A potentially seismic shift hit the Eastern Conference finals less than three hours prior to Tuesday night’s start of Game 1 at FTX Arena, when the Boston Celtics announced that forward Al Horford had entered NBA health-and-safety protocols and would be out for the series opener against the Miami Heat.
The designation not only had Horford out for Tuesday’s start of the best-of-seven series, but also, based on the NBA’s required quarantine in such cases, likely out for Thursday night’s Game 2 at FTX Arena and Saturday’s Game 3 at TD Garden.
It is the third time this season Horford, 35, has entered NBA protocols.
In addition, the Celtics announced that a second starter, point guard Marcus Smart, would miss the series opener due to the right mid-foot sprain sustained during Sunday’s Game 7 victory over the visiting Milwaukee Bucks that advanced them to the East finals against the Heat.
Smart was listed as questionable earlier in the day. Horford had not appeared on the Celtics’ injury report until he was listed as out.
For the Heat, guard Kyle Lowry remained sidelined with a strained left hamstring, although he was on the court for pregame shooting. It is the seventh time in the past nine games Lowry has been sidelined by the hamstring.
Earlier, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said at the morning shootaround that his team was in for an extended challenge, stressing the littlest things could make the biggest difference.
“They’re big, those moments in between, the plays in between, ball in the air, ball on the floor,” he said. “I’m sure they’re saying the same thing. You have two teams that take pride in that, so it should be very competitive in between the lines.
“And both teams do it in a way that’s not over the top. It’s just about doing whatever it takes to get the win.”
Heat guard Tyler Herro said he appreciated it was time to dig in defensively.
“I think both teams, everybody knows how well we are on that side of the ball,” he said. “I think whoever can get the relief buckets in transition, a couple of buckets here or there, that aren’t from set plays and things like that, I think whoever can get those in-between possessions, I think will have an advantage throughout the series.”
All without forgoing any defensive elements.
“I mean, that’s what we are, since I got here three years ago,” he said. “We’ve always been old-school that way. We’re willing to score 120, but we also can play a game in the 90s.”
Heat center Bam Adebayo said the team was savoring, but not caught up in, the moment.
“We’re just enjoying our moment,” he said. “For the most part, we’re keeping our head down, keeping the main thing the main thing.”
The series not only is a rematch of the teams’ 2020 East finals that the Heat won 4-2, but also a reunion for Adebayo with USA Basketball gold-medal Olympic teammate Jayson Tatum.
“Since I’m playing against him, I know his tendencies,” Adebayo said. “The Olympic team is totally different. But just knowing his tendencies, that’s basically it.”
For all the backstories, Herro said what can’t be lost is the significance of the moment.
“This is what you want as a competitor,” he said. “As a basketball player growing up this is everything you could ever ask for, to be in a game like that.”
Story by Ira Winderman, South Florida Sun-Sentinel