MIAMI — A vision of how it should all work. The fear of what could rip it apart. Ultimately, a sense of relief.
The emotions came in quick succession during the Boston Celtics’ 143-110 win against the Miami Heat on Thursday night, when Kristaps Porziņģis scored 19 points on 6-for-9 shooting before crumpling to the floor with a sprained left ankle. He showed all the ways he could help solve Miami’s defense while dominating over his 21 minutes on the court, but the big man’s fall issued a reminder of his troublesome injury history. As he hobbled off the court during the middle of a third-quarter play, then needed assistance to walk to the locker room, the sight left plenty of room for concern.
“It kind of got me pretty good in the moment,” Porziņģis said. “But I’m feeling pretty good now.”
Feel free to exhale. Porziņģis is OK. He said he simply rolled his left ankle while landing on Bam Adebayo’s foot. Though the sprain hurt immediately, Porziņģis sounded confident he avoided a serious injury. He even said he could have potentially returned to the game, but didn’t need to risk it with the Celtics so far ahead. He’s hopeful he will be day to day instead of looking at a long-term absence.
“We definitely need the big fella to be as healthy as possible,” Jaylen Brown said.
The Celtics sure do. As Porziņģis showed again Thursday, he’s the key to unlocking new solutions for their offense, especially against some of the tougher, smarter defensive teams. The Heat tried all types of coverages against Porziņģis, but the Celtics handled them all. While he acknowledged the Heat didn’t have schedule luck in their favor on the second night of a back-to-back, Porziņģis also voiced a belief he can help Boston crack the code against different types of defenses.
“They did all kinds of different stuff,” Porziņģis said. “And I think they had tonight trouble stopping whatever. Whatever they were trying to do, we had an answer for that. And I think that’s what I can add to this team.”
shooters shoot 😏 pic.twitter.com/LWtzCkmv1F
— Boston Celtics (@celtics) January 26, 2024
Three minutes into the game, Adebayo switched from Porziņģis onto Brown. With a 7-foot-3 teammate nearby, Brown didn’t need to try his luck against Adebayo, one of the league’s premier defenders. As soon as Brown saw the switch, he threw a lob pass to Porziņģis down low to take advantage of a mismatch against Haywood Highsmith. Porziņģis spun around a double-team to convert a short bucket.
About seven minutes into the first quarter, the Heat tried using Jimmy Butler on Porziņģis. The matchup allowed Adebayo to defend Horford, theoretically allowing Adebayo more freedom to roam on the weak side. But, for Miami, it didn’t work. The Celtics recognized the mismatch and immediately went to a pick-and-pop with Porziņģis and White. The Heat didn’t switch the action. Instead, they used Butler in drop coverage. White recognized that. He hit Porziņģis with enough space to fire a 3-pointer, but the big man took two dribbles to the left elbow to shoot a jumper over Butler’s head. On the Celtics’ next possession, they cleared space for Porziņģis to post up at basically the same spot. Again, he sank a jumper over the top of Butler.
Later in the first quarter, the Heat used Thomas Bryant as the primary defender on Porziņģis. The Celtics put him into a steady diet of pick-and-pops. On one of them, Porziņģis beat Bryant’s closeout before drawing a shooting foul on Duncan Robinson. On another, the closeout didn’t come quickly enough and Porziņģis splashed a 3-pointer. When the Heat changed coverages, appearing to switch, Porziņģis figured out that strategy too. He rolled to the paint, almost casually, before drawing three defenders and finding Al Horford for an open corner 3-pointer.
“Obviously they’ve guarded us similarly in the past how they wanted to guard us tonight,” Brown said, “but the difference is Kristaps got off to a hot start. So the way they guarded us before, Kristaps kind of opened things up a little bit with his shot-making ability with some of their switches and stuff like that. And it just allowed everything else to just snowball.”
The Celtics shot 64.3 percent in the first half while scoring 77 points. They finished with the second-highest single-game true shooting percentage in NBA history, according to StatMuse. Only the Utah Jazz have ever had a more efficient offensive performance; they recorded 80.8 percent true shooting while beating the Kings 154-105 on April 28, 2001.
It all started with Porziņģis’ 14-point first quarter. The Heat couldn’t take away his rhythm. When they doubled him in the post, he sprayed the ball around the perimeter. When he saw a mismatch, he was aggressive looking to score.
“We had a lot of moments where like, ‘This guy can make my life easier,’” Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla said. “On both ends of the floor we’ve had that, and so tonight, (and over) the last five games, we’ve seen different coverages on Kristaps, different matchups. And I think tonight we noticed them quicker and we built a level of trust among the guys.”
Thursday’s game didn’t feel like a regular matchup between the Celtics and Heat. There wasn’t much defense from either side, at least in the first half. Boston started to pick up the occasional stop after halftime, but Brown said his team “could have been better” on that end of the court. It didn’t matter because the Celtics never stopped scoring. With 35 assists, they finished one shy of a season high. Each of the starters scored at least 15 points. Payton Pritchard and Luke Kornet also reached double figures off the bench. Al Horford packed eight points, seven rebounds and six assists into his 23 minutes.
“I don’t know if it’s the best we’ve played, but I think it’s probably the most intentional we’ve played,” Mazzulla said. “And I think after that game the biggest lesson without watching the film is just how the guys impact each other. Take a look at the box score, it’s well-balanced. You take a look at the defensive activity, everyone participated defensively. And I think it’s just one of those games where we have to say when we’re at our best we impact each other on both ends of the floor, and we saw some moments of that tonight.”
The last time the Celtics played in Miami, Derrick White stunned the Heat with a buzzer-beating, game-winning tip-in. The basket sent the Eastern Conference finals to a Game 7 and set up Boston with a chance to become the first team in NBA history to overcome a 3-0 series deficit. If the Celtics had gone on to beat the Heat and capture a championship, White’s heady shot, which saved them from elimination, would have been immortalized in franchise history — heck, NBA history. Instead, they bowed out in Game 7 on their home court, leaving the memory tarnished. When White spoke to the media Wednesday after practice, he did not receive a single question about the remarkable putback. It happened. It was breathtaking. It mattered. It just didn’t mean everything it could have.
The Celtics can’t change how they flopped in Game 7 of that series after Tatum sprained his ankle during the opening minute, but they’re a better team now. Mazzulla has learned from a year of experience. Some of the returning players have improved. Jrue Holiday has fit right in without displaying any signs of an ego.
Porziņģis has also transformed the team. It was clear Thursday night as Boston figured out ways to attack every Heat trick. In a building where the Celtics have plenty of history, Brown wanted to leave it all in the past.
“Obviously, a lot of history between the two teams,” Brown said, “but last year is over with. It’s a new year.”
(Photo of Kristaps Porzingis shooting a 3-pointer over Miami’s Thomas Bryant: Marta Lavandier / Associated Press)