On the day that the Boston Celtics paid tribute to the life and legacy of Celtics legend Tommy Heinsohn, they didn’t do the one thing that the former player, coach, and broadcaster always demanded: play hard. The Miami Heat led the whole way, with Jimmy Butler posting a near triple-double to pave the path for a 130-124 victory Sunday afternoon in Boston. Evan Fournier scored 30 for the Celtics, who are getting closer and closer to locking in their spot in the play-in tournament with every loss.
For the Celtics, it was yet another afternoon game that they didn’t come out with any energy at all. This has been a problem for this team all year long, and it doesn’t seem to be getting any better. This game didn’t turn into the blowout that some other afternoon games have, but the hole they dug for themselves in the first half was just too much to overcome. The only highlight of the first half was the touching video tribute that the team played to honor Tommy Heinsohn, who passed away late last year.
The issue for the Celtics in the first half was their defense. They gave the Heat way too many open looks, in addition to the Heat hitting some contested shots, and Miami got to every loose ball first. The C’s really just didn’t have the energy you need to have to stand a chance against a team with Jimmy Butler on it. The 79 points that Boston gave up in the first half were the most they’d given up since 1963! That’s a long time and a lot of basketball games to not have given up that many points in a first half. Boston went into the break down 79-53 to yet another chorus of boos on their homecourt.
In the second half, however, they showed some signs of life. Boston went on a 22-8 run to open the third quarter and cut the deficit to 12. Evan Fournier scored 14 of his 30 points in the third, showing that he may be rounding the corner from his extended COVID-19 absence and become the valuable piece that Boston acquired at the trade deadline. He was one of very few Celtics who looked at all interested in playing today, to be honest, which is great for Fournier but not a great look for the team as a whole.
In the end, though, Jimmy Butler was too much to overcome. Butler is a weird superstar in today’s NBA- he doesn’t dominate the game on the scoreboard, but you can feel his impact. As Celtics broadcaster Brian Scalabrine said, he does what the game needs him to do. If the Heat need him to score 40, he’ll find a way. If his teammates are hitting shots, he’ll just continue to get them open looks and rack up the assists. In the end, wins are what matter, and Butler gets that.
Boston spent much of the fourth quarter hovering around a 12-15 point deficit, although for the last few minutes they managed to cut it to singe digits. Even then, it never really felt like they had a foot in the door. Maybe it’s just me, but we’ve seen all too often what happens when Jimmy Butler knows it’s crunch time and really tightens the screws and goes to work, and that’s what happened today. He just made all the plays that needed to be made, and Boston had no answer for the combination of him and center Bam Adebayo.
As mentioned, Evan Fournier was the star of this game for Boston. He’s not going to score 30 every game, but if he can continue to be a reliable catch and shoot threat, it will open up the floor for Jayson Tatum (and Jaylen Brown when he returns). Speaking of Jayson Tatum, even though he finished with 29 points on pretty solid shooting, it felt like he could have done more. He’s developed the reputation of having slow first halves, and especially first quarters, and that was the case tonight. He scored only 4 points in the first 12 minutes and 13 overall in the first half. But as bad as the Celtics were as a whole in the first half, going into the break down 26, they were actually -28 with Tatum on the court, meaning they were worse off with their superstar. While Boston’s routine slow starts cannot be blamed entirely on Tatum, it would be nice if he could start games on time instead of having to round into form. As with today’s game, sometimes the deficit is too big by then, and it doesn’t matter how many points he finishes with.
One final note about the actual gameplay was the struggles of Kemba Walker. At this point, it’s clear that Miami is a terrible matchup for Kemba. He tries, yes, but the Heat searched for him on the defensive end and posted him up time and time again. That’s fine if you’re producing offensively to make up for it, but Walker hasn’t been able to do that consistently at all this season. We never know which Kemba is going to show up, and it’s incredibly frustrating. All year long, we’ve seen flashes of the old Kemba and think he might be back, only to be let down by a clunker where his shots don’t fall and he gets picked on defensively. And with the playoffs just around the corner, it’s clear that this will continue in the playoffs. Sometimes Kemba will dominate, and sometimes he’ll look like a bench player getting exposed by bigger, stronger players who he can’t get around.
Boston really missed Jaylen Brown in this game. He’s missed their last three after a collision with Jayson Tatum left Brown hopping on one leg towards the locker room, and his absence has been felt. Tatum may be the better, more skilled player, but the way this team plays without Brown is making a strong case that he’s their most important player. Something is just off about this team, and has been all year. It shouldn’t take them being down 26 at halftime and getting booed to decide it’s time to play defense. They should come out of the locker room in the first quarter with that mindset, but they just don’t. Brad Stevens looks lost on the bench, unsure of what strings to pull or which lineups to deploy, or which players will actually give an effort on either end of the court.
As this season slips away, and Boston looks all but certain to end up in the play-in tournament, it’s worth wondering whether this team will even make it out of that part of the playoffs alive. Would it shock anyone if this group put up two duds in a row and was sent packing? And even if they do beat whoever their matchup is in their first game (likely the Charlotte Hornets, and we’ve all already seen that that’s a tough matchup for this team), does anyone feel good about this team against one of the top three in the East? They’re 2-7 against the Philadelphia 76ers, Brooklyn Nets, and Milwaukee Bucks this season, with both of those wins coming against the Bucks.
So against the 76ers and Nets, the two possibilities for Boston to face in the first round, assuming they don’t make a magical comeback to steal the 6 seed, they are 0-6. That’s bad, and signals first round doom for this team. But, we won’t count our chickens until they hatch. There’s still a few games left, which gives them a little time to see if they can finally round the corner they’ve been stuck on all year. They’ve got a rematch with the Miami Heat on Tuesday night which will pretty much decide their fate if they lose again. If they win, there is still a chance for the 6 seed because Boston would hold the head-to-head advantage, but a loss would just about lock them into the 7 or 8 seed. Tip-off is at 7:30, and maybe the Celtics will come out with a sense of urgency this time.
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