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Heat playoff hopes dim, lose to Celtics

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Miami fell to ninth place with the loss.

NBA: Boston Celtics at Miami Heat Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

If the Miami Heat beat the Boston Celtics, they would’ve grabbed the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference. But if they lost, Miami would fall to ninth place. And a Dion Waiters 3 midway through the fourth quarter made it a two-point game, 96-94. But the Heat never got closer than that the rest of the way, falling 112-102 to drop out of the playoff picture.

This loss was a tough one for the Heat to swallow, as Dwyane Wade’s final season sets in. Justise Winslow, Josh Richardson and Rodney McGruder all returned from injuries to play Wednesday, but Richardson sustained a left leg injury in the third quarter and did not return. Will Richardson, the Heat’s leading scorer, play again this season — with just four games left?

Just like Monday night’s game, the Celtics exposed the Heat’s 2-3 zone defense with precision. Although Boston didn’t make as many 3-pointers as they did Monday — only nine conversions from beyond the arc, compared to 17 in Boston — the Heat gave up too many open 3s. Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward combined for six 3s.

Boston also found a lot of success attacking the middle of the floor, where Miami’s zone frequently left someone open before a catch. Al Horford or Jayson Tatum had several easy offensive plays, as they could either take an open jumper or find an open teammate as the Heat defense scrambled to cover them. Erik Spoelstra made a mistake using the zone as often as he did Wednesday night.

Spoelstra also made the quizzical decision to bench James Johnson for the first three quarters (Johnson started the second half of Monday’s game, due to Derrick Jones Jr.’s injury. And Jones was out for tonight’s game.) but then throwing him in there to start the fourth quarter of a huge regular season game.

Maybe Richardson’s third-quarter injury forced Spoelstra’s hand, but the move recalled some criticism the Heat coach took for his rotations in the 2011 NBA Finals. Eddie House didn’t play for several games, and then Spoelstra threw him in the biggest game of the year. In any case, Johnson didn’t offer much in his eight minutes of action.

Hassan Whiteside was a bright spot for the Heat. The Heat backup center finished with 18 points on 9-of-11 shooting from the field and 15 rebounds, converting around the basket and even connecting on some second-chance opportunities. Whiteside made a few shots to close the third quarter to pull the Heat within two. On the flip side, though, Whiteside missed all four of his attempts from the foul line.

Waiters led the Heat with 21 points, including five 3-pointers. Wade added 17 points off the bench and made a nice step-back turnaround jumper on Irving in the first quarter.

But the three-time NBA champion also missed three free throws and committed a technical foul during a key third-quarter swing. The Heat can’t afford to make those mistakes while fighting for a playoff seed.

The Heat will try to right the ship with a Friday night game against the Minnesota Timberwolves.