By JD PELEGRINO
In the two teams’ second matchup of the week and simulation of a short playoff series, the Celtics (Cs) showed up to pull off a 112-102 win over the Heat. Forward Gordon Hayward led the Cs with 25 points and shot 12-for-13 from the free throw line. This late in the season, the Cs worked toward a team-win heading into the playoffs in just over one week.
Similar to Monday night’s game, Boston started the first couple of minutes on fire as they scored the game’s first nine points, unanswered, starting with an All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving 20-foot pullup jumper. The Heat didn’t score their first points of the game until Kelly Olynyk pulled up for a 3-pointer of his own.
The Cs flame remained lit for the rest of the first quarter, but the Heat caught on fire as well. Throughout the final eight minutes of the quarter, Miami campaigned for a comeback, taking the lead by the end of the quarter. Irving’s first quarter points were a significant factor in jumpstarting the offense from the first minutes of the game.
Down 29-31 at the beginning of the second quarter and motivated to get back on top, Boston’s Jayson Tatum made a 2-foot driving dunk to tie the game. Just three minutes later, Hayward began his standout night that ultimately helped the Cs pull off another win this season. Hayward passed the ball to center Al Horford, who connected on a 7-foot shot to take back the lead 35-34. Heading back into the offensive end after a Olynyk missed 3-pointer, Hayward was fouled by Heat center Hassan Whiteside. Hayward is also one of the best free throw shooters on the Celtics roster. He made both free throws.
Tatum carried the torch making two straight baskets adding four more points to the Cs overall score, but the game was still close. By the time the ball worked its way back into Haywards hands, Miami’s Bam Adebayo had the game’s tying score 41-41 with four minutes left in the half. Hayward made a 24-foot 3-pointer. He wasn’t done. Following a Goran Dragic missed shot, Dragic committed a personal foul sending Hayward to the line for another two easy buckets. The Cs closed out the half up 53-49.
“[This game] gives us some experience going down the stretch, being able to run plays, trust what we got going on out there in terms of our game plan,” Irving said. “Have communication throughout most of the game, try not to make too many mistakes.”
In a battle for who wanted to win more, both teams pleaded their cases in terms of baskets. The biggest lead throughout the third quarter was held by the Cs at seven points when Irving made a 13-foot step back jump shot. Hayward was sent to the line three times in the third quarter alone, all due to Miami fouls. Hayward drained four of his five attempts, missing his only free throw of the game in the third quarter. The Cs held a narrow 83-81 lead at the conclusion of the third quarter.
Moving into the fourth quarter, Dragic made two free throws at in the first 15 seconds due to a Daniel Theis shooting foul. Fortunately for the guys in green, this would be the last time the Heat would be tied with the Celtics. Horford made a five-foot shot off of a Hayward pass, then the two would trade positions as Horford assisted Hayward for another two points right after.
Tatum wanted a little recognition in what would become a win. He scored nine straight points for Boston off of a 3-pointer, two jumpers and two free throws. Queue a Hayward three-point shot. With just under four minutes left to play, Hayward made an easy three to add to Boston’s lead 103-96.
In just over the final two minutes, Hayward put an exclamation point on a thrilling performance by the 29-year-old. He made a 13-foot shot, then coming right back was fouled by Adebayo. Hayward made both free throws. Now with under 30 seconds left and down eight, the Heat need to foul. Guess who? Hayward was sent to the line for his 12th and 13th free throws of the game, he made both ending the Heat’s chances of winning. Boston won the game 112-102 and took the series 3-1.
If Monday night looked like a playoff ready Celtics team, then last night’s Celtics team looked championship ready. Five players scored 10 points or more, with three players scoring 20 or more. Hayward led his squad with 25 points, eight rebounds and shot 12-for-13 from the line in his bench-leading 32 minutes. Irving scored 23 points, Horford scored 21 points, Tatum had 16 and the center Aron Baynes contributed 10 points.
“It’s huge everyone made big time plays for us and we want to be playing the best we can be going into the playoffs,” Hayward said. “These are all games that feel like playoff games.”
Haywards 12 made free throws tied the total amount of free throws made by the entire Miami Heat team. When he was on the floor, the Cs were +16, only Tatum maintained that number. Hayward also set new season-highs in both free throws made and attempted. This is now the Celtics fourth win in five games. With three games left in the regular season, if the Cs play like they did last night, there is no telling who can stop them.
Boston will rest today before heading to Indiana to take on the Indiana Pacers. The Pacers own the same record as the Cs (47-32) and as of right now are the last team to have clinched a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. The Pacers are also a likely first round opponent come playoffs. The winner of that game will take over the No. 4 seed in the East and home-court advantage through the first round of the playoffs.
The game is set for 7 p.m. CT and will air on ESPN.