Shorthanded Celtics blow double-digit lead in brutal fourth quarter, fall to Heat

Through more than three quarters on Tuesday night, the Celtics, as thin as they’ve been all season, seemed poised to collect one of their best wins of the year.

Then the bottom fell out in one of their more painful quarters of the season.

Down four of their top six players, the depleted Celtics built a double-digit lead early in the fourth quarter before blowing it with a rare offensive drought in which they didn’t score for more than six minutes. The C’s briefly recovered, but untimely turnovers and big shots from Heat star Bam Adebayo ultimately buried them in a frustrating 98-95 loss in Miami.

The Celtics – after reeling off nine consecutive victories – have now lost back-to-back games and on Tuesday night lost on the second night of a back-to-back for the first time this season.

The C’s were missing Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, Al Horford and Malcolm Brogdon. They were forced to start Payton Pritchard, who played 42 minutes. Their bench was thin, with Justin Jackson getting significant minutes. But they still found themselves in position to beat the Jimmy Butler-less Heat, even after they blew a 14-point lead.

Grant Williams hit a game-tying 3-pointer with 42.6 seconds left before Adebayo answered with a go-ahead jumper with 20 seconds to go. On the ensuing Celtics’ possession, interim head coach Joe Mazzulla opted not to call a timeout as Jayson Tatum walked the ball up the court. But the Celtics star, after being caught in a double team, threw a bad cross-court pass that was intended for Williams but was intercepted by Haywood Highsmith.

Highsmith was fouled by Williams with 0.6 seconds left and made one of two free throws before Pritchard’s game-tying 3-point attempt at the buzzer came up short to seal the Celtics’ loss.

As depleted as the Celtics were, Mazzulla took accountability for how things unraveled in the fourth and specifically the possession that resulted in Tatum’s seventh turnover of the night.

“That’s on me to put him in a better situation,” Mazzulla told reporters in Miami. “But I thought they had their offensive lineup on the floor. I knew they weren’t going to let him get something. … I have to put up a better play that allows him to see that better. He couldn’t see the 2-on-1 well enough, so I have to call a better play there.”

Mazzulla didn’t seem interested in calling a timeout, even as Tatum seemed to be slow going into his actions before ultimately making a bad read.

“I’m sitting there and I’m saying if we call one, they get to their defensive lineup,” Mazzulla said. “They may go zone, they may go man, you’re not really sure. They may blitz, they may switch, they may maintain. …

“What I did know is the absolutes. The absolute was we had the ball in our best player’s hands. I knew that because of their offensive lineup, they were going to play this coverage, I just didn’t call the right play. I have to call a better play to get the better spacing for him to see it better.”

The C’s wouldn’t have been in that position if they didn’t go inexplicably cold in the fourth. After Robert Williams flushed a one-handed alley-oop slam to put the Celtics up 87-77, they failed to score on 10 consecutive offensive possessions over a stretch of six minutes and 30 seconds. Adebayo – who finished with 30 points and 15 rebounds – led the Heat on a 15-0 run to take the lead.

Heat coach Erik Spoelstra turned to a zone defense and the Celtics didn’t have an answer. They ultimately scored just 13 points in their brutal fourth quarter.

“They went to their zone and we just didn’t have the spacing we needed,” Mazzulla said. “We didn’t get the looks we should have. I thought we had the right personnel on the floor against the zone, we just didn’t get the looks we should have on a few of those.”

Added Derrick White: “Thirteen points in the fourth quarter, it’s going to be tough to win games that way.”

Tatum finished with 31 points, 14 rebounds and seven assists, but scored just 10 points in the second half and committed seven of the Celtics’ 17 turnovers as giveaways cost them again.

White stepped up with 23 points to support Tatum, but the Celtics certainly missed their regulars. Still, they didn’t want to make excuses. They have overcome absences before and they looked like they would again Tuesday before the final nine minutes.

“We take pride in being the deepest team,” White told reporters. “When people are out we have to have that next-man-up mentality. Obviously two games we dropped that we could have won. We don’t look at who’s playing, who’s not playing. Obviously we miss those guys, but we still think we should have won.”

Injury report

Smart missed his second consecutive game due to the right ankle sprain he suffered in Saturday’s win over the Raptors. He told reporters in Miami that he thinks he’ll miss 1-2 weeks.

Brown was out due to right adductor injury management. He suffered that injury two weeks ago and missed three games before returning for the Warriors game last week. The Celtics chose to be cautious with him on the second night of a back-to-back after playing heavy minutes in his return.

Horford missed the second game of a back-to-back, which he has done all season, while Brogdon missed his second consecutive game due to personal reasons.