Just when you thought that for the first time since February’s first day, the Miami Heat were finally going to wilt Monday night in Boston, it didn’t happen. Unless you pay rent under a rock, you would know the Heat were carrying a 22 game winning streak going into Monday night’s showdown, an already record number for a defending champion. But while the Celtics prepared for the return of original ‘Big 3’ pioneer Ray Allen, they did so with two-thirds of their new power- trio in street clothes with injuries to Kevin Garnett and of course Rajon Rondo. In typical Celtic fashion, Paul Pierce and company rode the playoff type energy of the crowd, controlling the game for a near win, only to come a few plays short losing 105-103. The Heat’s extending its winning streak to 23 games dominated last night’s headlines, and rightfully so; it’s an unbelievable feat that deserves to be extensively written about on its own (probably real soon). But Monday night not only showed us that the Heat are in fact, real good, but that the Celtics just might represent the East’s best chance of dethroning the champs.
Since Derek Rose’s injury, teams in the Eastern Conference have been jostling for positioning and bragging rights as the conference’s second-best team and biggest threat to the Heat. The Knicks once proud defense has drastically dropped off as has their health. The last two weeks saw Carmelo Anthony (knee, day-to-day), Tyson Chandler (knee/neck, a week), and Amare Stoudemire (knee, five weeks) all go down. They’re the oldest team in the League and they’re falling apart.
The Pacers are the team directly behind the Heat in conference standings, and they boast one of the League’s stingiest defenses. The Pacers bruising style results in allowing opponents 41FG% overall and 51FG% within five feet of the hoop, both League best’s. While the Pacers were also the last team to beat the Heat this season and took them to six games in last year’s playoffs, they also just got handled by them at home, by 14 points. I think the Pacers are offensively challenged at times and too inconsistent on that end to keep up with Miami. Paul George is a nice player and an All-Star, but he alone can’t create enough for the Pacers offense.
The Celtics had an epic seven game series with the Heat in last year’s playoffs, but their season was all but doomed this year when Rondo went down with a torn ACL last month. Doc Rivers and his message of teamwork is being heard, and he’s doing a masterful job with his personnel tinkering. He’s been finding the right combinations with his offensively limited group to somehow replace, just a fraction of Rondo’s playmaking.
And as long as Rivers and Kevin Garnett are in Boston, you can count on the Celtics to defend. A healthy Avery Bradley is very good at just that, and is something Boston didn’t have in last year’s Conference Finals against the Heat. One of the League’s best perimeter defenders returned this season and has since validated his defensive reputation. Bradley is reminiscent of a more athletic Tony Allen, a comparison Bostonians would happily welcome. His relentless hawking both on and off the ball make him an intangible asset as he tirelessly blankets the opponents best perimeter players each game.
The Celtics were also missing another huge piece in that series versus the Heat. Jeff Green, whose comeback from a heart procedure serves as inspiration enough, has been a revelation for Rivers and the Celtics this season. His versatility and size make them more dynamic on both sides of the court. The talented Green gives Doc the ability to adapt to an opponent’s playing style on the fly, being able to play both big and small lineups. In Monday night against the Heat, Green erupted for 43 points (career-high) and in three games this season against the Heat, his numbers are: 35.0 MPG, 19.0 PPG, 55%FG, 60%3PT, 4.7 RPG. He’s a walking mismatch that Boston would love to have had available last regular, and post-season.
The Celtics are finding their identity late in the season, with Pierce assuming a point-forward role as a facilitator (avg 6.4 APG in last 10 games), and Jason Terry beginning to make shots. Without their defensive and spiritual leader in Garnett, Monday night’s 105-103 Celtics loss to the Heat should be a sign of encouragement. Franchises like the Celtics aren’t afforded moral victories, but they played well enough in last night’s two-point loss to pass the eye test. The Celtics recent play, combined with the collective fading of the Eastern Conference confirmed in my mind, my early season hunch, that Boston would prove Miami’s toughest inter-conference obstacle. The two play one more time in April, a week or so before the playoffs where we’ll see if the Celtics, or if anyone by then, can finally beat the Heat.