BOSTON — The Heat and Celtics handed the NBA world a playoff preview for all the right and wrong reasons. Boston’s crowd exploded through the Celtics’ 16-0 run through the third quarter that featured five dunks and overcame an 11-point Heat lead. Then, late next quarter, Jimmy Butler slammed home the decisive dunk on the fast break to cap a Celtics fourth quarter collapse that had all the makings of their 2020 east finals misfortune against the Heat. Zone woes. Offensive stagnancy. Turnovers. An overall lack of meeting the moment.
Miami, by contrast, entered Boston with a certain swagger, fully loaded and ramping up their intensity. They forced an Ime Udoka timeout 68 seconds in. Butler and Kyle Lowry traded ice cold daggers late in the fourth, while Max Strus delivered revenge in the form of two late blocks, a flurry of quality setup passes and a critical three-pointer against his former team. His performance somehow surpassed hitting nine triples the last time the two sides met.
The Heat had few of their regular contributors available during that 30-point loss January. The Celtics entered shorthanded this time, losing 106-98, looking like they were starting fresh in their first effort since Robert Williams III underwent meniscus surgery.
Williams III’s +10 net rating this season (+16 in the new year) allowed Boston to avoid crunch time by unleashing massive blowouts wins over some of the best competition in the league. The Celtics led by 20 points in their last six victories, with eight of their last nine victories before that decided by at least nine points.
Late Luka Doncic heroics, along with 50% three-point shooting nights from the Pistons and Pacers, proved to be the only things that could halt Boston’s run over the past two months. The Celtics rarely got the chance to sharpen their crunch time skills recently, but a 126-120 thrilling win over the Nets provided hope that they’d turned the corner in those situations.
Wednesdays’ loss brought that question back with Boston’s margins now shrunk following Williams’ injury, leading by seven at most against the Heat. The Celtics had secured a five-point lead after Tatum reentered to solve the bench’s stagnancy against Miami’s zone, botching five straight possessions to start the fourth. Tatum and Derrick White both found Daniel Theis for key baskets before both starting units returned.
That’s when the Celtics most resembled their past selves, from both earlier in the season and in the Bubble. Brown put his head down to get three straight quality looks in the lane after the Heat took a two-point lead midway through the quarter and missed all of them. They couldn’t turn good looks into great ones though, as they did to initiate their third-quarter comeback.
— Bobby Manning (@RealBobManning) March 31, 2022
Strus stuck with Brown all the way to the basket on the final try and blocked Brown. The play sent Butler running out for a dunk following a Lowry fadeaway that had finally separated the Heat by four, both combining to put the game away at 102-96. Smart’s tough left-handed layup try had no chance at closing the gap.
“They went zone on makes early, it got a little stagnant there, trying to find the ball in the middle,” Ime Udoka said. “It was really the zone at the start of the quarter that happened. We got to the basket, had some really good looks, but this is a team that clogs the paint and tries to obviously go at JT at times and make others prove it. So getting to the basket, some calls that could’ve went both ways that they didn’t call, and you’ve got to see your outlets there, whether it’s a dump-off or kick-out.”
The decisive Strus stop capped a stretch of six straight empty possessions for the Celtics with the ball mostly out of Tatum’s hands. Brown’s inability to do anything other than look to score in crunch time worked in Miami’s favor. Smart tried to involve himself as a screener, turning the ball over with an offensive foul on Adebayo, while White continued to struggle to get involved in an off-ball role — finishing 3-for-9 and 25% from three.
Without Williams III’s vertical spacing and offensive rebounding, Tatum and Brown attacked head-on while three Celtics stood around, Boston finishing the fourth 6-for-22 (27%). It’s easy to project games that close and moments that tight into the playoffs.
Smart’s inability to organize or even calm the Celtics’ worst offensive stretches proved at least as concerning, shooting 3-for-15 after averaging 9.3 shots per game over the past two months. He keyed a 23-3 stretch for the team by focusing on playmaking, reeling back his own offense and getting out of Tatum’s way, as he described it in more explicit terms. His return to high-risk, tightrope walking might’ve flowed naturally from Monday’s short-handed effort in Toronto where he carried a heavier load.
He made up for some of his six turnovers with three steals, but Boston already faced a possession shortage compared to what they were used to with Williams III. They couldn’t afford to give away more. The Celtics’ shot attempts fell to 85 on Wednesday after averaging 86.3 this month.
Look at Marcus Smart time this up. As he says, he loves when the game turns chaotic, and it just did. #Celtics turn a flurry of turnovers in both directions into a 4 point swing. pic.twitter.com/P6gpNgEJvK
— Bobby Manning (@RealBobManning) March 31, 2022
Elsewhere, Grant Williams came up small in a spot start, notably entering the game with a +0.3 net rating in 19 games as a starter this season. Celtics broadcaster Cedric Maxwell noted on the broadcast that Williams commented on not being able to make a shot during a 2-for-7 (0/3 3PT) performance, with Smart encouraging Williams in the tunnel. Grant went on to miss a key look against the Heat’s zone early in the fourth, before fading into crunch time. Miami’s physicality seemed to overwhelm Williams, at one point falling after an offensive rebound and forcing Smart to call timeout.
Smart, Williams and Udoka talked with officials well past the end of the second quarter, Tatum having picked up a technical after a flurry of complaints following Adebayo’s apparent shove of Smart out-of-bounds that became a Boston turnover. From there, the officiating got in the Celtics’ heads, another visual reminiscent of the fall for this group, who fell to 12-21 in games that came down to a clutch situation, only their seventh since February (3-4).
“I think it was early in the game, we were talking about it at halftime, we were complaining a little too much,” Udoka said. “Being down one, as poorly as we played early, and not playing our best basketball. Got caught up in that early in the game. Early, as well as some calls late that didn’t go our way, got caught up in that. We’ve still got to transfer it down to the other end and continue to guard, but play through it. Physical team. Felt like a playoff atmosphere tonight as far as that. Could do a better job with our composure for sure.”
The Celtics only have five regular season games to find themselves again. Perhaps Theis becomes part of that plan, finishing 6-for-6 with 15 points in 17 minutes alongside some sharp defensive rotations. He even flashed his patented seal to help Tatum score his first basket and excelled as a finisher in the pick-and-roll.
Theis does enough things like Williams III, albeit not at the same level, to inspire confidence in him taking over that role on both ends of the floor.
“Daniel’s capable, he’s not jumping like Rob, but he’s a lob threat. So we know that,” Udoka said. “Missed some opportunities, had some turnovers trying to force some passes tonight, but Daniel had a great game overall. You can see his growth, what he’s been doing the past few games is going to be important to us going forward.”
If Boston decided to start Theis and return Williams to his bench role, there’d still be some connectivity issues to sort out. Wednesday featured some of the most baffling defensive breakdowns of 2022, starting with Smart and Brown’s opening miscues. A miscommunication between Theis and Pritchard got Duncan Robinson the easiest basket against Boston’s defensive in recent memory.
The Celtics turned toward drop coverages that got Strus and Robinson going, keeping Horford glued to the paint at times despite his adept switching. Boston can’t play the same way without Williams III, but mixing up coverages left them vulnerable at key moments despite the loss ultimately turning into a decent effort on that end.
As much as Williams III built his reputation on defense, his subtle ability to make offense easier for everyone showed to be where Boston will miss him most, this group now searching for stability after dominating only days ago.
“I said to the guys, every game’s not going to be easy, you’re not going to win every game by 20 points,” Udoka said. “But keeping your composure when you miss some shots or some non-calls, playing through that. It’s a good test, playoff-wise, this is what it’s going to be like coming up in a few weeks here. So every game’s not easy, we could’ve been much better in the first half and still had our chances … the missed some affected us, the zone affected us some, this is a good test for us going forward to kind of feel like what it’s going to be like soon.”