Most teams playing without four of their best players wouldn’t have much of a chance to beat a tough team on the road on the second night of a back-to-back.
As the Celtics have shown since the midway point of last year, though, they’re built differently than most teams — that applies in the sense that they’re “built different,” as the kids say, but also that they truly are built differently.
This roster is absolutely the deepest in the NBA. While the individual pieces are certainly outstanding, the sum of the parts is really what makes the Celtics special. When one player goes down – or four players, for that matter – their teammates are fully capable of picking up the slack on a given night.
“We take pride in being the deepest team, so when people are out, we gotta have that next-man-up mentality,” Derrick White told reporters.
Payton Pritchard played 42 minutes. Sam Hauser played 26. Justin Jackson played 14. The shorthanded Celtics nearly knocked off the Heat – who were playing without Jimmy Butler – but ended up falling 98-95, in a game they certainly could have won.
"We take pride in being the deepest team so when people are out we gotta have that next man up mentality."— Celtics on NBC Sports Boston (@NBCSCeltics) January 25, 2023
Derrick White making no excuses after the C's drop back-to-back games shorthanded pic.twitter.com/Ra3Q28VgH0
So, was this a moral victory given the circumstances? Or was it a brutal loss against a beatable opponent? Or was it a little bit of both? Let’s take a look.
From the moral victory side, let’s analyze this for what it is. No Jaylen Brown. No Marcus Smart. No Malcolm Brogdon. No Al Horford. That’s like planning a reunion with your high school friends and missing four staples because they’re stuck at home with the kids.
You call up some people you were friendly with, because you already made the reservation for 10, but truthfully, it’s not quite the same. You miss your buddies Jaylen, Marcus, Malcolm and Al, and there’s no way around it.
The Celtics deserve plenty of credit for keeping their identity even without key pieces and building a 10-point fourth-quarter lead. They held Tyler Herro to 4-for-19 shooting and Miami to 36.2 percent shooting as a team.
Sam Hauser was productive despite not making a shot. White seamlessly stepped up as a No. 2 scoring option. Robert Williams is starting to look more and more like his springy self.
Finding Rob Williams pretty much anywhere for a dunk!— Celtics on NBC Sports Boston (@NBCSCeltics) January 25, 2023
Rewarding Moments Presented by: @dunkindonuts pic.twitter.com/RDLwcc5NOT
The Celtics were firmly in front, but then...their absences started to loom large. They needed Smart to make a momentum-shifting hustle play, Brown to complement Tatum as a scorer and playmaker, Horford to hit corner 3’s and Brogdon to provide stability.
Suddenly, their 87-77 lead with 8:47 left had morphed into a 92-87 deficit with 3:42 remaining. Yep, that’s a 15-0 run over five minutes. Not necessarily ideal.
Pritchard missed 3, White missed jumper, Tatum missed jumper, Hauser missed 3, White turnover, Tatum missed floater, Pritchard missed shot, White missed 18-footer, Pritchard missed 3, White missed 3. That’s just on offense.
Haywood Highsmith made 3, Herro missed 3, Highsmith made 3, Gabe Vincent missed 3, Bam Adebeyo made shot, Adebayo dunk, Adebayo jumper, Adebayo miss, Herro made 3 (just a matter of time). Yikes.
Even after that flurry, the Celtics still had a chance to win. Their final defensive play was a microcosm of the night. They hustled like crazy, and rotated the best they could, but Adebayo broke free and hit a free-throw line jumper. It was a play they should have seen coming given how many times the Heat ran it all night long.
Then on offense, the Celtics reverted to some of their poor habits from the NBA Finals. Tatum had it in isolation (which is fine), but there wasn’t much happening around him. The idea was to let him work, and have shooters ready to fire away, but no one gave him an option when the double came and he threw it away, the last, and most costly, of 17 Boston turnovers. Ballgame.
“They trust me in that situation to make the right play,” Tatum told reporters. “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.”
"They trust me in that situation to make the right play... I can't let us down like that."— Celtics on NBC Sports Boston (@NBCSCeltics) January 25, 2023
Jayson Tatum talks turning the ball over in final moment vs. Heat. He also comments on whether or not he thinks Joe Mazzulla should have called a timeout pic.twitter.com/gg9QHr7PgO
It doesn’t matter who’s out there. The Celtics had plenty of capable scorers on the floor, and their late-game execution left a lot to be desired.
So yes, this was a commendable showing given the circumstances, and yes, it was also a bad loss given the circumstances. It can be both. All they can do now is move on...and hope they get healthy soon.