Cruel playoff injuries did so well for the Celtics and Heat

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BOSTON — If you haven’t already done so, every player participating in these Eastern Conference Finals should sign a waiver. The series featuring the No. 1 seeded Miami Heat, second seeded Boston Celtics and their top notch batons is not for anyone who believes basketball is all beauty or grace.

no Basketball, at least for this series, is a survivor reboot. A round of attrition for every man, every knee for himself. The team that remains standing or, better yet, hobbles out of the arena with the most body parts intact wins.

Heat forward Jimmy Butler was unable to play in the second half of Game 3 due to a knee infection. Marcus Smart, the heartbeat of the Celtics, needed help from the coaches to get off the floor after suffering a gruesome-looking ankle injury. Later, Celtics forward Jayson Tatum sprawled across the floor as his right shoulder throbbed in pain. Despite their howls and grimaces as they left the court, both Boston players would return for more penalties. All of this happened on a Saturday night that began with the news that Boston center Robert Williams III had to miss the game with left knee pain.

So after the Heat’s 109-103 win, a few things were obvious.

First, none of the head coaches seemed particularly interested in having either a medical degree or a sixth sense, so they took a minimalist approach in providing predictions.

“I have no updates on anyone. We’ll just go back to our cave and rest, and maybe I’ve got some information for you [Sunday]said Heat Coach Erik Spoelstra.

And second, on Monday night, when the teams meet again, someone in the TD Garden practice rooms better have Tylenol (or something stronger) on deck. Maybe even Paul Pierce’s old wheelchair.

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As for the players themselves, they must be prepared with knuckles of steel and adrenaline on a 10th and duct tape. Lots of sports tape.

“You know, injuries are part of the game,” said heat point guard Kyle Lowry, who made his series debut Saturday night after missing the last four playoff games with a problem in his left hamstring. “That’s the part that sucks about the game, the injuries, and you know that’s tough.”

If you’re anything like Lowry—and not a sick person who could bear to see Smart’s injury repeated more than once—you also loathe injuries. But at least in this series, the Heat and Celtics are turning pain into an art form.

Granted, any game loses its appeal when a superstar like Butler has limited minutes to play. And it’s no fun hearing the court’s mics pick up Smart’s fear as he squirms on the baseline. However, if so much about this series falls short of normal postseason aesthetic standards — the Celtics treat basketball like it’s a plate that’s just been atomized in a microwave; They flipped it 24 times on Saturday – the players forced us to marvel at their strength, stamina and particularly high pain threshold.

It started in the first set when Heat forward PJ Tucker left the court with an ankle injury that looked bad enough to at least keep him in the coach’s room for the rest of the game. But he didn’t let his rolled ankle have the last word and came back to play 31 minutes in the Heat’s win.

“There’s a ghost back there,” Tucker said after the game, explaining how he healed so quickly. “Granted one of my wishes.”

If Tucker needed a ghost, maybe Lucky, the Celtics mascot, sprinkled magical dust on Smart’s foot after his fall. When Smart attacked the glass for a rebound early Saturday night in the third quarter, he and Lowry collided and his foot landed in a way human feet shouldn’t.

Smart couldn’t put any weight on the ankle as the coaches flanked him on either side and helped him off the pitch. But there he was, just a few minutes later, limping down the hall, a camera capturing his footsteps as he made his way back to the Celtics touchline. As fans in the packed arena looked up to see their hero on the overhead scoreboard, their roar seemed to say collectively: What?!? As!??!?

How on earth was Smart back on the ground? And check into the game? And move laterally on defense? And then at the other end, catching a pass into the left corner, pumping right to avoid Victor Oladipo (a good defender, btw) and drilling a three-pointer to cut the lead to 10?

Believe the magic of modern medicine — or Lucky’s healing powers — but Smart didn’t show any noticeable shuffling in his gait as he chased Tyler Herro, boxed Bam Adebayo, and whipped up offensive fouls (also see: flop) on any Heat player who forgot had to read the scouting report. An inferior individual lacking a team of trained medical professionals paid to tend to their body parts would have cried in the fetal position alone – and not finish the game with 16 points in nearly 37 minutes.

Tatum’s apparent shoulder injury in the fourth quarter was just as dramatic. So paralyzed in pain, Tatum never made it onto the pitch after losing the ball to Lowry. And he didn’t get back up when his teammates stalled and rushed back to the offensive end. Instead, he threw his leg up in the air and turned to lie on his left side while holding his right shoulder.

After the game, Tatum would say the sting he felt originated in the back of his neck and traveled down his arm. He, too, disappeared into the tunnel and went to a back room where medical staff were “running some tests.” Then, like his teammate, Tatum returned triumphant. Once again, Celtics fans flooded their man with their shocked appreciation.

As the Heat and Celtics prepare for Game 4, the protagonists look more like Willis Reed impersonators than modern millionaires used to load management. Playing through injuries, they are reminding us of the limits they are willing to push just to make it through June. Their pain isn’t pretty, but they’re creating a memorable series worthy of our respect — and maybe an insurance plan of their own.

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