When you’re the Miami Heat or Boston Celtics, every game is a trap game for the rest of the season.
But tonight, in particular, both teams have games with opponents far out of the playoff race, so both teams are expected to win for that reason — yet both teams have lost these kinds of games all season long. Most recently, the Celtics are 10 days out from a home loss to the tanking Oklahoma City Thunder, and even with Jayson Tatum and Kemba Walker out, they shouldn’t have lost given the Thunder’s starting line-up. Just two days earlier, a fully healthy Celtic team fell by 21 points to the LaMelo Ball and Gordon Hayward-less Charlotte Hornets. Ex-Celtics Terry Rozier and Brad Wanamaker played well, too.
The Heat, meanwhile, are exactly two weeks removed from a 118-103 loss to the Atlanta Hawks, who did not have Trae Young or Clint Capela — their best two players — which came precisely one week after losing to the Minnesota Timberwolves, who they play again tonight.
As was demonstrated in their win over the Heat earlier this season, the Timberwolves aren’t that bad. They’re not in the class of the Heat, but their record belies what they’re actually working toward. The Heat have played up and down to their competition — which absolutely includes teams who actually suck — all season long. The Timberwolves are about a .500 team (9-10) since nearly beating the Brooklyn Nets on March 29, and Anthony Edwards has woken the fuck up. Jimmy Butler, who swings a team nearly as much as any one individual has this season, is questionable for tonight, along with Tyler Herro. Victor Oladipo is still out with a knee injury.
The Celtics are facing the Chicago Bulls, who are 9-19 since mid-March. But they’re a perfect 1-0 since Zach LaVine returned last night from COVID protocol. And the shit has already begun because Jaylen Brown is out.
Both the Heat and Celtics are 35-31 and tied for sixth in the Eastern Conference. Both teams played deep into last year’s playoffs, where the Heat defeated the Celtics in six games in the Eastern Conference Finals. As of now, the Celtics have the tiebreaker, which would make the Heat the seventh seed and in the Play-In. Similarly, after dreadful starts relative to their expectations, both teams have quietly been better as of late, but are back to being a seesaw in production.
The Heat were 22-24 and reeling from a six-game losing streak toward the end of March, and, in totality, they’ve been 13-7 since March 29. The Celtics stood at 25-26 on the morning of April 6 prior to the 10-5 run they’re currently on. But save for a six-game winning streak into mid-April, the Celtics are a pedestrian 4-5 since April 19.
Keep in mind, though, that the Heat/Celtics’ season-long limp to the finish line could swing widely in either direction over the next two weeks, because while Boston owns the season series following a 107-105 win over Miami in January, they play each other twice before the playoffs — May 9 and 11. The Heat need to win both to ensure a tiebreaker with Boston, and it would almost certainly alleviate them from falling into the Play-In. But for Boston, who may still be without Brown, a split may be good enough for them.
From there, Miami has games with the Celtics, Philadelphia 76ers and Milwaukee Bucks before a conclusion with the Detroit Pistons. The Celtics have the Cleveland Cavaliers, Timberwolves and New York Knicks, all on the road, following their games with Miami.
Even as both teams have struggled, neither the Bucks, 76ers, or Brooklyn Nets want to see the Celtics or Heat in round one of the playoffs, and given how this could shake out, two of them just might.