Celtics spring leaks in loss to Miami

Florida News

It sounded like a workable idea at the time.

After a four-month layoff, the Celtics were going to help themselves the most by ramping up some early defensive power. Toronto, with two early bubble wins over the Lakers and Heat, and a late-night game this Friday against the Celtics, has simply been tougher than its early opponents.

Alas, the Celtics have displayed little of that quality in their early bubble games, especially including Tuesday night’s 112-106 loss to Miami. Now off to a 1-2 start, they have fallen back into an old pattern of either starting slowly, or starting well and returning flat for the third quarter — the nature of their one win over Portland.

Their best defender, Marcus Smart, fouled out with 3:46 left in the third quarter, perhaps sensing that this game didn’t fit his nature.

“Our defense has to improve from what it’s been in the first three games or so,” said Brad Stevens, who then chose to praise Miami instead of piling onto his own team.

But beyond their trouble shooting against the Heat’s zone coverage, the Celtics simply lost track of all those Miami shooters. Duncan Robinson, son of New Hampshire, put this one away with three 3-pointers over a 2:09 stretch late in the fourth quarter, when the Celtics showed some life behind Kemba Walker’s first crunch time appearance in Orlando.

But Robinson (21 points, 5-for-11 from downtown) found open spots all night, along with Tyler Herro and old friend Jae Crowder.

And when Miami went into the paint — already a well-worn path for Celtics opponents — Bam Adebayo was there to have it his way, to the tune of a 21-point, 12-rebound, 11-for-18 night at the free throw line.

“If it gets down there, we’re toast,” Stevens said of big men getting deep post position against his front line.

So yes, their defense has to improve.

Big men now like to see the Celtics coming: Like Portland’s Jusuf Nurkic and Oklahoma City’s Steven Adams before him (in a scrimmage), Adebayo received little resistance. This isn’t a knock on Daniel Theis, who simply isn’t built for trench warfare. Whether this means a larger role for Enes Kanter (10 points, 5-for-6) remains to be seen. But Stevens admittedly has to find a better solution for this problem.

“We’re fouling because they’re getting the ball so deep,” said Stevens. “I’ll have to go back and look at a couple of the perimeter fouls again, but the post fouls they’re just getting it deep and they’re using their strength and size.

“So we’re going to have to not allow the ball to get deep,” he said. “We’re going to have to figure that out. At the beginning of the year I thought we guarded with great intensity, we kept the ball out of the paint. We’re not doing as good of a job now at keeping the ball out of the paint, so we’ve just gotta figure out if it gets down there we’re toast. So we’ve gotta keep it from getting down there.”

There are already signs of frustration: Marcus Smart was 0-for-5, without an assist, and fouled out in 16 minutes. He went to the bench, where he continued to chirp at referee Tony Brothers. It was easily one of Smart’s worst games as a Celtic. Jayson Tatum was T’ed up for what he insisted was a chat he was having with himself. Gordon Hayward, livid, was also whistled for a fourth quarter T. At least they recognize that something isn’t right.

“We just have to stay focused,” said Tatum, who led the team with 23 points. “Basketball is an emotional game and we let our emotions play too much of a part today. We just got to do a better job of just focusing on what we can control and not worry about other things.”

Kemba Walker will not play in Wednesday night’s back-to-back finale against Brooklyn: Stevens noted, though, that the point guard will have his minutes restriction slightly lifted again Friday night against Toronto. And for the first time down here, Walker played five minutes in the fourth quarter, when he scored six of his 15 points. He played to his ceiling of 27 minutes.

“It’s important. I wasn’t planning on doing that, but obviously with Smart fouled out I didn’t have much choice,” Stevens said of Walker playing in crunch time. “I thought he gave us really good minutes to get us to that spot, then Kemba was going to play in the rest. He’s gotta get as much reps as he can in that. Obviously those are good things.”

Better not to look at the seedings right now: Miami, which had lost to Toronto the previous night, pulled within one-and-a-half games of the third-seeded Celtics. The C’s also trail Toronto by three-and-a-half games, with their hope of grabbing the second seed fading quickly.

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