Celtics getting pushed around by Heat
MIAMI -- Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra gamely tried to mask the euphoria in his voice.
As he sat at the podium after his team throttled the Boston Celtics 102-91 in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, he spoke respectfully of Boston's "championship DNA," reminded everyone the series was just getting started and insisted in accordance with the unwritten NBA code, which suggests no series truly starts until a team loses a game at home, that the Heat really hadn't done anything yet.
We know better.
Miami's superstars have jumped their hated Boston counterparts, knocked them to the ground, stolen their lunch money and kicked dust in their faces for good measure. There is still time for the veteran Celtics to respond with a counterattack once they return to their familiar parquet surroundings, but their opportunity to inject a healthy dose of doubt into the minds of a Heat nucleus that is still learning on the fly is gone -- for good.
This Miami team, so reviled for its glittery offseason signings, so pummeled for its early-season failings, so scrutinized for its inability to close out close games, have displayed nothing to indicate they are affected by pressure or expectation. Their focus has been unparalleled.
They are the ones playing like they've been here before.
LeBron James said this matchup was "personal" for him. His game-high 35 points nearly eclipsed the total of the the Celtics' entire Big Three combined.
The NBA is a game of stars and it's clear which ones are shining the brightest. Through two games LeBron and Dwyane Wade (28 points) have proved to be unstoppable.
Conversely, the trio of Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett have been all too mortal at critical junctures. Pierce followed up his embarrassing Game 1 ejection with a quiet 13 points. KG missed 12 of his 20 shots. Ray Allen scored just seven points in 34 minutes.
The Celtics are in trouble, and they know it. Their hushed locker room confirmed it.
"We need to protect our home court," Garnett said. "We will. We have no choice. This is it."
Both teams feature superb defensive rotations that require the opponent to work incredibly hard to score. But when the shot clock was winding down, the Celtics once again tended to rely on perimeter jump shots.
The Heat simply gave the ball to James or Wade and watched them bull their way to the hole.
In Tuesday's outing, the Heat took 36 free throws to the Celtics' 22. The Heinsohnian theory -- blame the refs! -- won't hold here. It's all about aggressiveness and athleticism. In two games, Miami has outscored Boston 53-31 from the line. Think about it: That's a 22-point swing.
Garnett, meanwhile, did not attempt a single free throw in Tuesday's game. For those of you scoring at home, that matches his free-throw attempts from Game1.
There are equally disturbing numbers on the defensive end. Tuesday's Heat win included a 9-2 edge in blocked shots. The two-game tally: 17-5 in Miami's favor. The hustle points are overwhelming in the Heat's favor.
It didn't help that coach Doc Rivers was forced to shuffle bodies in and out due to an outbreak of unexpected injuries. Pierce suffered an Achilles strain in the first quarter and was in the locker room getting it iced for 8 minutes, 24 seconds of game time. Allen absorbed a LeBron elbow, bruised his chest and was forced to sit with shortness of breath. Rajon Rondo complained of back tightness and actually watched from the bench for a portion of the fourth quarter.
Even so, the Celtics managed to tie the game 80-80 on a pair of Pierce free throws with 7:09 to play.
The momentum, it seemed, might just be swinging toward the men in green -- until the Heat instantly ripped off a 14-0 run to put the game out of reach.
That burst included four trips to the line as well as a 3-point play for LeBron when he slipped in and followed up an errant Wade jumper with an offensive slam. It started when the Celtics' defense converged on a driving Wade, who kicked it out to a wide open Mario Chalmers for an uncontested 3-pointer.
"See now, that can't happen," Garnett scowled.
Boston's offensive possessions during Miami's run included back-to-back Glen Davis isolations that came up short, an Allen trey that rolled in and out, a Jermaine O'Neal offering that was rejected by Joel Anthony, a KG jumper that rattled around and out, and a perimeter jumper from Rondo that wasn't even close.
"We've got to play with more force," Pierce said. "Offensively, we got some good shots, but we could have gotten better ones. Once Miami made their run, we got out of our sets. We have to be more disciplined."
As much as Boston's stretches of stagnant offensive play continue to be its biggest downfall, there's also the issue of allowing both LeBron and D-Wade to dominate the series by utilizing their athleticism to attack the Celtics' defense.
Pierce, who was so effective in containing LeBron in past postseasons, has not been nearly as intimidating this time around. Jeff Green, to put it bluntly, is vastly overmatched when he attempts to guard the King.
If there was ever a time for Shaquille O'Neal to join the series, this would be it. The presence of the Big Shamrock might give both of Miami's superstars (each of whom have played alongside him) pause before they drive the lane.
Something has to change before these teams reconvene on Saturday night if Boston wants to extend its season. We have seen it countless times before in sports -- a team comes home, regroups and turns it all around. This storied Celtics nucleus has accomplished many things, but they have never been in a position where they've been down 2-0 in a series.
Nor have they faced a young duo as aggressive, confident and hell-bent on proving their point as James and Wade.
A weary Rivers declared that if his team can't score down the stretch, "That's always on me. I have to do something different."
Both teams will have a day off Wednesday to size up their situations. James vowed not to get too high or too low. Spoelstra, nearly giddy at the thought, declared, "Now the mental discipline begins."
If the Celtics hold serve at home, their current angst will be eradicated. If they can get up, dust themselves off and go looking for the thugs that stole their money, they will recoup what has proven to be their most valuable asset -- their mental resolve.
Without it, their season will end in a cloud of Miami dust.
Jackie MacMullan, who has spent nearly 20 years as a beat writer and columnist in Boston, is a columnist for ESPNBoston.com.
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