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Bring on the play-in: Heat burn Celtics 129-121

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Miami clinched a playoff berth with the win; Boston’s fate hangs in the balance, in more ways than one.

Miami Heat v Boston Celtics Photo by Kathryn Riley/Getty Images

Not even a day after the Boston Celtics season began to slip further through their fingers — a bad loss to an Eastern Conference foe in their rearview, and a date in the play-in tournament becoming increasingly likely — it took an even bigger blow. Forget losses, games lost to health and safety-related absences; this, a torn wrist ligament ending the season of Jaylen Brown, was different and deflating. Deflating doesn’t even feel right, for that implies that some air remains inside whatever is being deflated. This was a pin to a helium balloon, an immediate *pop*, an instant explosion.

Tuesday night’s 129-121 loss to the Miami Heat, that same foe delivering one final blow to Boston’s sixth-seed prayer, wasn’t deflating nor defeating. To this writer, the experience was void of feeling. Feelings as an overall concept are no longer. Simply put, we can’t have nice things this year. Perhaps we have to live with that.

Specifically, this result clinched at least the sixth seed for the Heat, and at best the seventh for the Celtics, though they could continue to tumble if Charlotte and/or Indiana can surge.

Early on, the Celtics resembled a plucky mid-tier March Madness mid-major having lost a key piece for the season but aiming to prove themselves to a doubting audience. Marcus Smart, looking to exorcise the demons he conjured as a result of Sunday’s lackluster performance, sunk two quick buckets for five points, looking primed to fuel an early run for a team in dire need of one. Then, a mere few trips later, Kemba Walker’s head collided with Bam Adebayo’s chest; he staggered out of bounds and exited the game moments later.

If you cried, you should not feel shame. If you swore, your sin shall be forgiven. If you broke your television, you should be proud that it took until game no. 69 to do so.

Fear not, though; Kemba, looking a bit groggy but as spirited as ever, returned to the game minutes after his sideline trip and converted an and-one. If that doesn’t get you fired up, might I suggest purchasing some lighter fluid?

With the scare behind them, the Celtics attacked the Heat with pace and vigor that you could certainly deem atypical, perhaps even unwise. With their “limited rotation” — no Brown, no Robert Williams, and capable if not gang-busting replacements for two key starters — it wouldn’t be ridiculous to assume that Boston might aim to control the tempo in their favor, slowing the game down, letting shots come to them, not vehemently searching for them. Not so; on offense, only five players scored, but each was active in finding their own shots. Between Walker, Fournier, and Jayson Tatum, the Celtics created at a substantial enough clip to lead by as many as six and never trail by more than three, exiting the first physically intact and tied in the game, 28 all.

An effective set play got Evan Fournier open for a triple to start the second quarter, providing more proof that Fournier has 1) returned to relative form having recovered from a plethora of COVID-19 after effects, and 2) the potential to fit perfectly alongside Boston’s stalwart contributors longterm, namely Tatum, a healthy Brown, and Walker. With 15 or so minutes gone in the game, he was up to 11 points on four-of-five shooting, again pacing the Celtics early on — he finished the quarter with 17, and in his last two halves against the Heat, he has 40 combined. Kemba Walker also extended his scoring burst in the second, finishing the half with 17 points, 12 of them coming in the second.

Miami, though, never faltered on their way to leading 62-56 at halftime, continuing its heater and looking more and more like the Heat team of bubble yore. Two players looking particularly bubble-ish? Jimmy Butler and Tyler Herro, who combined for 28 of Miami’s 62 at the half; Butler led his team in assists, furthering his leap as a playmaker and silencing doubters who believe his scoring dip is any cause for concern. Whether or not he’s scoring 30 or 21 per night doesn’t necessarily matter. His game is felt all over the floor, and he’s evidently Miami’s most important player. Consider this if you’re unconvinced: before tonight’s game, the Heat were 31-19 in games Butler had appeared in, and 6-12 in the games he’d missed.

So, for the second half to begin without him on the floor for Miami was undoubtedly a cause for concern. He was hit in the face by Marcus Smart at the end of the second quarter and remained on the sidelines to start the third, nursing what the team officially called a “poked eye.” He wouldn’t return.

The Celtics, though, didn’t necessarily take advantage. Their swift pace decelerated and their hands became increasingly greasy (or so it seemed). With six minutes gone in the third quarter, they had recorded six turnovers; they only recorded five in the first half. At that same point, Boston had also surpassed the foul limit, putting Miami on the line for 16 total free throws.

Beyond those specific statistical discrepancies, the Heat lead was bolstered through their own offensive prowess and thanks to a variety of unforced defensive errors from the Celtics. For one, there were multiple stretches on which one or more Boston defenders neglected to stay glued to their individual assignments on the break, leading to easy buckets at the other end. They frequently aimed to slip under screens or simply found themselves stuck behind them, leading to easy triples for the likes of Herro, Duncan Robinson, and Goran Dragic. Smaller defenders got caught on Bam Adebayo and/or Dewayne Dedmon, and were thus feasted upon. On their shoulders, Miami scored a healthy 42 points in the paint.

Early in the fourth quarter, TNT’s Ian Eagle said what everyone thought and felt: “It has unraveled here for the Boston Celtics.” They fell behind by 19 within the first two minutes of the period, scoring just five points in nearly as many minutes. Tyler Herro continued his big night, filling the hole Butler left behind when he sat for the second half, finishing with 24 points and 11 rebounds. Every time it seemed as though Boston was hinting at making one of its beloved and patented comebacks, he’d drain a three, facilitate in the lane, or start the break defensively. The closest Boston ever got was six — it felt closer than it ever actually was.

Kemba Walker finished with a game-high 36 points, particularly impressive given his early scare. Tatum finished with 33, and Fournier with 20. Herro’s 24 paced the Heat, though it was as much of a team effort as you’ll find. Robinson and Adebayo both finished with 22, while Kendrick Nunn and Goran Dragic finished with 18 and 17, respectively. Miami shot 59 percent from the field. It was a blistering effort, and a winning won, if not from start to finish.

It’s no longer a possibility. The play-in almost certainly looms. It’s just a matter of where Boston sits in the standings when it begins.