Heat Check

Olynyk was huge. But Heat don’t stun Celtics without surprising switch by Spoelstra

Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra calls to his players during the first quarter of the team's NBA basketball game against the Boston Celtics in Boston, Wednesday, Dec. 20, 2017.
Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra calls to his players during the first quarter of the team's NBA basketball game against the Boston Celtics in Boston, Wednesday, Dec. 20, 2017. AP

Five takeaways from the Heat’s stunning 90-89 victory at TD Garden Wednesday night.

It was Miami’s first win here since March 25, 2015 and it came on a night former Celtics big man Kelly Olynyk stepped up with a career-high 32 points to make up for the absence of Hassan Whiteside, Goran Dragic, James Johnson and Justise Winslow.

1. Give Erik Spoelstra credit for the brilliant move to go to a zone defense in the second half. Spoelstra, 47, moved past Pat Riley for the most regular season wins in Heat history this past weekend, but consider this one of his smartest coaching moves yet. Even though he absolutely hates playing zone defense – as do most teams in the NBA with how shooters across the league usually make you pay for it – Spoelstra called for it with the Heat trailing early in the second half and it made all the difference in Miami’s come-from-behind win.

“I think that kind of threw us off a little bit, we got a little stagnant,” Celtics forward Al Horford said. “I think that at that time we got caught looking at Coach, looking for answers and it’s something, as the year goes on, I’m sure that teams wil try to bring out against us to slow us down and throw us off.”

Said Celtics coach Brad Stevens: “I thought it was a real successful deal because it won about five straight possessions. Sometimes when you’re playing against it, you have a tendency to get a little bit tighter instead of a little bit freer, and I thoguht we got tighter as it went on.”

Boston made only four of its 17 shots in the third quarter because of Miami’s zone defense and the Heat took advantage, going on a 15-2 run to take the lead and control of the game from there. Marcus Smart eventually buried a pair of three-pointers late in the quarter, forcing the Heat to go back to a man-to-man to scheme. But as tri-captain Udonis Haslem said the ploy galvanized the Heat and made communication crisper and made them more aggressive on defense the rest of the way.

The Heat, by the way, spent just a few minutes at shootaround Wednesday reviewing zone defense. Spoelstra had it planned all along to unleash it at the right time.

“This morning literally was like, ‘Alright, we might run a little 2-3. You’re here, you’re here, you’re here, you’re there, you’re there and you’re there. Stay on the wing and be ready. Good luck. We’ll figure it out as we go,” Josh Richardson said. “So we were just kind of winging it a lot of the time.”

How rare was it for the Heat to play zone? According to the Heat’s Couper Moorhead, the Heat played only one possession of zone defense this season heading into Wednesday’s game. Haslem was asked how much zone he’s played in his 15 years with the Heat.

“Not at all,” he said. “I still haven’t played it. I wasn’t in when we were playing zone.”

Olynyk dunk over Irving
Miami Heat center Kelly Olynyk (9) beats Boston Celtics guard Kyrie Irving (11) to the basket for a dunk during the second half of an NBA basketball game in Boston, Wednesday, Dec. 20, 2017. The Heat won 90-89. Charles Krupa AP

2. Olynyk played the kind of game the Heat wants to see more of. When you sign a guy on a four-year, $50 million deal you expect to get the kind of returns Olynyk finally gave the Heat on Wednesday when they need him being so short-handed.

It wasn’t just the 32 points Olynyk scored, it was the way he got those points. He made a career-high six threes and shot 12 of 15 from the field. The 15 shot attempts were three more than any other game he’s played this season, and the eight three-point attempts were three more than his previous season high.

The Heat want Olynyk – and need him – to be more aggressive shooting because it helps free up Dion Waiters, his pick-and-roll partner, and opens up driving lanes for Miami’s other guards. A career role player in his four years in Boston, it’s easy to see why Olynyk might pump fake too much or not take an open shot. He’s just not used to being that guy. But he was on Wednesday.

“He did what he’s best at,” Stevens said of his former player, who last May scored 26 points in a Game 7 win over Washington in the Eastern Conference semifinals. “When he can play off the high post and fake handoffs and you keep biting on those fakes like we did all night, you let him drive to his left hand – which he’s great at – and then you give him too much of a cushion to get shots. I mean after he gets to the rim, gets foul shots, everything else feels good. He played a great game.”

Al Horford
Al Horford of the Boston Celtics disputes a foul called against him during the second half against the Miami Heat at TD Garden on December 20, 2017 in Boston, Massachusetts. The Heat defeated the Celtics 90-89. Maddie Meyer Getty Images

3. The Celtics not having Al Horford around down the stretch and it helped the Heat for sure. The Celtics lost the formal All-Star with 8:14 to play after he picked up sixth foul following a pretty strong argument with referee Mark Davis moments earlier.

The Celtics didn’t have a big man on the floor down the stretch to deny Olynyk what turned out to be the game-winning dunk with a minute to play that put the Heat ahead 90-86. Instead of slamming it over Horford, Olynyk did it over guards Kyrie Irving and Jaylen Brown.

“I don’t remember the last time I fouled out to be honest and never that early,” Horford said.

Heat Celtics Basketball(2)
Miami Heat center Kelly Olynyk (9) reacts after a hard landing after his dunk against Boston Celtics guard Kyrie Irving during the second half of an NBA basketball game in Boston, Wednesday, Dec. 20, 2017. Olynyk scored 32 points as the Heat won 90-89. Charles Krupa AP

4. Olynyk, by the way, came down awkwardly on his left knee following the dunk, but said afterward he was fine. That’s pivotal considering Miami’s lack of depth in the front court.

“My leg kind of got caught under me and I hyperextended it a little bit,” he said. “It straightened out and my leg just went dead kind of like if your arm goes dead if you hit your funny bone. I couldn’t feel my leg, my left leg. So I was trying to run up the floor, but I literally couldn’t feel my leg hitting the ground. It was kind of a weird feeling. It subsided. It was kind of normal about 10 minutes later. But it was the weirdest feeling. I didn’t know what was going on.”

5. The Heat, who play a back-to-back Friday and Saturday at home against the Mavericks and Pelicans, may still not get any of the four key rotation players back for those games. After Wednesday’s game point guard Goran Dragic said the sprained ligament in his left elbow is legitimately painful.

“I’m good with pain, but the thing I struggle with is rotating the elbow when it opens up,” Dragic said. “When you dribble, pass, when you go through a screen, I’m really more concerned about that. It can get worse.

“I need to be smart. I could have played this game, but I would not help my teammates.”

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