In a matchup brimming with playoff intensity on the court and in the crowd the Celtics went cold at the wrong time, and a Robert Williams III-sized hole was glaringly clear in the final moments of the 106-98 loss to the Miami Heat Wednesday night.
It was a game eerily reminiscent of some of the Celtics early season 4th quarter collapses. Games where the team would play well in spurts and put itself in a position to win, but have all their efforts undone by poor execution, lack of discipline and sloppy play late. The Celtics managed only two points over the final 4:21 of the game, They were outscored in the frame 27-15, turning a 4 point lead into an 8 point loss. The Celtics turned the ball over 4 times in the 4th and missed just as many makeable attempts at the rim.
This was Boston’s second game since Robert Williams suffered a torn meniscus. Williams underwent surgery earlier in the day and could return in 4-6 weeks. The best case scenario has Williams back for the second round, which if the current standings hold would pit the Celtics against this same Miami Heat team.
Just over a minute into the first quarter, Head Coach Ime Udoka had seen enough. The Celtics started the game with two defensive breakdowns, and Udoka decided to fix that problem before Boston dug itself into a hole with an early timeout.
Jaylen Brown scored the first 11 points for the Celtics before the rest of the team began to step up. Al Horford was a force as a passer and on the boards, setting up open looks for Boston and grabbing 15 rebounds. Jayson Tatum started slow, but he finished the game with 23 points despite clear frustration with the officials throughout the game.
The Heat went on a run in the third quarter, building an early lead that prompted another early Udoka timeout. Boston fell victim to a hot-shooting night by Miami guard Kyle Lowry, who his three threes in the quarter, finishing with 23 points and 8 assists. After Miami stretched their lead to 11, Boston leapt back into the game, exploding for a 16-0 run that was capped off by an Al Horford and-one dunk.
Boston and Miami traded blows from there, and a closing lineup of Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, Al Horford, and Derrick White kept things close until the final minute for the Celtics. A pair of acrobatic layups by Brown helped the Celtics take a brief lead in the fourth quarter, but the same looks didn’t fall for the forward in the final minutes.
Brown missed two layups in the last two minutes, and both were followed by Heat buckets, including a Jimmy Butler dunk that proved to be the dagger. Smart was ejected from the game in the final seconds, and Tatum received a technical of his own in the first half that created a concerningly similar vibe to the early season performances by the Celtics.
“Our team in general, [I] felt like we were talking too much,” Udoka said after the game.
This was Tatum’s 13th technical of the season. If he reaches the 16-mark, he will be suspended for one game.
“I’m very aware,” Tatum said. “I do not want to have to sit out a game.”
The Celtics are now 2 games back of the Heat for the top spot in the East with the playoffs quickly approaching. The top-four spots in the conference are separated by just two games, but Udoka is not focussed on where Boston falls in the league hierarchy.
“We’re worried about health and playing well,” Udoka said.
The cure for a sloppy defensive first quarter? A scorching hot start by Brown. After missing the first shot of the game from deep, the forward came back down the floor and nailed a three. While the rest of the Celtics looked a bit lackadaisical, Brown was flying all over the floor and outscored the Heat 11-10 in the opening minutes of the matchup.
He added a pair of timely acrobatic finishes in the fourth quarter to finish the game with 28 points, 10 rebounds, and 6 assists to lead the team. He needed to look for his teammates in the final minutes, but that does not undo all of his positive contributions.
Things started off rocky for the backup big man, but he found a rhythm quickly for the Celtics, providing valuable minutes against Heat star Bam Adebayo on defense and hitting all 6 of his shots for 15 points, including his own Robert Williams III impression as he finished multiple lobs.
Strus was instrumental in slowing down the Jays down the stretch and drew an offensive foul in the final minute on Tatum that all but sealed the victory for Miami. He finished with 14 points, 7 rebounds, 3 steals, and 2 blocks.
It’s going to be impossible to replace the production and versatility that Robert Williams brought to the Celtics going forward, but is Grant the answer? He’ll have a chance beyond this game, but Boston will need more than the 4 points and 2 rebounds he chipped in Wednesday night.
Somewhere in the middle
It was an ice-cold night for Smart from the field at 3/15 shooting, and he turned the ball over 6 times, but he was the key distributor for the Celtics. In another addition to his defensive player of the year campaign, he collected numerous loose balls on defense and engineered fast breaks to perfection.
So, that happened….
Earlier this season, Jayson Tatum told reporters he refused to throw Grant Williams a lob, saying the Celtics would have to work on that in practice before featuring Williams in the high-octane fast break offense.
Practice paid off, as Smart threw a lob pass in the direction of the 6-6 forward, who laid the ball in to finish off the highlight play. In front of a playoff-esque crowd in Boston, this three-on-one break made the Garden shake.
This was one of 8 assists for Smart on the night, as the point guard displayed his passing ability throughout the matchup. The ball was whipping around the court until the final minutes for the Celtics, with Tatum, Brown, Horford, and Smart all finishing with 4 or more assists.
The Celtics fall to 47-30, fourth in the East. They now turn their attention to the Indiana Pacers who are 13th in the conference with a 25-52 record. Boston is now on a two-game losing streak.