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‘Undisciplined’ ending spoils solid showing from Celtics bigs

Horford and Theis stepped up big with Timelord out. Those positives can outweigh the frustration of a home loss.

NBA: Miami Heat at Boston Celtics Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

Whenever the Miami Heat come to town, you know it’s going to be an intense atmosphere. The natural rivalry between the two franchises extends beyond a decade into the Big Three vs. LeBron James-lead Heatles days and was reignited during the Eastern Conference Finals a mere 18 months ago.

Wednesday’s head-to-head battle carried a lot of significance beyond the preexisting disdain. Both teams are jockeying for position atop the Eastern Conference, with the Celtics entering only one game back of Miami for the top spot. The Celtics already own the tiebreaker with Miami, but another victory matters considering Boston’s brutal schedule down the stretch. They close the season with three road games against playoff teams: at Chicago, at Milwaukee, and at Memphis.

Perhaps most importantly, this was the first major test against the Eastern Conference powers since Robert Williams went down with a torn meniscus. While Williams can return in 4-6 weeks after surgery, that timetable puts the Celtics squarely in the middle of a second-round series without their starting center. Wednesday’s game would be an important litmus test for the Celtics: could they survive in a playoff atmosphere without the linchpin of their defense?

Despite the loss, the answer on Wednesday night was a resounding yes — thanks in large part to the two smart, crafty veteran big men waiting in the wings, Boston was just fine up front. What a luxury it is for this team to have Daniel Theis waiting in the wings to play an important role and do it well. He was incredibly impactful off the bench, scoring 15 points in 17 minutes while going 6-6 from the field.

Al Horford’s return to the lineup came at the right time, too. He was fantastic on the glass, hauling in 15 boards and carrying the Celtics throughout on defense. His style on that end is very different than Rob’s. While Williams soars around for skying swats and uses his athleticism to protect the paint, Horford is much more nuanced. The wily veteran uses his basketball instincts to snuff out potential threats and a mastery of angles to suffocate drivers.

In the middle part of the second quarter, the Heat walked up into one of their designed sets to get a lob at the rim. The play was meant to force Horford to step up and help on a baseline drive, thus freeing his man for a lob at the rim. But the elite basketball mind of Horford saw it coming, stuck with his man and intercepted the anticipated lob pass.

Defensively, the Celtics didn’t do as much switching as they have when Williams was in the lineup. To conserve Theis and Horford and prevent them from being exposed on the perimeter, Boston changed their plan just a bit. It wasn’t perfect, but the idea was sound: without Timelord, they’ll need to protect their bigs a little more.

Horford brings the same crafty, old man game to the offensive end. He finished with four assists on the night and did a fantastic job making quick decisions when he caught the ball in the lane. He can hit cutters along the baseline and find them whenever they’re open. It’s a rare skill for someone his size, and Al is great at it.

These two teams are very, very evenly matched when at their best. Miami’s offense looked solid despite the Celtics flying around and contesting everything. Boston cobbled together enough offense without Williams. But the chess match between the two sides is always fun to watch, as Ime Udoka got to test his mettle against brilliant coach Erik Spoelstra.

Sometimes the broadcast picks up on some gems that show us inside that chess match. Late in the second quarter during a dead ball, Spoelstra signaled for his team to run “Pistol,” a common NBA action that features a give-and-go between two guards on the wing that they jog into early in the clock. You can see on the broadcast Spoelstra signal the play, then Udoka catch it and relay the message to his players in order to stop it.

The first half was neck and neck until Miami made a solid run in the final minute or two to take a lead into the break. Boston stormed out of the second half and made a 15-0 run in the third quarter, spurred by the defense of their best players. This team is on a different level when Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown want to guard in the same energetic manner of guys like Marcus Smart and Grant Williams.

Tatum and Brown carry a heavy offensive load for this team, but more credit needs to be given to them for how much they do on defense. As ESPN’s Jeff Van Gundy said during the second quarter, “you don’t play as good of defense as these Celtics have played without your best players being committed on that end.”

The ball-hawking work of Tatum in the third quarter helped turn the night around. He had two steals in a two-minute period and worked incredibly hard to get out in transition to create easy points for Boston. On a night where he was cold from deep (0-5 from 3-point range), the defense served as a catalyst for not just the C’s getting stops but their best player seeing the ball go in.

Another exciting fourth quarter between these two foes was ready to unfold. Unfortunately for the Celtics, some old habits came out yet again. Sloppy mistakes, complaints to the officials that cost them and a snowball effect in the final minutes proved to do them in.

Down four with two minutes to go, a nice defensive play by Max Struss stuffed Jaylen at the rim and lead to a leakout layup for Jimmy Butler. Udoka answered with a great ATO for Tatum, generating a layup to cut the deficit back to 4. From there, three straight offensive possessions for the Celtics were less than ideal.

The first was an isolation drive from Marcus Smart, trying to attack the weak link in Miami’s defense one-on-one. That isn’t his best game, failed to get a top guy a touch late and failed to recognize the fact Bam Adebayo was waiting for him at the rim. The next possession down was an unfortunate charge call on Tatum, one that saw Udoka burn his final timeout on a challenge. After a missed Adebayo shot on the next trip, the C’s pushed quickly and found Derrick White in the corner for a 3-pointer that he didn’t settle his feet on.

Three consecutive empty looks and the game was sealed. Smart picked up an ejection late once the game was officially out of reach, and his frustration was another example of what has plagued the C’s in some close games: a lack of discipline and composure.

After the dominant stretch the C’s have been on for the better part of three months, one loss like this can feel like doom-and-gloom. There are issues to fix, as Udoka and many of the Celtics acknowledge. As far as a first effort goes against an Eastern Conference power without Williams in the lineup, the C’s showed that there’s plenty of fight left to remain a contender and weather the storm.

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