Playoff prep week continues Wednesday night in Miami – not to mention Friday night in Indiana – and Brad Stevens loves the opportunity to play the same playoff-contending team twice in a row.
Maybe they’ll learn from the struggles they had against Miami’s zone Monday night. Hopefully they’ll show that they’ve learned, anyway.
“To us this is like a playoff prep in a lot of ways,” the Celtics coach said. “We’re not going to play Miami in the first round, but ultimately when you play a team back-to-back that’s superbly coached, lot of really good players with a lot of good options – they can play big, they can play small, they’ve got a couple of guys out that might play, you have to be ready for everything. So this will be good opportunity to almost have a mini-playoff-like-game on Wednesday night.”
If close games in the final month are good for a team’s playoff form, then the Celtics are getting in quite the workout.
After leading by as many as 23 points, and allowing that margin to dwindle as low as three points in the fourth, the Celtics barely pulled out a 110-105 win Monday night over Miami.
They remain tied for the fourth seed with Indiana, a winner over Detroit.
Al Horford, returning after a one-game knee-related absence, produced a 19-point, 10-assist, 11-rebound triple double. Kyrie Irving finished with a team-high 25 points. Jayson Tatum scored 11 of his 19 points in the first quarter.
But after a 36-point first quarter, bolstered by a game-opening 22-4 run, the Celtics lost their patience against Miami’s zone. Brooklyn’s zone coverage had stifled them Saturday night, and the Heat’s clearly had an impact again this time, with the third quarter once again finding the Celtics at their worst of the night.
“It’s really, it’s been all season,” Horford said of the C’s continued trouble in the third. “At this point, we just have to focus on the next game and see what happened tonight and really learn from it. This is the time we have to be better. Going on the road, you have to play much better than at home. Here, we have the home crowd and we have momentum. We have to be able to hold leads a little better.
“They were just being aggressive and I felt like we let our foot off the gas a little bit,” he said. “I think that we’ll have to look at that film tomorrow and see where we messed up and see where we can be better. Those type of things, they shouldn’t happen, they can’t happen.”
But this time, despite a lot of mistakes down the stretch, the Celtics veered out of danger.
The third quarter once again was a tough stretch for the C’s to navigate, though after allowing Miami to pull as close as six points (71-65), they re-opened some space for an 88-77 lead thanks to a Marcus Morris 3-pointer with 3.2 seconds left in the quarter.
Tatum’s 3-pointer, his first basket since an 11-point first quarter, was good for a 91-82 Celtics lead with 10:40 left, only for Goran Dragic to match the shot 12 seconds later.
The Heat started to chip away, with a Kelly Olynyk 3-pointer kicking off a 5-0 run that trimmed the C’s lead to 93-87.
The Miami run extended to 10-2, and the Celtics’ lead dwindled to 95-92, when Olynyk, fouled attempting a 3-pointer by former teammate Terry Rozier, hit all three free throws.
The Celtics were growing desperate when Tatum hit from the right corner, and Rozier hit another three from the same spot for a 101-92 Celtics lead with 5:16 left, triggering a Miami timeout.
The next time down, after a lot of dribbling from Irving, Horford was left with the ball and an expiring shot clock, before, three possessions later, Dion Waiters hit two free throws, stripped the ball from Rozier, and cruised in to cut the Celtics lead to 101-96.
Tatum’s high-bouncing jumper capped a four-shot possession, with Dragic answering with a drive. Horford lost the ball, and Dwyane Wade hit a step-back jumper that cut the Celtics lead to 103-100.
Though he had missed on the previous possession, Irving grabbed a rebound, drove the floor and completed the three-point play for a 106-100 lead with 1:25 left.
Irving threw a pass out of bounds intended for Marcus Smart, Wade tipped in a miss, cutting the Celtics lead to 106-102, and the next time down Irving launched an air ball.
The Heat took possession with 36.5 seconds left, and Olynyk threw a cross-court pass out of bounds, giving the ball back to the Celtics with 25 seconds left. Irving was finally fouled with 16.1 seconds left and hit both for a 108-102 lead.
Shots by Olynyk and Wade both missed the next time down, setting up a pair of Horford free throws.
In playoff prep week, though, there is a clear benefit to a tight finish like this.
“You get ready, especially this late, getting ready for the playoffs,” Smart said. “You get into the playoff mode by getting used to, ‘we’re about to see this team again,’ turn around and go play them on their court, and it’s going to be totally different then what they played tonight. They’ve got their home crowd behind them, and their fans, and they’re going to have the energy. So we’ve got to come out 10 times as much as we did tonight.”