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Boston’s new Big Three lead the way: 10 takeaways from Celtics/Heat

Hayward, Horford and Irving all led the way for Boston in a crucial victory

NBA: Boston Celtics at Miami Heat Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

1. Many coaches like when their team has a home-and-home set of games just prior to the playoffs. It’s as close to a postseason situation as you can have in the NBA regular season. It allows coaches to prepare their team for the same opponent for consecutive games, which is a rarity in the NBA, outside of the playoffs.

You could see Boston had a good approach, especially with attacking the Miami zone defense. The Celtics had great success in Monday’s game with Al Horford sitting in the middle of the zone and making plays. The Heat made a slight tweak in Wednesday’s game and started bringing the middle defender, generally Hassan Whiteside or Bam Adebayo up a touch. Boston then adjusted and attacked the baseline area more, primarily using Jayson Tatum.

These are the adjustments, and then the adjustments to those adjustments, that you generally only get in a playoff series. It was a nice tune-up for Boston to have this experience a week or so prior to the postseason.

2. Boston was sloppy to start the game. They had four of their 12 turnovers in the first period, and also committed six fouls. Once the Celtics cleaned that up, they really started to play good basketball on both ends of the floor.

3. Brad Stevens has condensed his rotation down to what he’ll likely use in the playoffs. He’s using Horford, Tatum, and Aron Baynes as his starting frontcourt and Kyrie Irving and Marcus Smart in the backcourt. After that, he’s going with just four bench players: Gordon Hayward, Terry Rozier and, when healthy, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Morris. If there are injuries or foul trouble, Semi Ojeleye, Daniel Theis and Brad Wanamaker are the next guys up. Instead of trying to find minutes for 10-12 players, as he did for most of the regular season, Stevens is down to the nine-man group that he trusts. That bodes well for the playoffs.

4. One area where the Celtics really struggled, and it could come back to bite them in the playoffs, is controlling the glass. Miami plays bigger, and goes to the offensive boards more, than a lot of teams, but Boston allowed the Heat to grab a ridiculous 16 offensive rebounds. That led to 25 second-chance points for Miami. That kind of sloppy rebounding can be hard to overcome in a playoff game, where there are fewer possessions and they all matter a little bit more.

5. Tatum struggled shooting the ball, as he went 6-of-17 from the floor, but he didn’t shy away and become passive. This was big, as he went on a scoring spurt in in the middle of the fourth quarter where he scored nine straight points for Boston. Tatum staying aggressive and taking good shots is what matters. Eventually, they’ll fall.

6. Tatum continues to make plays in other facets of the game when his shot isn’t falling. This pass is one he couldn’t make last year. He’s going to his left in pick and roll and delivers the on-time feed with his left hand to Horford for the easy finish. It’s questionable if Tatum would have even tried to make this play earlier this season. He’s growing his all-around game right before our eyes.

7. Did we get a glimpse of a potential closing lineup(s) for the playoffs? Stevens ran out Horford, Tatum, Hayward, Smart and mixed and matched Irving and Rozier, as he played a little offense-defense. This leaves Brown out of the mix, but he could work his way back in for sure, especially against teams with bigger guards/wings. Maybe Baynes gets the call against a team like Philadelphia who plays big. But overall, this group offers Stevens the mix of offense and defense that he prefers to have on the floor late in games.

8. Something to watch for in the playoffs: How much does Stevens play Horford and Hayward together? They are Boston’s two best all-around players. They can do it all offensively, especially now that Hayward seems to be feeling good (more on that in a bit!). After last night’s game, the two had played 744 minutes together over 59 games. That’s about 12.6 minutes a game. Boston is +84 in those minutes, which is a pretty good mark for a two-man lineup.

More importantly, Boston averages about 30 points per game during the time Horford and Hayward have shared the floor on 47.5 percent shooting. They more than hold their own defensively and on the boards as well, and the team hands out 7.5 assists in those minutes. Once again, Kyrie Irving is Boston’s best player. Al Horford is the team’s most important player, but a healthy Gordon Hayward isn’t far behind either one as far as best or most important.

9. Staying with Hayward, remember when everyone groused about how much Stevens played him early in the season? It definitely cost the Celtics some wins, as Hayward was pretty bad a lot of nights. But the only way to get Hayward back to the player Boston signed in 2017 was to let him play. He had to go through the ups and downs and get his confidence back. He was also playing himself back into NBA shape in a lot of ways. Chalk this one up as a losses early for hopefully big wins later. And later is when it really matters.

10. Let’s finish with how Boston closed the game: with Kyrie Irving on the bench. Stevens decided the Celtics needed more defense on the floor than offense and chose to play Rozier over Irving, as Miami had gone small with multiple guards on the floor. On another night, that could be Brown over Irving, or Baynes if the opponent is big. The important part was that Irving didn’t sulk. He was up cheering on his teammates and coaching from the sidelines.

Irving has had a lot of ups and downs this season. It’s been a trying year for him, but ultimately one of growth. He’s figuring out exactly who he is and how he should act as a team leader. That’s led to some hurt feelings and some issues in the locker room at times. But things seem to have found some balance as of late. Irving spoke to his growing relationship with Stevens, and how important their communication with each other has been. He also said that helps him understand his role and the teams goals a little better.

The Celtics have seemingly “righted the ship” multiple times this season. But this time feels a little different. Stevens has guys in roles that make sense. Irving seems bought in and trusts his teammates again. Horford is playing his best ball as the back-to-backs from the regular season have disappeared. Hayward looks as good as he has since signing in Boston. It’s all coming together for the Celtics, and at exactly the right time.

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