Winners of five straight, the Celtics face the Heat on Friday night in a matchup of banged-up teams battling for postseason position.
Last year, Boston (59-19) was able to give its top players a break after clinching home-court advantage through the playoffs with six games remaining in the season.
In 2008-09, though, the Celtics are unlikely to finish with the best record in the Eastern Conference, as Cleveland has a magic number of one. Boston’s focus now is on holding off Orlando for the No. 2 seed, as the Celtics lead the Magic by one game.
Boston’s win streak has come despite the absence of star forward Kevin Garnett, who continues to experience soreness in his right knee and has missed 18 of the last 22 games. He’s back working out but isn’t expected to play until Tuesday against Philadelphia at the earliest.
Short-handed against New Jersey on Wednesday night, Boston thought it had a secure nine-point lead but had to put its starters back in for the final 5 minutes of a 106-104 win.
“The important thing is just building on something going into the playoffs,” Celtics swingman Paul Pierce said. “We’ve won five in a row, but we want to be playing well.”
Starting point guard Rajon Rondo had 31 points, nine rebounds and five assists. He’s averaging 24.0 points and 3.0 steals while shooting 63.4 percent over his last three games.
“If (Rondo’s) able to score like that, we’re going to be a tough team to beat,” Pierce said. “That takes so much pressure off me and Ray (Allen), especially with Kevin out.”
The Heat (41-37) couldn’t come through down the stretch versus New Orleans on Tuesday night and lost 93-87 in overtime. The Hornets got a tying 3-pointer at the regulation buzzer from Rasual Butler and David West made the go-ahead jumper with 8.8 seconds left in OT.
Haslem will miss the rest of the regular season after needing six stitches to close a deep cut on his right thumb suffered while blocking a shot in a win over Charlotte on Friday night. Haslem, averaging 10.6 points and 8.2 rebounds, has been replaced in the starting lineup by Yakhouba Diawara.
Cook, Miami’s top 3-point shooter, was inactive against New Orleans with a sore right shoulder. He’s made a team-best 148 shots from beyond the arc and is averaging 9.3 points on the season.
Though the Heat’s rotation was thin, they got 25 points from reserve forward Michael Beasley versus the Hornets. Miami, though, couldn’t overcome 39.2 percent shooting and 17 turnovers.
“We just have to keep on plugging away,” coach Erik Spoelstra said. “We’ve had some very difficult losses the last three weeks. We’ve bounced back from these kind of losses and we need to continue to do so.”
Miami lost its last matchup at Boston 112-108 in OT on March 18. The Celtics lead the season series 2-1 and have won seven of the last eight meetings.