Though he’s only in his first months as an NBA head coach, Joe Mazzulla knows there’s value in certain games early in the regular season. A two-game series, Eastern Conference Finals rematch with the Heat this week, he said, could have benefits down the line as Celtics get early practice playing in a playoff-like situation.
Friday night’s overtime loss, an early December game masked a late May playoff game, taught them plenty.
As easy as it’s looked for them so far, Friday served as a reminder that it won’t stay that way amidst a tough Eastern Conference. On a night that was far from their best, the Celtics couldn’t quite overcome the adversity they faced. Jaylen Brown hit a ridiculous 3-pointer to force overtime, but couldn’t sustain the momentum into overtime. The Heat, rejuvenated by the return of Jimmy Butler, were ultimately too much.
Butler, coming back from a seven-game absence, scored 25 points, including some huge shots and the dagger in overtime as the Celtics lost at home for the first time since October with a 120-116 defeat to the Heat at TD Garden.
“It keeps us humble in a sense,” Grant Williams said. “It keeps us understanding that we’re not some perfect juggernaut that can’t get knocked off.”
Jayson Tatum had an uncharacteristically off night. Hampered by early foul trouble, he scored a season-low 14 points on 5-for-18 shooting – including 0-for-7 from 3-point range – and the Celtics committed a season-high 20 turnovers in the loss. It was too much to overcome against a hungry and defensive-minded Heat squad led by Bam Adebayo’s 28 points and Tyler Herro’s 26 points on six 3-pointers.
Despite Tatum’s off night and the Celtics looking careless with the basketball for most of the night, the Celtics led by eight after Mazzulla’s successful challenge counted a basket from Sam Hauser. That’s what Mazzulla said was a turning point, as the Celtics’ turnovers kept piling up and the Heat took full advantage.
In less than a minute, they tied the game with a run capped by a pair of free throws from Adebayo. Then, Brown committed a turnover that led to a 3-pointer for Tyler Herro, and then a Horford giveaway led to a breakaway layup for Herro, who capped a 13-0 game-changing run for the visitors.
“We were up 91-83 and I think that’s what we take from this game,” Mazzulla said. “When you’re in great positions against great teams, you have to execute.”
The C’s punched back, and took a 105-104 lead with 1:21 left on a Williams 3. But the Heat retook the lead as Adebayo made two free throws and then took a pair of three-point leads down the stretch behind Butler, who hit a turnaround shot with five seconds left.
Mazzulla called timeout and drew up a play for Brown, who put up a quick shot by design. The 30-foot Hail Mary seemingly had little chance but banked in for the tying basket, which sent TD Garden into pandemonium.
“It felt good coming off my hands,” said Brown, who finished with 37 points and said he didn’t call bank on the shot. “I know we wanted to get a shot up on the rim as fast as possible just in case we missed, we can get the rebound or tip out. So when I caught it in my hand, it felt good coming off, so I let it fly.”
The Celtics and Heat traded baskets in overtime until the final minute. The C’s trailed by two after Tatum forced a pull-up 3 that missed when Butler hit a step-back shot with 9.4 seconds left to seal the game.
“(Butler) gets going in games like this where, on the road, in a hostile environment, against a good team, Jimmy’s looking always to try to put the icing on the cake,” Brown said. “Tonight, two shots that in our defensive scheme we will live with. But Jimmy’s a big-time player, made both of them clutch in overtime to send us home.”
The Celtics – who had won 14 of their previous 15 games – weren’t discouraged by this loss. A year after trudging through a hard road to the NBA Finals, they know they need games like Friday against fellow contenders. They’ve been winning with ease for the better part of the last month, and it won’t always be that way.
Friday’s loss offered plenty for film review as they head on a long road trip. Their league-leading offense, which has formed their identity, let them down on a poor shooting night – by their standards – and while their defense stepped up in several moments, the game taught them they still have to learn to win in ways when their offense isn’t there. Turnovers continued to be a killer, and late-game execution was lacking.
Some losses can have long-lasting benefits.
“To have the success that we’ve had, we have to go through games like these,” Williams said. “You’re not going to be perfect. You’re going to have to go to the drawing board and re-group and understand where we can improve. If you don’t have games like these, moments like these, you won’t have that opportunity. …
“We may never know. We may see them later on down the line. Being prepared to play against a team like that is huge. Early season, to be able to do, allows us to improve to see what we can do better but allows us to really, really feel like we’re challenged.”
Marcus Smart echoed that sentiment.
“This isn’t going to be the last game like this,” Smart said. “There’s going to be other games. For us to be able to learn this lesson early, figure it out and to be able to go watch this film and have something to look back on and say, ‘We’ve been here before. We know what to do now. Let’s go do it.’ It happens, it’s part of it. Like I said, chalk it up, get back to work.”