By Rich Levine
MIAMI With all that the Celtics have gone through over the past four years, the city of Bostons far beyond overreacting to one bad loss. But that doesnt take away from the fact that Sundays 99-90 defeat in Miami was especially bad.
The Cs may have crawled back within single digits before the final buzzer, but the game itself was never really in question. The Heat took control from the opening tip, executed their game plan almost at will, and exposed the Celtics in ways we all feared they were capable of.
LeBron James and Dwyane Wade dominated the action and dictated the tempo, and in the process raised the game of some of their less-talented teammates (I said "some," Mr. Bosh). When the benches were injected into the mix, the Celtics still couldnt keep up.
For 48 minutes, the speed and athleticism thats become the calling card of this Heat team far surpassed the grit, guile and wisdom of the Celtics. In fact, if you were watching the two teams for the first time, youd have sworn it was Miami that had played together for so long, experienced so much and was so impervious to the insanity of playoff basketball. The toughness? That edge the Celtics have always held in the postseason? For one night, it was gone. In Miamis possession. They were the enforcers. They were the Celtics and the Heat at the same time.
Throw in the fact that Rajon Rondo and Kevin Garnett never really showed up, and Paul Pierce only did so sporadically before being tossed, and the Celtics never had a shot. At the end of the day, it was nine points, but it was so much more.
But then again, it was only one game. For all that happened, and all the bad vibes that came flowing out of South Beach, the Celtics are only down 1-0. Its the same place they were exactly one year ago today, the morning after dropping an eight-point decision in Cleveland in Game 1 of their second-round series with the Cavs. We all know how that worked out, so for that reason, and many, many others, no one will write the Celtics off after their most recent Game 1 debacle. To do so would be an insult to all this team has accomplished, and an oversight of all that Miami hasnt. Maybe you cant sit here and say with confidence that the Celtics will come out like gangbusters on Tuesday, but you cant rule out the possibility. For the optimist, thats still the expectation, but even the pessimist has to leave the window open. After all, these are the Celtics. Theyve made us look like fools before.
But before looking forward to Tuesday, its probably worth taking a quick look back. Not too far, either. Just to the Knicks series.
Im not sure anyone ever completely grasped what went on there, or was entirely sure what to take from it. On one hand, it was a sweep; the only sweep of the first round. What more could you ask for, right?
But there was also a weird sense of uncertainty that lingered from that series. The underlying feeling that even in winning four straight, the Celtics never looked completely in sync.
That they were unbelievably close to dropping Game 1, before Doc Rivers and Ray Allen barely saved the day. That they were unbelievably close to dropping Game 2, despite the Knicks playing without two of the three proven players on their roster. Game 3 was impressive, definitely the most promising of the four, but in that last game, against a team that had nothing left to play for, the Celtics still gave you plenty of reasons to scratch your head. They won four games, but who they beat and how they did it was never entirely satisfying. Of course, you could never complain. You dont complain about a sweep. Thats be like bitching about a few hours of rain on your vacation. Sure, its not ideal, but you still spent the day getting drunk under a cabana instead of sitting at your desk playing Angry Birds. Its still great.
But even if we werent complaining, we were certainly allowed to question how much, if anything, those wins meant to the big picture; if the Celtics were, in fact, that much better than they were at the end of the season. And Sundays loss to the Heat didnt do much to answer those questionsor at least not in the way you wanted.
Of course, I still picked the Celtics to win this series in seven. I did, and still do think that they have what it takes to get to Chicago, but no one can ignore the fact that if you take away those four whatever-they-were wins against the Knicks, the Celtics we saw on Sunday looked a hell of a lot like the team we saw lose the last time they were in Miami. Back when everything was a mess, every loss meant the end of the world, and we were convinced that, even at their best, Boston no longer had the firepower to contend with the healthier, stronger and more dynamic Heat.
Again, maybe that was just for one night.
Or in this case, now two.