Heat, Celtics meet looking to avoid play-in fate

A two-part rematch of last year’s Eastern Conference Finals may help determine whether the Miami Heat or Boston Celtics will avoid a win-or-go-home tournament to even make the playoffs.

Boston plays host to Miami on Sunday afternoon in the first of two straight home games against the Heat. The Celtics (35-32) trail the Heat (36-31) by one game for the sixth and final playoff spot that guarantees avoiding the play-in round.

The Celtics haven’t done themselves any favors by losing six of their last 10 after a season-high six-game winning streak.

Despite Kemba Walker’s season-high 33 points, Boston stumbled to a 121-99 road loss against Chicago on Friday night. Celtics star Jayson Tatum finished with just nine points on 3-of-15 shooting and went 0 of 7 on 3-pointers.

“There’s no secret ingredient – we have to compete hard, we have to play smart, and we have to do our jobs,” said Celtics guard Evan Fournier, who scored 17 in the loss. “We’ve got to do it at a very high level.”

One major factor for the Celtics against Miami will be the health of All-Star forward Jaylen Brown.

Brown missed his second straight game against Chicago after he sprained his right ankle late in last Sunday’s loss to Portland. Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge told 98.5 The Sports Hub on Thursday that Brown will “probably” return on Sunday against Miami.

Miami took care of business on its end Friday with a 121-112 win over the Minnesota Timberwolves. Jimmy Butler scored 25 points and Bam Adebayo added 15, but Tyler Herro provided the biggest spark in his return with a game-high 27 points off the bench.

“It was great to be back out there,” said Herro, who had not played since April 23 because of a foot injury. “It’s that time of the year again where we have to really lock in. It’s time to make a run again.”

Heat trade-deadline acquisition Victor Oladipo was inactive due to right knee soreness. The former All-Star guard has played only four games with his new team and hasn’t suited up since April 8.

Miami is peaking at the right time with wins in four of its last five games and eight of 11 overall.

The Heat and Celtics have met only once so far this season, back on Jan. 6 in Miami when Boston won 107-105. Their scheduled Jan. 10 game in Boston was postponed due to the NBA’s COVID-19 health and safety protocols.

Rookie Payton Pritchard’s putback with two-tenths of a second remaining gave the Celtics the narrow victory on a night Tatum led all scorers with 27 and Brown scored 21. Butler led the Heat with 26 points while Adebayo had 15 and 10 boards.

Goran Dragic added 14 points off the bench and says the Heat are bringing a must-win mentality with them to Boston.

“Those are the crucial games of the season, so we’re gonna have to bring our best game,” said Dragic, who scored 23 off the bench Friday in Minnesota.” This is basically the playoffs for us. … We just need to be ready, prepared and execute our plan.”