Miami Heat

Miami Heat prepares to face another elite score in Boston’s Isaiah Thomas

Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas averages 29.1 points per game and scored 50 against the Heat on Dec. 30.
Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas averages 29.1 points per game and scored 50 against the Heat on Dec. 30. AP

The Heat couldn’t stop the NBA’s No. 6 scorer, Damian Lillard, who beat Miami with 49 points.

The Heat couldn’t stop the NBA’s No. 5 scorer, DeMar DeRozan, who beat Miami with 40 points.

Can the Heat stop — or at least slow down — the NBA’s No. 3 scorer, Isaiah Thomas, when it plays at Boston on Sunday night?

Here’s a reminder: Thomas scored 52 points on Miami on Dec. 30.

“It’s very challenging,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said on Saturday. “I don’t know if anybody has the definitive answer about how to stop dynamic playmakers.”

The Heat has certainly lacked answers in the past week.

Last Sunday, Lillard, a 6-3 point guard, made 14 of 21 shots from the floor, including 9 of 12 three-pointers, and went 12 of 12 from the free throw line in Portlant’s 115-104 victory.

This past Thursday, Toronto shut down the Heat, 101-84, as DeRozan, a 6-7 shooting guard, made 14 of 25 shots from the floor and 12 of 13 free throws. He missed both of his three-point tries.

Heat point guard Goran Dragic said the performances by Lillard and DeRozan were completely different.

“Lillard was playing a lot of pick and roll,” Dragic said. “DeRozan, he’s more of an iso [isolation] guy. Most of [DeRozan’s] shots were contested shots. He’s just making those shots. He is No. 1 in contested shots in the league. Sometimes he’s going to make those shots, sometimes not.”

Against the Celtics (47-26), Dragic said he expects the 5-9 Thomas to work the pick-and-roll repeatedly. And with the Heat (35-37) in such a precarious position as it tries to earn one of the final Eastern Conference playoff seeds, defense will be at a premium.

Heat center Hassan Whiteside, who said he intends to play despite a sprained left ankle and 13 stitches in his right hand, stressed the importance of keeping the defensive effort in perspective.

“He’s going to shoot enough where you can’t get frustrated,” Whiteside said of Thomas, who averages 29.1 points per game. “He’s talented enough to get his average. You just have to make it tough on him. It’s not really like trying to stop him.”

Thomas has scored 40 or more points five times this season, so another explosion is certainly possible.

“We have to be up on the pick-and-roll,” Dragic said, “because he likes to shoot behind the screens. We have to stay in front of him. It’s easier to say, but as long as we play team defense, we can manage.”

Thomas, though, is not the Heat’s only focus. Boston is 3-0 against the Heat this season, so the entire team is a concern.

“They are not a one-man team,” Spoelstra said of the Celtics. “They move the ball. They space the floor. It’s not as if you can just focus on Isaiah Thomas.”

A silver lining for the Heat: All three of Boston’s wins against Miami this season came before Dec. 31.

That was the old Heat team, the one that had a brutal 11-30 start.

The Celtics have yet to face “the new Heat,” the team that has turned its season around with 24-7 run.

Granted, starting guard Dion Waiters, largely responsible for the turnaround, is out with a sprained ankle, Whiteside is banged up, and the Heat’s collective ego has been bruised a bit in the past week by Lillard and DeRozan.

Even so, this Heat bunch has proven to be resilient.

“Hopefully,” Spoelstra said of the Celtics game, “we will get to our identity where we are imposing our will defensively and making it tough.”