BOSTON -- Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens is adamant that he doesn't talk to his team about standings. On Saturday, he didn't need to. Stevens' young Celtics could practically feel the Miami Heat breathing down their necks, and even with 20-plus games to play in the regular season, this tilt had a bit of a playoff feel, given the importance of landing a premium spot in the logjammed Eastern Conference.
That didn't prevent the Celtics from coming out flat. But during a game in which All-Star point guard Isaiah Thomas needed nearly 30 minutes to generate his first field goal, Boston simply dug deep, got back to its defensive roots, leaned on its bench and scrapped its way to a 101-89 triumph over the Heat at TD Garden.
While the Celtics have displayed an improved offense lately, Saturday's effort was the sort that had delivered them to their lofty perch as the third-best team in the East. Boston played connected, turnover-forcing defense, won the battle for 50/50 balls and did all the little things that help a team thin on star power perform at a level beyond its perceived ability.
"What you have is 41 percent to 40 percent [shooting], so these types of games get defined by everything in between," Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said. "Yes, the turnovers obviously were costly for us again, like the first game but, more than that, were the 50/50 balls, the loose balls. Anything that had a momentum play to it, they were winning those battles.
"We’re normally in a place where we feel like we are competitive in those areas, and tonight, they just beat us to the spot in all those type of plays and everything in between. You have to credit them for that tonight, and that’s why they are in third."
The Celtics put six players in double figures, but no single player scored more than 15 points. Boston labored through a dreadful first quarter in which it shot 31.8 percent, turned the ball over six times and trailed by as much as 12. Then Evan Turner and an inspired reserve unit picked the team up in the second quarter and helped Boston keep its head above water while Thomas missed his first nine shots.
Boston players knew they couldn't just roll over when they found early adversity; and it helped that the Heat were slow out of the gate, as well. This was a key matchup against a team with which the Celtics will likely jockey for that third seed. That's no small prize, considering it means the opportunity to avoid the East-leading Cleveland Cavaliers until at least the conference finals.
With Saturday's victory, the Celtics not only opened a two-game advantage over Miami but also ensured the head-to-head tiebreaker, having won the first two of their three meetings. The two teams play again here on the final night of the regular season, and the Celtics are hoping a win like this will ensure that their playoff fate won't hinge on that matchup.
"They’re right behind us, and it was one of those games we needed to win," said backup center Tyler Zeller, who put up 12 points over 20 quality minutes. "We got off to a slow start, but both teams started slow. We were able to come back, and the starters did a great job the last three or four minutes and kind of sealed it up for us."
As Jae Crowder echoed, "We just dug in there. We’re tough. We can say it was the early start or whatever it is, we didn’t come to play that first quarter the way we should have. Our bench got us back in the game, and we just tried to seek out a way to win it. We knew it was going to be ugly, from the start of it. We knew how much it meant to us, and we knew we needed this win."
The Heat were up three with under eight minutes to play, but the Celtics utilized their depth to win with hustle plays. A little 7-0 burst that pushed Boston back out front ended with Turner in transition delivering a beautiful backhanded bounce pass through the lane to a cutting Zeller -- who had outraced Hassan Whiteside down the floor -- for a layup and an 86-82 advantage with 5:47 to play. It was the last of Turner's team-high nine assists on the night. (Boston had 26 assists on 39 field goals overall.)
Jared Sullinger (12 points, 12 rebounds) seemed to get his hands on every rebound down the stretch. And Marcus Smart (team-high 15 points) further irked Whiteside by not only drawing an offensive foul on a screen, but also by getting the big man to foul him on a 3-point shot. (Whiteside would emphatically dub Smart a flopper after the game.)
The Celtics enjoy living under their opponents' skin. It's part of what makes them so infuriating to others. They play hard-nosed defense, as evidenced by a stellar 86.3 defensive rating and 12 steals in Saturday's game, as Miami turned the ball over 20 times.
"We did what we’re supposed to do on the defensive end," Smart said. "Everyone knows defense is gonna win games, especially when your offense isn’t clicking from the outside. So we tried to pick it up at the defensive end, and that helped our offense a lot."
"Heart of a lion," Smart added later. "We never give up. We could be down 15, 20, and all of a sudden, we cut the game down to three or four and we have a chance at the end. You can never really count us out."
That "heart of a lion" theme was prevalent in the Celtics' locker room after the game, with Sullinger repeating it when describing his rebounding efforts. This team is buying into the notion that it can hang with anybody, regardless of how it plays. At 35-25, Boston has now won 10 in a row at TD Garden, with three more games on this five-game homestand. The Celtics also moved 10 games above .500 for the first time since the end of the 2011-12 season.
What's more, Saturday's victory was the 100th career win for Stevens -- not that the number will matter much to him. For the record, he's just 810 victories shy of Red Auerbach's franchise record. But the only game that matters to Stevens is the next one. Actually, the only possession that matters to Stevens is the next one.
“I think we’re all aware [of the standings]," Stevens said. "I just think it’s not relevant to playing the next possession. I don’t really do a lot of talking about that. Obviously, we want to play well against everybody. And certainly your senses are heightened against the better teams around, but every team in this league is capable of beating the other badly on a given night. So that’s why you just always have to be good. You always have to play well.
"So it’s really, to me, about the next possession. And I think if you get too far out of that, then you’re always looking for the next thing to motivate on instead of just doing your job as well as you can.”