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

Amir Johnson a game-time decision for Game 4 with shoulder injury

Amir Johnson a game-time decision for Game 4 with shoulder injury


CLEVELAND – Brad Stevens won’t know until shortly before tip-off tonight if he will have to make another lineup change.
 
Amir Johnson, whose right shoulder was injured in the Celtics' 111-108 Game 3 win on Sunday, is questionable for tonight’s Game 4.
 
“It’s better for sure,” Johnson told CSN this morning. “Yesterday, it was hard to lift. Today, I can move it all around. In shoot-around, I’m going to get a couple shots, see how it feels and go from there.
 
He added, “it’s definitely going to be a game-time decision. I’m going to go and shoot around, just to get a feel. And then for the game-time, I’ll shoot around some more, see how it feels and take it from there.”
 
Healthy or not, Johnson being with the starting group is far from a given.
 
The 6-foot-9 veteran has consistently been the first starter subbed out and usually winds up playing the fewest minutes.
 
In Game 3, two of his backups – Kelly Olynyk (15 points) and Jonas Jerebko (10 points) – shined brightly.
 
Here are some other highlights from the Celtics’ morning shoot-around.
 
THOMAS UPDATE: Isaiah Thomas met with a hip specialist on Monday, according to Stevens. “Still collecting information,” said Stevens, adding, “We’ll wait and see or we’ll discuss second, and third, and fourth, and fifth opinions.”

Thomas injured his right hip March 15 and later re-aggravated it in the first half of the Game 2 loss Friday. Less than 24 hours later, he was deemed out for the remainder of the playoffs.
 
He was replaced by Marcus Smart in the starting lineup and Smart responded with a career-high 27 points in Game 3, which included seven made 3’s which is a career-best mark as well.
 
BOUNCE-BACK CELTICS: The Celtics winning Game 3 sent shockwaves throughout the league, especially coming on the heels of a 44-point home court drubbing at the hands of the Cavs. “If you’re in sports long enough you’re going to have clunkers,” Stevens said. “You’re going to have games that don’t go your way. And our guys took seriously the idea of responding and just playing the next possession as well as they could.”
 
ROZIER HOMECOMING: The second-year guard grew up in nearby Youngstown, Ohio (75 miles southeast of Cleveland), so you can expect he’ll have a decent contingent of fans at tonight's game.
 
While he’s all-in for the Celtics, the same is not true of his friends and some family members.
 
“My family does a good job of staying on my side except for my one younger cousin,” Rozier said. “She loves LeBron.”