Playing without Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, Al Horford, and Malcolm Brogdon, the Boston Celtics were bound to struggle against the Miami Heat on Tuesday night, but it was the timing of their struggles that proved to be most damaging.
Boston battled well throughout the first half and, in the third quarter, grew a comfortable lead over Miami that maxed out at 14 points. The fourth quarter is when everything changed. Erik Spoelstra and the Heat rolled out a zone defense that gave Boston fits, the Celtics finished with 13 points, and everything fell apart.
“Just manage the zone offense for that segment,” head coach Joe Mazzulla told CLNS Media, taking blame for not organizing the offense. “They went to their zone, and we just didn’t have the spacing we needed. We didn’t get the looks we should have. I thought we had the right personnel on the floor against the zone. We just didn’t get the looks we should have gotten on a few of those, and that led to some of the transition.”
The Celtics shot just 5-of-21 from the field and 2-of-10 from three-point range in the final frame, allowing Miami to rip off a 15-0 run. From there, they were able to sustain the lead and continuously disrupt Boston’s offense with their zone defense.
Through the first three quarters, Boston tallied 18 assists on 27 made baskets, shooting an efficient 50.9% from the floor and 36.4% from distance. Even more impressively, they held the Heat to just 34.7% shooting overall and 36.0% from deep. Jayson Tatum and Derrick White had over 20 points apiece, and the offense, despite missing three starters and a Sixth Man of the Year candidate, was running as smoothly as one would hope.
Miami’s zone was simply too much, and even Tatum, who had thrived throughout the contest, failed to handle it.
“I think we got some good looks. I think for myself, I gotta make quicker decisions,” Tatum told CLNS Media post-game. “I think a couple of times, I held it too long, they got to load up, crowd me, and have a guy at the nail. So, it’s on me in those situations to make quicker decisions. Because when I do make quicker decisions, I feel like I’m extremely hard to guard. So, especially when we’re in a drought or late-game situations - just overall, I gotta make better decisions to give ourselves a chance, really.”
Tatum shot 1-of-4 in the fourth quarter, with his only three points coming on an and-one layup that snapped a five-minute scoring drought for the Celtics that lasted from the 8:47 mark to 2:19. And after that juncture, Boston would score just five more points in the game.
All of their issues compounded not-so-beautifully into one possession at the end of the contest. Bam Adebayo nailed a mid-range jumper over Payton Pritchard to put Miami up by two with 20.4 seconds remaining. Boston, who still had two timeouts left, chose not to use one.
Instead, Tatum brought the ball up the court, and Mazzulla called a play to try and give him passing options. But rather than hit Robert Williams on the roll or White on the wing, Tatum attempted to skip the ball to Grant Williams in the corner, and Tyler Herro intercepted it. The Celtics would get another chance to tie the game with 0.6 seconds left, but Pritchard’s three came up short.
“For me, I’m sitting there, I’m saying, ‘if we call one, they get their defensive lineup in. They may go zone, they may go man, you’re not really sure. They may blitz, they may switch, they may maintain, you’re not really sure.’ What I did know is the absolute,” Mazzulla explained via CLNS Media, taking blame for the failed possession. “The absolute was we had the ball in our best player’s hands. I knew that, because of their offensive lineup, they were going to play this coverage. I just didn’t call the right play. I have to call a better play to get the better spacing for him to see it better.”
Mazzulla has been hesitant with his timeouts all season, a choice that has earned him plenty of criticism. But against Miami, he called some stoppages at timely moments: after a small scoring drought and a string of Miami offensive rebounds in the third quarter ad after a rapid 10-0 Heat run at the start of the fourth.
He tried his best to stop the bleeding, but at the end of the game, he saw the ball in Tatum’s hands, and he went with it. Tatum didn’t let Mazzulla fall on the sword alone, however. He also claimed his fair share of the blame after the contest.
“It was smart for us not to call the timeout,” Tatum told CLNS Media. “[There were] some guys out there that we wanted for them to keep on the floor. We didn’t want them to necessarily set up their defense during a timeout. So, I think not calling a timeout was smart. Obviously, it’s on me. They trust me in that situation to make the right play, regardless of being double-teamed or not. I can’t let us down like that and not even give ourselves a chance really to win the game.”
It was an unsightly, heartbreaking, and fitting end to an ugly quarter of basketball for Boston and an equally appropriate finale to a rough two-game Florida road trip. Now, the Celtics will head back to TD Garden for a date against the New York Knicks on Thursday night, where they will attempt to right the ship and get back on track.