The red-hot Boston Celtics, winners of 16 games in a row and led by the NBA’s best clutch scorer Kyrie Irving, are the speeding train the struggling Miami Heat will try to slow down Wednesday night at AmericanAirlines Arena.
It might feel like mission impossible considering the Heat (7-9) is coming off its worst loss of the season Sunday at home and Boston (16-2) has beaten Miami eight consecutive times.
But if the Heat can take a page out of the Celtics’ playbook and defend at a high level for 48 minutes, then coach Erik Spoelstra’s bunch could emerge with the kind of win that makes everyone at 601 Biscayne Boulevard feel much better about themselves.
“We’re just going to have to be locked in,” said Justise Winslow of the Heat, still smarting after giving up 120 points to the Pacers and looking for answers on the offensive end after a rough night setting screens and freeing up their guards to attack.
“We’re not going to be able to afford any mental breakdowns, any two-minute, three-minute lapses. We’ve got to be mentally strong. Maybe [slip] on one possession, but after that, we’ve got to get back connected and locked into what we’re trying to do defensively, play to our strengths. But everybody needs to be in the right positions and locked in and focused because when we do that we’ve had quarters this year where we’ve held teams to 10, 12 points. We’ve just got to come in with that kind of focus and intensity.”
The Celtics aren’t an offensive juggernaut by any stretch of the imagination — ranking 20th in offensive rating (103.1) and only six spots ahead of the Heat (100.1). Boston is winning with elite defense — leading the NBA in defensive rating (95.8) and ranking second in opponent field goal percentage (42.9 percent) — and with a lot of Irving late in games.
The Celtics have eight comeback wins this season and five have come after trailing by double digits, including Monday’s win at Dallas, which brought them to within three victories of tying the franchise-record for consecutive wins (19) set by Rajon Rondo, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen back in 2008.
Irving had 47 points in Monday’s win including 10 in overtime. When the Celtics won in Miami 96-90 on Oct. 28, he scored nine of his game-high 24 points in the fourth quarter to help Boston beat the Heat.
“It was one of those games where we did not execute with coherency,” Spoelstra said Tuesday. “I was surprised that the game was even close at the end. They really took us out of a lot of our normal, comfortable actions and offensive rhythm. You really have to credit them for that. But it did end up being a possession game down the stretch and they executed better and Kyrie Irving made some very tough shots that it seems like he’s making every single night now.”
“He’s going right into his prime,” Spoelstra continued. “He’s got all the experiences you need — pain, losing teams, championships teams, he’s a former No. 1 pick — and he’s just on top of everything right now, heading into his prime. And it’s a great fit for him, his skill set and for them.”
Irving, who demanded a trade from Cleveland because he wanted in part to become a leader no longer under LeBron James’ shadow, ranks 15th in the league in scoring (22.6 points per game) and 17th in steals (1.6 per game). Outside of that, he’s not among the top 20 in any other major statistical categories. But where he is thriving is late in games and leading Boston to wins in crunch time.
He leads the NBA in clutch points per game (5.9 in 11 games). The man right behind him? The Heat’s Dion Waiters (4.9 in seven games), who was his former teammate in Cleveland.
“I just think what he did, I respect that as a man,” Waiters said Tuesday of Irving’s decision to ask out of Cleveland. “Just wanting to take on more, just that leadership. I respect it. I respect the move. I mean he won already and he just feels as though as a player he had more to give to the game. Like I just said, man, I respect it. What he’s doing over there, he wanted the role. He wanted to be the guy that a team can lean on, guys can trust and also be the focal point. So he got that and he’s doing a hell of a job right now proving a lot of people wrong. I tip my hat off to him.”
In the end, Waiters believes the Heat can win much the same way Boston does — with elite defense and with a clutch player like himself making winning plays down the stretch of games.
“We have all the pieces,” Waiters said. “It’s about us putting it together for 48 minutes. In our mind, it’s making that what we want to be. That’s what it comes down to. All that, it’s early and all them type of things, you can’t keep making excuses, man. If we want to be a top-five defense like we were last year, it starts now. It starts with me. I got to do a better job, also.
“And just going out there and playing basketball. Getting back to having fun. So that’s the biggest thing right now for me. Just having fun, man. Forget about everything else. Just go out there and do what I’ve been doing and translate that to wins. It makes everything easier around here. If you’re winning, you don’t really worry about your aches. Everything feels good. Even when you’re not feeling good, everything feels good when you win. So that’s what we got to do, man. Just put it together and figure it out.”