Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Daniel Theis must’ve felt the deja vu. Without Robert Williams III able to play, stalling early in the fourth quarter after a go-ahead run to close the third against the Miami zone. Derrick White, Payton Pritchard and Jaylen Brown hesitated, botching five straight possessions against the system that perplexed them in the 2020 east finals.
Tatum darted off the bench after only three minutes of rest between quarters, bumped into Dewayne Dedmon rising in the lane and held the ball long enough for Theis to slip through the back line for a cutting finish. Brown turned up the pace one play later to finish a flashy reverse before Miami set its defense, then White started another break and hitting Theis above the basket for a three-point tip-in.
Not quite Robert Williams III, Theis managed a key 15 points in 17 minutes as the next man up off the bench, the Celtics answering Heat runs throughout, but Miami flexed its defense again. Max Strus and the Heat’s starters secured three straight stops against Brown inside and Kyle Lowry delivered the decisive fadeaway baseline jumper to push Miami ahead by four late. Jimmy Butler flushed a Bubble-esqe exclamation point dunk following Strus’ block on Jaylen Brown one play later, and the Heat won a gritty potential playoff preview, 106-98. Brown and Jayson Tatum squandered four down the stretch, while Marcus Smart shot 3-for-15 in an erratic performance with six turnovers.
The Celtics entered their final six games in control of their own destiny for the east’s No. 1 seed, but their magic number of six for home court advantage through the playoffs matched how much time they had to figure out life with Robert Williams III. Boston’s transformative big man tore his left meniscus on Sunday, before undergoing surgery on Wednesday and receiving a 4-6 week timeframe for his return.
Boston plugged in Grant Williams immediately for lineup stability. From there Daniel Theis projected to step into a larger role, playing some of his first minutes ever alongside Al Horford despite playing his first two seasons with the Celtics alongside the veteran.
Ime Udoka predicted the team would mix and match in the front court, even going smaller with Aaron Nesmith through the closing stretch. For a group playing on a string all season, the breakdowns on the defensive end flowed early and often, while the personnel Udoka leaned into showed an adeptness for switching and rotating they hope will carry them to Williams III’s return.
The new Celtics starters took only 68 seconds to force Udoka to call timeout, Grant and Marcus Smart staying high on Kyle Lowry, who dumped a pass last-second to a wide open Bam Adebayo for the finish. Jaylen Brown rotated slowly around a screen and allowed Max Strus to hit his first three-point attempt in the corner. Al Horford would give up another early Strus three playing low around a screen, with Grant dodging the same fate playing him low later in the quarter.
Boston shot back ahead behind a pair of threes from Brown and Smart. The Celtics shot 6-for-14 from deep in the first quarter, Butler unable to hunt Williams and Horford from distance. Adebayo and him turned toward the interior, and hit a Theis-Horford double big combination with five straight points. He did most of his damage picking apart Boston in the passing game, throwing a perfectly timed give-and-go pass to Duncan Robinson cutting past a confused Payton Pritchard and Theis, before feeding Tyler Herro for three on a handoff into the second quarter. Adebayo finished the first half with five assists.
The offensive benefits of the Celtics’ new rotations flashed between quarters, Horford feeding Theis for three in the corner with an extra pass before both he and Grant scored off the dribble. The Celtics led 29-25 and both teams started turning the ball over into a chaotic second quarter.
Smart had stolen a pass on a timely double in the first, feeding Tatum on a long touchdown pass, finding Tatum again with a go-ahead pass after Smart initially turned the ball over off the dribble. Tatum turned the ball over on the next play and Smart missed a long three, perfectly timing a pass to Kyle Lowry from P.J. Tucker after he secured the rebound to hit Tatum again at the basket. Tatum hit five of his first six shots inside to keep Boston ahead throughout the first half.
Old habits reared their head into the final minutes of the first half though. Horford blocked an Adebayo put back attempt, Smart secured the miss and stepped out of bounds, arguing he’d been pushed. Tatum’s frustration with officials bubbled after an offensive foul call backing down Robinson in the first quarter, before he fouled Butler helping on the baseline and got called for a technical between Butler’s free throw attempts. He turned toward his family on the sideline with his arms in the air, as Miami scored six straight points at the free throw line into halftime, which started with Smart, Grant and Udoka complaining to officials.
Smart fell to 2-for-12 on the offensive end into the third quarter, continuing to look for his shot in the lane after leading the Celtics through an undermanned effort two nights in Toronto. Lowry hit two threes as the Heat built their lead out to 11, Brown throwing errant skip and in-bound passes into eventual turnovers.
Then, Horford, Smart and Derrick White fired off extra passes to get Brown a three above the break with the game slipping away. The Celtics stormed through the end of the frame into a 16-0 go-ahead run, sending the Garden into a frenzy with back-to-back breakout dunks by Tatum and Theis. Brown gave Smart and Tatum a one minute breather, creating four straight points to send the Celtics into the fourth with an 83-79 lead.
Lowry, Strus and Butler peppered the Celtics with key shots to answer the Celtics’ zone-breaking efforts early in the fourth, but Butler and Adebayo missed key shots at the free throw line with leads. Tatum found Theis for a back line two and White for a transition three facing deficits in the final frame.
Smart and Brown’s sloppiness reemerged, Smart trading giveaways with Lowry on a night where he threw away six possessions. Brown missed a dunk attempt, potential game-tying jumper in the paint, a point blank layup and got blocked by Strus at the rim. Lowry’s fadeaway on the baseline and Butler’s breakout dunk served the Celtics a loss, Smart the first to exit the floor plays later, ejected, as Boston’s offense leaned into isolation late in throwback fashion. A troubling start entering a new phase of the season.
The Celtics return to TD Garden to host the Pacers at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, now back into a tie with Philadelphia for the No. 3 seed behind Miami and Milwaukee.