BOSTON — For the Heat, 10 healthy players was enough against the team with the best record in the Eastern Conference.
Miami’s long injury list includes starting point guard Goran Dragic, starting center Hassan Whiteside, and James Johnson, Justise Winslow, Okaro White and Rodney McGruder. But even without all of those players, the Heat (16-15) found a way to upset the Celtics 90-89 at TD Garden on Wednesday.
Miami led by 11 points with 2:45 to play, and the Celtics rallied to cut the Heat’s lead to just one with 27 seconds remaining. But Boston guard Kyrie Irving missed a 20-foot jump shot at the buzzer that would have been the game-winner.
“We’re getting there,” a relieved coach Erik Spoelstra said after the victory. “Each painful step that we take in this 82-game ride, we’re learning tough lessons. We’re feeling pain. We’re improving on things. Sometimes it’s one step back, two steps forward and so forth. But we have a lot of competitors in that locker room. So even when we don’t necessarily play well, it’s not for a lack of putting it out there competitively. You want to go to battle with guys like that.”
After a slow start sent Miami into halftime trailing 44-36, the Heat were the better team the rest of the way to outscore the Celtics 54-45 over the final two quarter to earn the win. Miami limited Boston (26-8) to 36.1 percent shooting in the second half.
Former Celtic Kelly Olynyk led the way for the Heat with a career-high 32 points on 12-of-15 shooting from the field and 6-of-8 shooting from long range in his first game back in Boston since signing with Miami in July.
“K.O. was tremendous, obviously,” Spoelstra said. “More than anything, he was a competitor tonight. That’s why we like having him on our side, really aggressive, looking for his shot. That’s what every man in that locker room is telling him to be all the time. Not necessarily to put up 30, but to be aggressive. The guys want him shooting the basketball, because it makes us a better team.”
Josh Richardson continued his string of strong performances with 19 points and six assists.
Here are our five takeaways …
Welcome back, Kelly Olynyk: Wednesday night was special for Olynyk. He scored a career-high 32 points, including 25 in the second half, in his first game back in Boston since joining the Heat. Oh, and Olynyk also received a lot of love from Celtics fans in the process and was even honored in the second quarter with the “Heroes Among Us” award for his charitable work in the Boston community. Olynyk received a standing ovation from the Boston crowd as the award was announced, and he waved at the fans to acknowledge their support. Olynyk spent his first four NBA seasons with the Celtics, and he made it clear before the game how special Boston was to him. After Wednesday, you can add another Boston memory to the list for Olynyk.
Heat defense in the zone: If we’ve learned anything over the first 31 games of the season, it’s that the Heat need to play elite defense to win games. Entering Wednesday, these were the numbers: In its first 15 wins this season, Miami allowed 95.3 points per 100 possessions. In its 15 losses, Miami allowed 113.3 points per 100 possessions. That 18-point gap shows just how big of a role the Heat’s defense has played in their success. Well, Miami’s defense was dominant in Boston. The Heat limited the Celtics to 37.5 percent shooting, and even implemented a zone defense in the third quarter, a type of defense Miami has rarely played under Pat Riley or Spoelstra. Heat players went into the game with an idea they would play zone at some point after working on it during shootaround Wednesday morning.
“We practiced it for like 36 seconds at shootaround today,” Olynyk said. “We did all right in it, I think. It kind of threw them off their rhythm. That was kind of what the purpose of it was. They didn’t prepare for zone at all. I don’t think very many teams in the NBA do at all. When we did that it kind of threw them off their rhythm and gave us a little bit of breathing room and allowed us to do a few more things.”
Heat’s offense does enough: With key contributors like Goran Dragic, James Johnson and Hassan Whiteside out due to injuries, the Heat struggled to generate offense at times in Boston. Against the NBA’s top defense based on defensive rating, the Heat scored 99 points on 44 percent shooting. That was enough, especially considering Miami improved as the game went on. After shooting 37.8 percent from the field and 1-of-12 on 3-pointers in the first half, the Heat bounced back to make 50 percent of their shots and 9-of-16 from long range in the second half. You can’t expect much more than that from a team that’s missing as much offensive firepower as the Heat are right now.
UD gets some action: For the second consecutive game, Udonis Haslem got some playing time. The 15-year NBA veteran logged a season-high eight minutes against the Celtics, just two nights after playing one minute in Monday’s loss to the Hawks. Haslem finished Wednesday’s game with one rebound and one block. With just 10 healthy players available in Boston, it’s all hands on deck for the Heat. The 37-year-old Haslem has now played in five of the Heat’s first 31 games.
What’s next? The start of a make or break stretch: With Wednesday’s game against the Celtics now in the past, it’s time to look ahead. The Heat begin a four-game homestand and an eight-game stretch that includes seven home games on Friday. This could be make or break time for Miami, a team looking for any kind of momentum to push them a few games above .500. This upcoming string of games isn’t just a favorable one because most come at home. A lot of them also come against teams the Heat should beat. The eight-game stretch includes six against losing teams — at home vs. Mavericks, at home vs. Magic, at home vs. Pelicans, at home vs. Nets, on road vs. Magic, and at home vs. Jazz. The other two games come at home — against the Pistons (which have lost seven of their past 10 games entering Wednesday) and the Knicks (which are 2-9 on the road). This is the Heat’s chance to make a run. Will they take advantage and come out of this eight-game stretch a few games above the .500 mark?