MIAMI -- Here is where we find out just what this Celtics team is really all about. In case there was any doubt – and there shouldn’t have been – the Heat will push them in a way they haven’t been pushed this year.
They had it relatively easy in the first round against the defensively-challenged Knicks, which covered up a handful of flaws, and when they didn’t play well they escaped with last-second victories. But against this Heat team? No way. Miami is younger, far more athletic and just as nasty defensively as the Celtics.
They have always known this series was part of their destiny this season and now that the Heat have thrown down the gauntlet, this is the test. They must play better in Game 2 or be forced to try to dig themselves out of a hole like the one they found themselves in after just 15 minutes of a 99-90 Game 1 loss that was either closer or further away than the final score indicated, depending on how you look at it. (Click here for a recap).
The Celtics did do some things well. They turned LeBron James into a jump shooter. Kevin Garnett made Chris Bosh disappear and they rebounded and took away second chance points. But they did far too many things poorly and against a team like the Heat the margin for error is far too thin to have these kind of lapses.
All week long the Celtics talked about not giving up turnovers that led to easy baskets and in the first half they had seven that led to 14 Miami points. They talked about not letting role players like James Jones do what they do well and they allowed Jones to score 25 points on just seven shots.
“When we turned the ball over they turned it into fast break points,” Garnett said. “They got to the free throw line a hell of a lot more than we did. They came in hitting 3’s, that doesn’t help anything.”
Dwyane Wade was fantastic scoring 38 points, but they can absorb that kind of game from one of Miami’s stars. It’s the other things that conspired to hand them this disappointing loss.
“When he makes them, he makes them,” Doc Rivers said. “That’s why he’s the second best player to ever come out of Marquette. Marcus Washington is number one.”
Rivers said they wouldn’t change a thing on Wade and while he wasn’t asked about it, he won’t change anything on James or Bosh either. If the Knicks were dangerous because of their stars, the Heat are more lethal because of their role players and their defense, although not in that order. The star quotient is expected.
“Nobody said it was going to be easy,” Jermaine O’Neal said. “Can we play better, a lot better? Absolutely. We feel like we didn’t play at the level we’re supposed to play.”
They started badly, with an offense that couldn’t get shots and didn’t make the ones they did have. They ended raggedly with Paul Pierce in the locker room thanks to an ejection that may have been questionable, but never would have been an issue in the first place if he hadn’t got in Jones’ face after a relatively harmless hard foul.
And in the middle, their second unit was once again ineffective after early foul trouble sent Rajon Rondo to the bench. It’s becoming clearer by the game that their bench can’t be expected to save them when they have a start like the one they had Sunday. As for the stretch run, it’s not as if Pierce’s early exit was the only problem they had closing the game.
“It was my fault,” Rondo said. “I turned the ball over in the last four or five minutes three times, maybe four. If I take care of the ball we might have had a chance to win. Take care of the ball in the beginning part of the game and the closing part of the game, we’ll be fine.”
Taking care of the ball and not letting a player like Jones go crazy is a good place to start, but there was still more and this is where we get into the character of this team. In a game that wasn’t physical so much as it was chippy, the Celtics were far too often the retaliators instead of the aggressors.
Like on the flagrant foul that was issued to O’Neal after he had an elbow for Jones. O’Neal had cut the lead to nine with a short jumper but after the free throws and a Mike Bibby 3-pointer, the Miami lead grew back to 14 points.
“What are we talking about, which part of the game?” O’Neal asked rhetorically. “Did you guys see the one that he threw before that they didn’t call?” He then added, “Should I keep my composure? Yeah.”
The Celtics pride themselves on being tough and physical. They force you into mistakes with their pressure and make you think twice about going to the basket. They’re the team that makes you to react to them, not the other way around. But it wasn’t that way in Game 1 and the Celtics reacted like a team that was surprised that someone would dare challenge them at their own game.
“You knew it was coming,” Doc Rivers said. “All they did was talk about being physical. To me that is not being physical. That is being chippy. We didn’t handle it well. That’s what’s disappointing to me. I thought both flagrants that were called, instead of walking away like you have to, we reacted. That’s exactly what they wanted us to do. We have to be better than that.”
The Celtics were tested like this one time last season. It was after Game 3 against Cleveland when the Cavaliers roared into Boston and beat them by 29 points. It’s probably not a coincidence that they had a long layoff before that game either. Less than 48 hours later, Rondo played the game of his life and sent them on an improbable journey to Game 7 of the NBA finals.
If this Celtics team is going to approach those heights they will have to get their act together quickly. Game 2 is less than 48 hours away and while no one expects this to be a short series, asking them to win four of five games may be asking too much. This is the test.