A true test on South Beach

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A true test on South Beach

It feels like forever since the Celtics last took the court in Miami.

And by NBA standards, that's exactly how long it's been.

But tonight, 106 days, 54 games, 14 starting line-ups and nearly four months removed from their last trip to South Beach, Boston makes its long-awaited return to American Airlines Arena.

The game starts at 7 p.m. Fans should start rolling in around 8.

It's Celtics-Heat III: Stiemer's Revenge!

But the truth is that we don't need days, games or approximated months to quantify how long it's been since these two rivals squared off down south. Instead, just take a look at the box score from that meeting. Or more specifically, at your barely recognizable Boston Celtics.

Back on December 27, Ray Allen was still in the starting lineup. Unfortunately enough, so was Sasha Pavlovic. Meanwhile, KG was old and getting older, Jermaine O'Neal was still fresh off an MVP-caliber training camp and Chris Wilcox was carving out a role in the rotation.

Keyon Dooling and Marquis Daniels played a combined 42 minutes that night. Avery Bradley and Greg Stiemsma? They combined for less than four.

Yeah, sure. The basic roster is in tact. But the Celtics that were (despite a late run) over-matched by Miami in December will not be the team you see tonight. Those Celtics were ugly and out of sorts. They were still searching for rhythm and identity, and could barely catch their breath long enough to do either. When Boston walked off the court that night, no one knew where this thing was going, except that it wasn't going up. Not as high as we needed, at least.

Nearly four months later, and to be honest, we still don't know where this team is headed, but for the first time in a long time, we're actually excited to find out.

In the 54 games since their 115-107 loss, the Celtics have broken down and built themselves back up. They've undergone a transformation of mental, physical and spiritual proportions and will take the court tonight with purpose. With proper chemistry, a secure identity and a greater sense of confidence than they've had all year.

Finally, we know who these Celtics are, and more importantly, so do they.

So do the Heat.

But just as Miami won't see the same Celtics team that they defeated back in December. You can be sure that the Celtics won't face the same squad that they croaked earlier this month.

The box score from that one is just as shocking.

LeBron and Wade combined for only seven foul shot attempts on April 1; tonight, don't be surprised if they're both at seven before halftime. On top of that, Chris Bosh was horrendous, going 2-11. Mario Chalmers had one basket and one assist in 22 minutes. Both those guys will be better in front of the home crowd, as will be every role player and reserve on Miami's roster. And there are a ton.

It's still remains to be seen what it will take to motivate the Miami Heat on a nightly basis, but it goes without saying that they'll be ready for this one. If there was ever a game for them to put any mental BS on the back burner and put the pedal to the metal from jump ball to final whistle, it will be tonight. On National TV, with a chance to take down a team that they despise and send a message that April 1 was nothing but a prank.

"You really thought you could hang with us? You really thought that you can still contend? Ha! This is your reality, and don't you forget it."

Yeah, there are very few certainties in this world. Even fewer in this league. But tonight, you can be sure that the Celtics in their first trip to Miami in more than 100 days will be faced with the very best that the Heat have to offer.

But on the bright side, you can be just as sure that this Celtics team has never been more prepared for the challenge. Never more ready to declare, once and for all, that there's still plenty of reality in their lofty championship dreams.

Rich can be reached at rlevine@comcastsportsnet.com. Follow Rich on Twitter at http:twitter.comrich_levine

Pastrnak's two goals lead Bruins past Panthers, 4-3

Pastrnak's two goals lead Bruins past Panthers, 4-3

BOSTON – The Bruins are undefeated this season when they manage to cobble together three goals in a game. 

It took a little extra as David Pastrnak knifed through former BC defenseman Mike Matheson in overtime for his second goal of the game, and his 15th of the season, to take a 4-3 win over the Panthers at TD Garden. 

It was thought the final offensive push they needed took place in the third period when Ryan Spooner hopped on the David Krejci line with David Backes, and fired a shot at the Boston net that Backes redirected through Roberto Luongo for his seventh of the season. 

But the Panthers tied it up on a Demers goal late in the third period, and that set up Pastrnak’s brilliant one-on-one move for the game-winner for the Black and Gold. 

The Bruins led off the scoring on a nice play by Tim Schaller winning a battle to enter the Florida zone, and then circling around behind the net before burying a one-timer from the slot as he crashed the net to connect with a David Krejci dish headed straight his way. 

The Panthers tied it a period later when the legend, Jaromir Jagr, buried a chance from the slot after his line had hemmed in the David Krejci line and Torey Krug/Adam McQuaid pairing for an extended shift in the Boston zone. It was goal No. 754 of Jagr’s brilliant NHL career as he continues to go strong for the Panthers, and it also tied the game 1-1. 

The Bruins looked like they might haven the lead for good on David Pastrnak’s 14th goal of the season, but it wasn’t mean to be. Pastrnak started it all by protecting a puck and retaining possession from his knees in the corner of the offensive zone. Eventually Patrice Bergeron fired a puck wide of the net, and Brad Marchand unleashed a spinning, no-look pass to a waiting Pastrnak for the easy score past Roberto Luongo. 

The Panthers tied it a second time in the third period when Reilly Smith stripped a puck from Patrice Bergeron going up the center of the ice, and eventually it found its way to Aleksander Barkov for a ripped shot from long distance for his fourth goal of the season. 

Then Florida tied it again in the final minutes of the third on a Jason Demers rebound bid after Mike Matheson’s shot went wide of the net and took a wild carom off the end boards in the exact opposite direction. 

Halftime stars, studs and duds: Celtics struggling with three-pointers

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Halftime stars, studs and duds: Celtics struggling with three-pointers

You knew the 3-point shots were going to be flying all game long when the Boston Celtics and Houston Rockets tipped off Monday night. 
 
Now whether they would go in, that’s another matter entirely. 
 
Boston’s struggles with knocking down the long ball played a pivotal role in them going into the half trailing the Houston Rockets, 58-48.
 
Houston, the NBA’s leader in three-pointers made (14.0) and taken (37.0), were 8-for-21 in the first half on 3s while the Celtics were a not-so-impressive 5-for-18.
 
Despite the shooting struggles, Boston managed to lead 37-36 after a driving lay-up by Jaylen Brown. 
 
But the Rockets had too much firepower and when they weren’t knocking down shots, they were getting to the free throw line where there 18-for-20 compared to Boston which was just 1-for-2.
Here are the first half Stars, Studs and Duds from Monday’s game. 

 

STARS
 
James Harden

The MVP candidate was bringing it all areas, scoring 21 points to go with seven assists. But he was far from perfect, evident by his six turnovers. 
 
Isaiah Thomas

He led the Celtics with 11 points, but looks to be growing frustrated with the lack of calls going the Celtics’ way. Near the end of the second quarter, Thomas was grimacing while holding his right groin. But it didn’t appear to be too big a deal as he hit a 3-pointer just moments later. But it’s worth keeping an eye on in the second half. 
 

STUDS
 
Jaylen Brown

He gave Boston a surprisingly strong lift off the Celtics bench. At the half, he had seven points which included a lay-up that put Boston ahead 37-36.

Trevor Ariza

He doesn’t get a ton of attention, but Ariza’s play has been one of the keys to Houston’s success this season. At the half he had 10 points and six rebounds.

 

DUDS
 
Jonas Jerebko

He got the start tonight, but looks nothing like the high-energy, impact player he has been of late while coming off the bench. He was scoreless in the first half while missing all three of his shot attempts.