A true test on South Beach

A true test on South Beach
April 10, 2012, 3:25 pm
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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