MIAMI — An official’s review gave the Celtics and Heat several minutes to cool down after another injury nearly occurred during one of the most physical games of the season. Jaylen Brown and Duncan Robinson met at the free throw line anyway during the following set, Brown receiving a flagrant one foul for pulling at Robinson’s left elbow as they fought for the loose ball in the corner, and Robinson let Brown hear about it before both teams assembled and separated the pair.
“You obviously want to play within the rules and you don’t want to cost yourself points or … opportunities,” Joe Mazzulla said. “But there is something to that. Absolutely. We need to have a certain level of frictions in moments. There needs to be passion. I thought he handled it really well. I really like the altercation at the free throw line after. I thought it was tremendous and great for us. It was beautiful.”
The Heat surged to a 7-0 run following the dust-up, drawing the crowd into the play and eventually pulling within 106-104 with 1:49 left. Brown doubled Tyler Herro in the post after Jayson Tatum failed to get a shot off and forced the ball into Haywood Highsmith’s hands for a potential game-tying three. He missed it, and Tatum redeemed himself by knocking Bam Adebayo off the ball twice posting-up down by four points, forcing another miss. The Celtics escaped, 110-106, sweeping the season series over the Heat but learning again how dangerous they can be in a playoff environment.
Sunday’s win resembled what we could see in May, whether the Heat opening in zone defenses for most of the fourth quarter, the Celtics needing to recognize help coming to negate mismatches and second and third layers of Boston’s offense providing the right read. Kristaps Porzingis hurt his back early in the third quarter, returning for the fourth, while Josh Richardson and Terry Rozier fell to the floor and did not return with nasty-looking shoulder and knee injuries earlier in the game. Jimmy Butler did not play for personal reasons.
“Miami is known for being physical, Miami is known for getting away with that stuff, kind of mucking up the game,” Brown said. “At the end of the day, you gotta protect and own your space. I feel like Duncan Robinson knew what he was doing there. Trying to get tangled up. I don’t know what he was trying to do, but I bet you he won’t do it again.”
Porzingis interjected after Brown addressed the feud, ignoring a question about his sore back to express how much he loved Brown and Robinson going at it. The altercation fired up the crowd and the Celtics, who needed to prepare for Adebayo to generate offense more aggressively in the post with three ball-handlers down. Tatum hit a floater then Jrue Holiday and Tatum swung crafty passes to Brown in the corner and underneath the net, the pretty half of their late game execution.
The final 2:34 went into the mud, nearly to Miami’s benefit. Two stops closed out the game, but without a Celtics bucket over that stretch, Highsmith’s three alone could’ve swung the game, which Brown allowed by rushing in transition and losing the ball on a strip from behind by Highsmith two plays earlier. The complexion of Celtics-Heat series changed drastically this year with the introduction of Porzingis, who overwhelmed Miami’s defense with 20.3 points per game on 20-for-35 (57.1%) shooting across the three meetings. He hit 7-of-14 from three.
“I think we have to take those emotional moments in a good way, make us fired up, but controlled,” Porzingis said. “We have to stay controlled, because that’s their game. They need us to react to something. As J.B. said, we own our space, but we don’t have to react back. They have to do that to mix up the game, to make something happen. I think we just have to be smart in those situations, but show that we’re right there.”
Tatum dished eight assists in the win to finish the season series with 18 to only four turnovers, in the midst of a passing breakthrough with four consecutive games with seven or more assists. The matchup proved more troublesome, again, for Brown, who turned the ball over 13 times while assisting teammates eight times. As the Celtics settled into their roles against the Heat’s unpredictable defense late, Brown shined most as a finisher, while his aggressive drives in transition matched what Boston hoped to achieve from a pace perspective, but twice led to Adebayo chase-down blocks.
Mazzulla also adjusted from the sideline, changing matchups defensively on out of bounds plays, quickly abandoning Luke Kornet in a double-big look in the first half alongside Al Horford in favor of Oshae Brissett. Boston showed some full court pressure, and navigated the same from the Heat. The Celtics needed to find the open man deep into their passing sequences, leading to nine threes from Holiday, Sam Hauser and Payton Pritchard. The challenge came at a perfect time, four hours before the Super Bowl, but more persistently to cap the team’s longest malaise ahead of the all-star break.
The final regular season game, nonetheless, hardly felt like Miami’s last word in the ever-growing rivalry.
“I thought our group showed a tremendous amount of grit in that second half,” Erik Spoelstra said. “There were a lot of things that weren’t necessarily going our way, including the injuries, and then down 10 (points), to really claw and fight back and get this game on the ropes, I think, is a credit to how hard our guys were playing. Then, sometimes, it ends up being make or miss down the stretch. They had Jrue Holiday hounding Tyler there and trying to figure out how they were gonna matchup … for a few possessions they were putting Holiday on Bam, then they switched and put him on Tyler … you live with the results from there … (offensive rebounds) probably ended up being the deciding factor in the game, the big muscle areas.”