Heading into tonight's game, the Celtics stood eighth in the Eastern Conference and just one game behind Miami, meaning a victory tonight would have created a seventh place tie between the two clubs.
Well, that would have been nice. Despite a resilient comeback run in the fourth quarter that turned a 22-point deficit into a six-point game, the Celtics woke up a little bit too late and fell short, 93-86.
As the Celtics welcomed Isaiah Thomas back into the lineup after 17 days of rest and treatment on his injured back, Miami was forced to play shorthanded as Dwyane Wade (knee) and Hassaan Whiteside (hand) took the night off to nurse ailments of their own.
You would think that the Heat would be less dangerous offensively without a guy like Wade on the floor, but the depleted playoff hungry group was firing on all cylinders in this one. Miami's high spread pick n' roll offense absolutely murdered the Celtics from the jump, as Goran Dragic relentlessly put his team on his back and picked Boston's defense apart in a dominant first half display. Erik Spoelstra's small ball lineup kept the floor spaced beautifully, and Miami was able to attack the paint at will with minimal resistance, scoring 22 points in the paint by intermission to go along with a sharp 7-12 three-point shooting clip.
Dragic accumulated 17 points and five assists in the first half, getting anywhere he wanted with the dribble and reading the floor two steps ahead of the defense, while Tyler Johnson and Henry Walker provided an extra spark by combining for 20 points of their own. Nobody thought of
Bill Henry Walker as much of a stretch-four when he first entered the league in a green uniform, but it was working for him tonight as a strong bailout option as he buried 4-7 from beyond the arc.
To make matters worse, the Celtics accompanied their heavy defensive struggles with a complete inability to establish any kind of rhythm on the offensive end of the floor. Tyler Zeller used his size to his advantage and was extremely active to open the game, putting up 10 points and seven rebounds by intermission, but Boston's offense was profusely stagnant all night and it was honestly pretty ugly to watch for the majority of the game.
It was great to see Isaiah Thomas back in uniform, but it is pretty clear that he isn't quite 100% yet. He played hard, but moved gingerely and lacked that explosive first step that we are so accustomed to seeing. It didn't help that he took a spill in the second quarter, hitting the deck tailbone-first and groaning as he hobbled back to his feet.
The Celtics tried to hit Miami with a different look defensively as they switched up to 2-3 zone coverage early in the third quarter, which didn't allow the Heat to get into the paint quite as easily but they countered nicely with an abundance of mid-range buckets, often in bailout fashion, to win their third consecutive quarter.
For the better part of the first three quarters, the Boston bench was relatively quiet until Jae Crowder came in and gave the Celtics a much-needed lift to close the third frame. Crowder scored nine of his team-high 16 points in the middle stretch of the quarter, giving the offense a sign of life and something to build off of.
The fourth quarter, however, was a different story. Brad Stevens dug deep into his reserves in somewhat of a desperation situation, and the bench brigade put together one heck of a resilient run to give the Celtics a chance. Boston's energy output was raised to a completely elevated level in comparison to the first three quarters, especially on the defensive end, and it paid off. Phil Pressey provided a big time lift and changed the game in that late stretch in terms of energy, attack mentality and establishing pace. Back-to-back triples from Luigi Datome didn't hurt, either.
Boston opened the fourth quarter on an 18-6 run, holding Miami to just 2-15 shooting from the field in the final frame. A Phil Pressey layup cut a 22-point lead to a six-point game with two minutes to go, but it was too little, too late as the Celtics were unable to close the deal.
You've got to applaud the young guns for rallying back, but that doesn't make you forget about the fact that they played like absolute garbage in the first three quarters of this game. That was not the way you want to carry yourself in a game of this magnitude.
The Celtics are now two games behind Miami for the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference, currently tied with Indiana for the eighth spot, and Brooklyn's victory over Charlotte puts both clubs just a half-game on their tails.
The Celtics will be back in action against the Knicks at Madison Square Garden on Friday night at 7:30 pm ET.