we’ll see if we can build on it on Thursday [at home against the Golden State Warriors].”