The Boston Celtics have made the Eastern Conference Finals in three of the past four years, but this time they are in danger of missing the playoffs entirely.
Boston (35-33) are seventh in the east heading into Tuesday's home clash against rivals the Miami Heat (37-31), and at this stage they are on track to feature in the NBA's inaugural play-in tournament next week.
If the Celtics, who lost 130-124 to the Heat on Sunday, go down to Miami again, it would all but seal Boston's fate.
Last season's NBA Finals participants Miami are currently sixth in the Eastern Conference – the top six advance directly to the playoffs.
The play-in tournament will include teams with the seventh through to the 10th-highest winning percentages in each conference, taking place between May 18-21.
There is a lot on the line with postseason berths up for grabs at TD Garden.
Jimmy Butler – Miami Heat
If you needed more proof of Butler's importance to the Heat, look no further than Sunday's showdown. Miami's go-to guy put up 26 points, 11 assists and eight rebounds on the road in Boston, where he recorded his 17th double-double of the season.
Butler's character has often been questioned following stops in Minnesota and Philadelphia after making a splash with the Chicago Bulls, but he continues to impress in Miami, where he is averaging 21.6 points, a career-high 7.2 assists and a career-best 7.0 rebounds. The five-time All-Star also boasts a field-goal percentage of 49.6 – the best mark of his career so far.
Jayson Tatum – Boston Celtics
With Jaylen Brown suffering a season-ending wrist injury, the Celtics will rely heavily on another of their All-Stars – Tatum, who had 29 points in a losing effort against the Heat last time out.
Tatum is enjoying a career year, having elevated himself to an All-Star calibre forward with the Celtics last year. The third pick in the 2017 NBA Draft, Tatum is averaging 26.3 points, 7.3 rebounds and 4.4 assists – all career highs in 2020-21, while he is also averaging the highest number of minutes on the court (35.9) amid Boston's frustrating season.
KEY BATTLE – PRESSURE ON KEMBA
Kemba Walker arrived in Bostom amid much fanfare in 2019 but the four-time All-Star has only shown glimpses, albeit injuries have not helped.
Walker finished with 18 points in the previous game against the Heat, though he was five-for-12 shooting, making just one of his four three-point attempts.
As Tatum carries the load, Walker must provide the necessary support against a Heat roster stacked with shooters in Butler, Kendrick Nunn, Duncan Robinson, Goran Dragic and Tyler Herro.
HEAD TO HEAD
The Celtics and Heat have split their two games this season, and there is a theme.
After the Celtics beat the Heat 107-105 in January, Miami bounced back on Sunday. The margin of victory has not gone above six points, highlighting just how closely matched these two teams are.
Unsurprising, Tatum (27 points) and Butler (26 points) were the stars of the show in the January encounter.