BOSTON — The one thing you can’t criticize the Heat for is their effort.
Even with starting point guard Goran Dragic out with a lingering back injury on the second night of a road back-to-back, Miami kept it competitive in Boston.
But the Heat just couldn’t keep up with Isaiah Thomas. The 5-foot-9 Celtics guard scored a career-high 52 to lead Boston to a 117-114 win over the Heat (10-24) on Friday night at TD Garden.
Thomas’ 52 points on 15-of-26 shooting marked the most points an opposing player has scored against the Heat this season. He’s just the seventh player ever to score 50 or more points against the Heat in the regular season.
“That’s what great players do in this league,” coach Erik Spoelstra said of Thomas. “He’s one of the very best fourth quarter players in the league for that reason. He doesn’t shy from the moment. Every shot now inside half court, he feel like is in his rhythm and you have to play him all the way out there. When somebody is shooting with that kind of confidence and freedom, it makes it tough”
Miami stayed in it until the very end, as it even held a five-point lead early in the fourth quarter. The game was even tied at 104 with 2:12 remaining.
But the Celtics (20-14) finished the game on a 13-10 run to hand the Heat their seventh consecutive road loss. Thomas led the fourth quarter charge with 29 points in the final period.
The Heat didn’t seem pleased with the free throw disparity. The Celtics shot 29 free throws to the Heat’s 10.
“Don’t get me started,” Spoelstra said when asked about Tyler Johnson getting hit in the face multiple times in the game. “We’re a physical, attacking, aggressive team. We have guys going to the rack. There was a pretty big disparity tonight.”
Here are our five takeaways from the game …
1. Effort isn’t enough this season: As Hornets coach Steve Clifford noted Thursday, effort isn’t a problem for the Heat on most nights. “I can’t think I’ve seen a team that plays with more effort than they do,” Clifford said of Miami. But effort isn’t enough for the Heat this season. That was evident in Friday’s loss to the Celtics. The Heat kept it close and even had the game tied at 104 with 2:12 remaining, but they just couldn’t find a way to finish the job. The Heat had been outscored by just 3.3 points per game this season entering Friday’s game. On top of that, Miami has played in 21 clutch games — defined by the NBA as a game that has a margin of five points or fewer inside the final five minutes of the fourth quarter — this season. As those numbers show, Miami is in most games. But the Heat just aren’t winning many of them.
2. The Justise Winslow response: When Erik Spoelstra was asked if he was worried Winslow’s shooting struggles could start to become a mental hurdle, Spoelstra didn’t hesitate with his answer.
“No,” Spoelstra said Thursday night. “He’s a very intelligent player, so he’s not going to get caught up in the final stat line or field goal percentage because he knows how to impact games in so many different ways. He still had five assists and he made some good plays. And defensively, he can always make an impact. The shot will be there.”
Spoelstra knows his players. Just one night after a 0-of-9 shooting performance against the Hornets, Winslow didn’t hesitate to shoot the ball Friday. The 20-year-old wasn’t necessarily efficient, but he turned in a solid all-around performance. Winslow finished 11 points on 5-of-13 shooting to go with nine rebounds and six assists. The most important number in the stat line is the 13 shot attempts. It means that Winslow’s shooting struggles aren’t in his head yet.
“I liked his competitive response,” Spoelstra said of Winslow. “He was our leading rebounder. He did a lot of winning play type things. It’s exactly what we’ve been talking about and been emphasizing. Regardless of what your shooting percentage is, whether the ball is going in or not, there’s a world more of plays that you can make and he’s mature enough that he understands that. He made a lot of plays tonight.”
3. Hassan Whiteside has been quiet: It’s been a quite few games for the Heat’s $98 million center. Over the past three games, Hassan Whiteside is averaging 10.3 on 48.1 percent shooting. He finished Friday’s game with 11 points and eight rebounds. The Heat need Whiteside to be the dominant player who recorded 26 points and 22 rebounds in a win over the Pacers on Dec. 14. But that version of Whiteside hasn’t come around lately, as he’s gone three consecutive games without a double-double.
Whiteside was poked in his right eye by Jae Crowder late in the loss. He struggled to see out of it after the game.
“I just can’t see anything out of it right now,” Whiteside said. “But I’m meeting with an eye doctor [Saturday] to see what the analysis is.”
4. Josh Richardson still hot: In the middle of all the losses, there’s one big positive for the Heat. It looks like Josh Richardson is back. The second-year Heat guard continued his string of quality performances with 19 points on 8-of-17 shooting to go with six rebounds and eight assists against the Celtics on Friday. Richardson has now played well in three consecutive games, averaging 20.3 points. He’s shooting 53.2 percent over that stretch. Before this hot streak, Richardson was shooting 37.3 percent this season as he battled through multiple injuries — a partially torn MCL in his right knee, sprained right ankle and sore shooting wrist. But it looks like Richardson is finally feeling healthy.
5. Rodney McGruder is getting a lot of starts: When Rodney McGruder beat out Briante Weber and Beno Udrih for the Heat’s 15th and final roster spot in the preseason, most expected him to have a limited role on this season’s team. But that expectation was wrong. After getting his 17th start of the season Friday for the injured Goran Dragic, McGruder has now made the third-most starts on the team this season behind just Hassan Whiteside (34) and Dragic (27). That shows you how much trust Erik Spoelstra has in the 25-year-old rookie. Spoelstra has commended McGruder for making “winning plays” and doing the “little things” throughout the season. McGruder finished Friday’s game with five points, two rebounds and five assists.