Butler returning for Heat. And why gap between Heat, Celtics has seemingly widened

Al Diaz/adiaz@miamiherald.com

With Jimmy Butler set to rejoin his teammates on Friday, the Heat will gain some clarity on a key question:

Has the gap between last year’s Eastern Conference finalists widened to the point that their records would suggest?

Or is the Heat (10-12) still positioned to be competitive with Boston (18-4) should the teams meet again in the postseason?

Butler was set to join the Heat in Boston on Thursday evening after missing seven games with a knee injury; Miami listed him as questionable for the game.

The Heat’s leading scorer erupted for 41, 29, 47 and 35 in May’s Eastern finals against Boston, but his defense will be particularly important in Friday’s game at TD Garden.

The Heat had little defensive resistance in a 134-121 loss in Boston on Wednesday. Jayson Tatum did as he pleased on a 49-point night and the Celtics shot 55.4 percent, 22 for 45 on threes and 20 of 23 from the line.

Nevertheless, it was a three-point game midway through the fourth quarter, and the Heat — without its leading man — showed this can still be a highly competitive matchup, just as it was during their seven-game playoff series in May.

Despite the big difference in the standings, Tyler Herro maintained that the Heat is close to Boston’s level in ability.

“I think so,” he said. “I thought we competed our [butts] off” on Wednesday.

But the Heat ranks 27th in the league in scoring (at 109 points per game), and playing at Wednesday’s frenetic pace isn’t a recipe to beat a Boston team that leads the league in scoring at 121.9 points per game.

“I don’t think it’s in the best interests for us to make it a shootout even though we played well,” coach Erik Spoelstra said.

Max Strus — who scored 19 of his 23 points in the third quarter — said: “We have to play more of our game, more of our speed.” And as Herro said: “They’re going to force you into playing their game. That’s why they’re the best team in the league.”

With Butler back, the Heat likely can be less reliant on zone. The Heat has played zone more than any team in modern NBA history, but Boston shot far better against Miami’s zone than previous opponents did.

“They’re really shooting the ball well, which is dangerous when you play zone,” Strus said. “They hit some easy ones early on and got a rhythm, but we need to be better contesting those shots.”

On Wednesday, the Heat allowed 1.03 points per possession on 62 zone possessions and permitted 1.28 points per possession on 29 man possessions. Both numbers are poor. Boston shot 54.5 percent against Miami’s man defense and 46.9 percent against the Heat’s zone defense.

Tatum shot 8 for 12 on threes Wednesday, and perhaps Butler could offer more resistance. Tatum shot 2 for 9 on threes when defended by Butler in the Eastern Conference finals.

Butler is “one of the best players in the league,” Strus said. “We’re all excited to have him come back. We can use him for sure.”

So why has the gap between the Heat and Celtics grown since last year’s conference finals, with Boston first in the East and Miami (10-12) standing 11th and eight games back?

Exploring the reasons:

Offensive efficiency: The Celtics lead the league in offensive rating, scoring 121.5 points per 100 possessions. The Heat is 23rd at 110.2.

“They really share the ball, move it side to side and make the defense move,” Herro said. “You really need to be on a string and cover for each other.”

Last season, the teams were very close offensively; Boston was 9th in offensive rating at 113.6, Miami 13th at 113.

Three-point shooting: The Heat has plunged from the league’s best three-point shooting team to 21st at 33.8 percent. The Celtics, meanwhile, lead the league in three-point shooting percentage at 40.8.

Some of Boston’s three-point numbers are staggering: Malcolm Brogdon is shooting 49.3 percent on threes, Al Horford 48.8, Derrick White 45.2 and Grant Williams 44.2.

Tatum has taken another step: Already an All-Star, Tatum has become a strong MVP candidate, boosting his scoring average from 26.9 last season to 31.6 this season.

“I thought he was too comfortable [Wednesday],” Herro said. “A lot of his threes were just standstill threes, which are easy shots for good players. We’ve got to try to make it a little bit more uncomfortable for him.”

Health: Tatum has missed only one game, and All Star guard Jaylen Brown two.

By contrast, Butler has missed nine games and Herro eight, and Victor Oladipo and Omer Yurtseven haven’t played at all.

In the Celtics’ defense, they have been without their best interior defender and rebounder, center Robert Williams, all season due to a knee injury.

Offseason roster management: While the Heat lost P.J. Tucker and did not replace him with a veteran newcomer, the Celtics added Brogdon, who has been very good (14.4 points, 4.1 rebounds, 3.7 assists and 35 for 71 on threes).

Bench/depth: Celtics reserves are shooting 44.6 percent on three pointers (best in the league), while Heat reserves are shooting 32.2 percent, which is 25th.

“They’re connected as a team and that’s hard to find in this league – a team 1 through 15 that’s connected,” Bam Adebayo said.

But “we’ll be back,” Adebayo added. “We’ve had an up and down season these first 22 games. Never count us out, though. That’s one thing I say about us; we’ll surprise you.”

NOTABLE

Besides Butler, Dewayne Dedmon (foot) and Nikola Jovic (foot) also were listed as questionable for Friday. Dedmon and Jovic have plantar fasciitis. Oladipo (knee) remains out but is practicing.