By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Of their eight seeding games ahead of the NBA playoffs, Tuesday night’s is the most important tilt for the Boston Celtics. The Miami Heat is Boston’s biggest threat to the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference, and that race can become slightly less of a race or slightly more intriguing Tuesday evening.
Boston leads Miami by 2.5 games after the Heat fell to the Toronto Raptors on Monday afternoon. Handing Miami a second straight loss would all but seal the No. 3 seed for the Celtics, giving them a 3.5 game advantage with just five games to play. A lot would have to go wrong for Boston to lose such a lead, and a lot would have to go right for Miami.
Of course, owning only a 1.5-game lead over the closest competition would make the bubble down in Orlando feel a lot tighter for the Celtics, and is a scenario they’d like to avoid at the moment. A win on Tuesday night would let the Celtics breathe a little easier over the next few weeks.
Miami is in the hardest part of their seeding schedule, with a showdown with the top-seeded Bucks on Thursday night. The Celtics have an extremely winnable matchup with the Nets on Wednesday, and could all but clinch the No. 3 seed with back-to-back wins Tuesday and Wednesday.
Miami has four very winnable games after their gauntlet stretch, with matchups against the Phoenix Suns, Oklahoma City Thunder and two against the Indiana Pacers. Chances are Miami will go at least .500 in those contests, so beating the Heat on Tuesday is extremely important for the Celtics. It would alleviate any concern of them potentially leap-frogging Boston in the standings.
Boston won both matchups earlier this season — 112-93 in Boston on Dec. 4 and 109-101 in Miami on Jan. 28. Here is what we’ll be watching for when the two teams tip off in a game that should carry a playoff feel.
A Few Extra Minutes Of Kemba?
Of course we’re watching for Kemba. His minutes bumped up just a tick Sunday, playing 22 minutes against the Blazers, so maybe we’ll see about 24 minutes of Kemba on Tuesday night. Heck, maybe a few of those will come in the final quarter.
Walker has looked pretty good in the first two games, hitting 10 of his 15 shots from the floor and five of his eight attempts from downtown. He’s shown off his usual quickness and has been able to create his own shot in his limited playing time.
But he hasn’t gotten any fourth quarter action, hitting his minutes restriction well before the final 12 minutes of the first two games of Boston’s return. Maybe that will change tonight, given the importance of the contest.
Walker has also been pretty good against the Heat this season, averaging 22 points and 7.5 assists in Boston’s two wins half a lifetime ago. He’s been good so far in the bubble, but maybe we’ll get Kemba’s best on Tuesday.
Tons Of Tatum
Jayson Tatum shook off a putrid bubble debut against a stout Milwaukee defense and exploded for 34 points and a career-high eight assists against a terrible Portland defense on Sunday. Now we get to see what he does against a defense somewhere between those two.
The Heat have a respectable defense, led by Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo, so it will be a good test for Boston’s leading star. Like Sunday, this is the kind of game you want to see Tatum take over early and never let up.
With much of the attention on Kemba’s knee and Tatum’s struggle/bounce-back, Jaylen Brown has been quietly playing some unreal basketball. The C’s guard shook off a slow start against the Bucks, battling some early foul trouble, to drop 22 points in Boston’s first game back, and followed that up with 31 points Sunday against the Blazers.
Brown has hit just under 50 percent of his shots over the last two games (16-for-33) while going 9-for-18 from three-point land. He went 6-for-8 from downtown on Sunday. Earlier this season, he dropped 31 points in a win over the Heat, hitting five triples.
Add in his reliable defense, and Brown is just as important to the Celtics as Tatum.
Defend The 3
Miami is the best three-point team in the NBA, hitting 38.3 percent of their shots from downtown for the season. They were off their game on Monday, hitting just 14 of their 45 (45!) three-point bids against the Raptors. They hit just five of their 23 threes in the first half before shaking out of their slump in the second half.
Defending the three-point line will be key for Boston on Tuesday night, something they did not do toward the end of Sunday’s win over Portland. The Blazers hit nine of their 19 threes in the game’s final frame, which played a big part in erasing a 20-point Boston lead.
The Celtics can’t afford such a letdown against Miami, with Duncan Robinson (who has made a 3-pointer in 52 straight games and is hitting 45 percent of his attempts this season), Jae Crowder (40.8 percent) and Kelly Olynyk (yes, that Kelly Olynyk, who is hitting 43.6 percent from three this season) all capable of making a team pay from downtown.