In as meaningful a contest as the Celtics have played in all season, the Celtics finished up their Florida road trip down in Miami at American Airlines Arena in a battle for Eastern Conference playoff positioning. Coming into tonight's matchup, the Heat were sitting in ninth place in a three-way tie with Indiana and Charlotte, while Boston was sitting just 2.5 games behind. Miami, of course, is dealing with a plethora of key health concerns as a blood clot in Chris Bosh's lung will keep him out of action for the rest of the year, newcomer Goran Dragic has been sidelined since tweaking his back in Washington on Friday and Heat lifer Udonis Haslem is nursing injuries to both his ankle and wrist.
Miami was so shorthanded up front that they started Henry Walker, recognizable to Celtic Nation as Bill Walker, at power forward. Regardless, this was a game that was meant to have a playoff-like atmosphere and the intensity certainly increased as the contest progressed.
Despite Miami being shorthanded, there's one thing that was made clear tonight - Dwyane Wade isn't "Flash" anymore, but the man can still play. We saw flashes - see what I did there - of vintage Wade as he had a bounce in his step with the dribble, knifed his way through the lane, put that pretty mid-range jumper on display and created multiple opportunities when it seemed as though nothing was there. The three-time NBA champion put the entire Miami offense on his back all night and came through with a monster 34-point performance, 15 of which came in the fourth quarter.
Wait, am I gushing over Dwyane Wade? How about Luigi Datome?!?!
In order to counter Miami's small ball, coach Stevens even decided to open up the second quarter with an unconventional lineup of Isaiah Thomas, Gerald Wallace, Luigi Datome, Jonas Jerebko with spurts of both Kelly Olynyk and Brandon Bass at the five. Gerald Wallace's intensity, as usual, was contagious. As surprising as that unit was, it competed at a high level on the defensive end and was one of the most active stretches the Celtics saw in the first half. In fact, Stevens kept them out there for roughly half of the second quarter and they only allowed five points in their first five minutes on the floor together.
Not only that, but Luigi Datome provided a big time offensive spark in that mid-second quarter stretch where Boston's offense was lacking. Shooting the ball with extreme confidence, Datome earned every minute he received and made the most of it with his high motor and pretty stroke, scoring nine of his career-high 13 points in the second quarter.
However, the Celtics were unable to expand on Gigi's hot hand and didn't even score a single field goal in the last four minutes of the first half, allowing Miami to cut Boston's nine-point lead to a single-possession game heading into intermission.
The first half was played at a relatively slow and choppy pace, full of activity but lacking continuity and if we're being honest, neither side looked particularly impressive running their offense.
Coming out of the locker room, Boston made it a point to enforce their will as the more aggressive team, but the whistles were unkind to the green to open up the second half. Just three minutes into the third quarter, Marcus Smart picked up his fourth personal foul and the Celtics had already found themselves in the penalty.
After Dwyane Wade made a couple of nostalgic plays slashing to the basket to give Miami the lead, Isaiah Thomas buried a three at the five-minute mark that would spark a 19-9 run heading into the final frame. The Celtics were zipping the ball around with a purpose, taking clean looks, attacked the rim hard (especially Brandon Bass) and put together a 30-point quarter to regain the nine-point lead they had already built earlier in the game.
The fourth quarter painted a perfect picture about what ultimately decided this game. Miami made their runs and cut back into it, taking a small lead and making it a single-possession game on multiple occasions, but at the end of the day, they were a one-man show on the offensive side of the ball. Dwyane Wade had an outstanding game from an individual standpoint, but there's only so much one man can do versus a team that is consistently shifting the opposing defense side to side and executing continuity offense. Miami's isolation attack, as successful as it was for them in spurts all night, ultimately ran out of gas.
Conversely, you've got to feel good about how the Celtics came together in the second half after a relatively stagnant offensive performance throughout the majority of the first 24 minutes of the game. The Celtics played together, executed their actions on and off the ball with a purpose and got 59 enormous points off the bench.
Isaiah Thomas lead the green in scoring with 25 points, once again coming strong in the fourth quarter, which was complemented beautifully by Luigi Datome's NBA career high 13 and a refreshingly aggressive 10-point outing from Kelly Olynyk. Both Datome and Olynyk were killers from mid-range, displaying their ability as bigs to pull up off the dribble.
Jonas Jerebko's aggressiveness, on both ends of the floor, was bigger than any box score can show you. Even so, he came through with nine points and six boards, really running the floor as well as you can ask him to and changing the game with his activity in the 50-50 game.
As impressive as the bench brigade was as they came in and completely altered the flow of the game through a handful of stretches, you've got to tip your hat to Brandon Bass for the way he has been leading by example as of late. Bass was an absolute bull around the rim, coming up with six tough offensive boards and as Brad Stevens put it in the postgame presser, attacking the rim with the mentality of "I will not be denied."
Bass has been a consistent impact player on both ends of the floor, and tonight's 14-point, nine-rebound, four-assist, three-steal performance is just another day at the office for "BB." There is no chance the Celtics could have withstood Miami's runs without Bass on the floor. No way.
Another key factor is how the Celtics have taken pretty good care of the ball lately. Less than a week after setting a franchise record with just three turnovers against Utah last Wednesday, the Celtics only coughed it up nine times tonight and that goes back to what was said earlier about executing their actions with a purpose. Miami, as you witnessed tonight, did not always move with a purpose. It was more or less praying for Wade to save the day, which he certainly has done many times in the past, but that is not a good recipe for winning basketball.
This game was, more or less, decided by the difference in style of play on the offensive end of the floor. Miami was putting all of their eggs in one basket, which usually isn't successful through 48 minutes, and the other side had a definitive plan of attack.
Boston is now just 1.5 games behind Miami, and two games behind both Indiana and Charlotte for a spot in the Eastern Conference playoffs. The window is closing as April nears, but there is still plenty of time. Do you believe?!?!
The Celtics will be back in action at the Garden on Wednesday night, where they'll host the rugged Memphis Grizzlies at 7:30 pm ET.