The back-to-back is the best way to discard the pain of a loss quickly. For the Heat and Celtics in Boston on Friday night, both had chances to reverse the outcomes of losses to the Hornets and Cavaliers, respectively. The Celts sat at 3-3 on the second half of back-to-backs, Miami at 1-5.
Both felt extra pain coming in. Goran Dragic was out with an aggravated back from 30+ minutes of play against Charlotte. Avery Bradley fell ill on the journey back to Boston and would miss his first game of the year. Meanwhile, Josh McRoberts remained out, but the Cs had to grapple with Wayne Ellington (6-11, 14 points) who they had not seen in prior games.
The Heat, meanwhile, had to deal with the best game Isaiah Thomas (15-26, 9-13 3pt., 13-13 FT, 52 points) has ever played. The best fourth-quarter scorer in the NBA could not be stopped from anywhere in his frame. When the fourth started, he had 23 points. He walked to the locker room 12 minutes later with 52, and the Celts had the win.
“You just get in the zone and feel like you’re in the gym by yourself,” he said after the buzzer rang on Boston’s 20th win in 34 games.
Josh Richardson (8-17, 19 pts, 6 rebounds, 8 assists) assumed point guard duties for Miami, while the Celtics were able to pair Marcus Smart (1-7, 6 pts, 4 ast) on the ball with Thomas from the tip.
Richardson jumped into action early, with two pull-ups off the dribble from the free throw line to pull the Heat within 5-4. Then, Jae Crowder (3-8, 9 pts, 6 ast) made good on his crucial missed three-pointer late in Cleveland with a three from the wing.
Al Horford (8-12, 21 pts, 6 reb), coming off his worst game of the season, missed his first attempt of the game but got back to his bread and butter on the low block. He backed down Justice Winslow (5-13 11 pts, 9 reb) and spun for the lay-up off the glass. Richardson then sprung back with a big block on Thomas, cutting through a pick and getting to the rim, but he stepped out of bounds on the other end of the court.
After giving up an offensive rebound to Winslow, a reoccurring problem that emerged again tonight (MIA won reb battle 39-30), Kelly Olynyk (2-7 5 pts) subbed in and set a pick for Thomas. IT came around the top of the arc and was hit in mid-air on a deep two attempt by Tyler Johnson (8-13, 19 pts, 6 ast).
Rodney McGruder (2-4, 5 pts) gave the Heat their first lead on a three, and Horford responded with a step-back baseline jumper. Two possessions later he stuck a three from the wing off a corner pass from Thomas to go ahead 17-15. His third straight basket came in the low post again after a Johnson cut-and-score for Miami.
Up 21-19, Terry Rozier (1-1, 2 pts, 5 reb) stepped in after three games on the bench. Seconds into his first stint, he rolled off a pick for Jaylen Brown (3-4, 6 pts) and finished through a foul off an underneath pass from Olynyk at the top of the arc. Off the bench for the Heat, Ellington hit two deep jumpers to keep pace before James Johnson (8-13, 22 pts, 6 ast) tied it at 25.
With the full bench unit in tow to start the second, Jonas Jerebko (2-4, 6 pts, 5 ast) got a stop via a block, but the Celtics gave up two straight buckets to fall behind 30-27. Brown drove through the center of the paint to come within one off an array of high-post crossovers, before Amir Johnson (2-3, 6 pts, 5 reb) and Olynyk traded hooks underneath the rim to make it 32-31.
The Heat hit their shooting stride midway through the quarter, driving up a 39-32 lead behind the playmaking of Richardson to shooters and a charging Hassan Whiteside (5-9, 11 pts, 8 reb) layup that again saw Olynyk take a beating from his shoulder. A deep three from Richardson by way of Ellington made it 42-35, then both teams traded three-point misses. Thomas froze a defender with an up-fake and drilled a three after Amir Johnson’s offensive rebound.
Two plays later Smart heaved the ball off a defensive rebound across halfcourt to Thomas on the wing, who converted from three. After a pair of Thomas free throws off the drive and a Johnson turnaround hook, the Celtics led again 45-44 on a 10-2 run. McGruder snuck in on the boards to break up a run of three straight Celts defensive stops by sneaking in around a box-out for a put-back.
Boston took the lead as Thomas was sandwiched between two defenders, hitting both free throws. The Celtics then turned it over twice, Ellington missed two threes on one possession and three quick passes from the top of the arc through Horford to A. Johnson open down low put Boston up 48-46.
Ellington and Thomas traded buckets before J. Johnson passed the ball right to Smart, who outlet-passed over half court to Thomas on the drive for his seventh and eighth straight free throw makes. Ellington’s last-ditch three-point attempt from the corner fell short as McGruder’s elbow caught Crowder in the face. There was no call, but the Celtics escaped the first half up 52-48.
Thomas scored 14 of the Celtics’ 19 second-quarter points.
The third frame began with Richardson hitting a free throw and two straight Winslow jumpers, leading to another Richardson make from mid-range to put the Heat back in control. Boston’s counter was continuing to push perimeter shots for Horford against Miami’s interior bigs. Smart faked a drive, bounced the ball to Horford behind him, and the Celts led 59-55.
A. Johnson was there to catch another Horford three attempt under the rim and converted on his free throws. Miami continued to shoot well. Tyler Johnson and Babbitt converted back to back, and then Johnson got to the rim to follow up a Horford floater for Boston.
Thomas got going again midway through on a hard roll to the basket around the rim, making it 17 straight games with 20 points for him—a league high. T. Johnson was hotter, capping off three straight mid-range makes around picks to put the Heat up 66-64.
While the Heat were cruising as a team from the field, Boston kept pushing the Horford matchup, and it was working. Another three made it seven of Horford’s first ten shots to fall after getting set up high on the arc by Smart again. Ellington fired back from the corner with one of his own, and Smart responded with a drive where he grabbed his own rebound and put his missed lay-up back in. Crowder then drilled two straight threes from the corner and top to jump ahead 75-73.
Boston’s buckets came on tough arrays of passes into the post and out, but the Heat continued to simply drill shots with ease early in the shot clock. Johnson kept posing a massive problem with his movement on the ball and shooting, but he drew a tough charge with Rozier spinning on him in the post. Miami put up five points in the final minute of the third, but a pair of Smart free throws and a matching three from Jerebko in the corner with one second left maintained the Celtics’ 82-78 lead.
Rozier, Jerebko, Brown and Olynyk joined Thomas on the court for the final frame, and the trends continued. Excellent Celtics ball movement set up a give-and-pop for Thomas baseline, but the Heat were able to penetrate and shoot all over the defense. Willie Reed put back a miss with a slam over Olynyk, Johnson was fouled by the latter and Richardson drove through everyone for a slam to cap a run with Miami up 89-84.
Thomas pulled up and made a three with nine minutes to go and followed it up with another around A. Johnson’s pick, getting to 31 points early in the fourth, which was once again his. Coming around another pick after a miss, he stuck another three from the wing. The Celts led 93-89 on an 11-0 run as Miami went cold.
After a monster slam from Brown off a Rozier steal in transition, Jerebko navigated around the post and swung to a wide-open Thomas, who hit yet another three. Seconds later, he pulled up in the face of T.Johnson from deep for his eighth 3-pointer, breaking his previous career high of seven.
With 5:12 to go in the fourth, Thomas had 17 points in the quarter alone.
As Thomas lit up the Garden, the Heat kept drilling, pulling within 101-98 on a T. Johnson three in transition. But then the Heat hit a meltdown. Reed overthrew a feed over the top of the defense into the post. J. Johnson missed a lay-up after breaking up a pass to Thomas, then Thomas made them pay the other way driving all the way to the rim and finishing through the foul.
Thomas stood at one point short of his career high with 43, and the Cs led 104-100.
The Heat weren’t done after Thomas’s burst of 20 points. Richardson pulled up on Thomas and converted, then Ellington hit an open layup in transition to tie the game. Thomas stepped up again, taking the ball through Miami’s defense at the start of the possession to give him a career-high 45 points.
T. Johnson missed the ensuing three, Whiteside collided with Crowder and took a shot to the face, knocking him out of the game, and Thomas stole the ball from T. Johnson to get two more points at the line in the bonus.
Miami pulled within two again, but Thomas pulled up from the baseline inbounds line way behind the three-point line for his ninth three as the Garden exploded. On a night where the Celtics did little right, IT pulled off the highest-scoring fourth quarter by a player in Celtics history to save the night.