Game One in the battle of Us vs. Me-Me-Me, Old School vs. New Day, Team vs. Stars, and Big Three vs. Big Three took place in Miami’s AmericanAirlines Arena on Sunday. At least that’s how it was billed during the six-month regular season that served as prelude to this Celtics-Heat playoff series.
From the moment LeBron James uttered the words “South Beach,” these two teams have been taking the measure of each other in anticipation of the inevitable showdown. They were the league’s marquee matchup on opening night, and the Celtics won three of their four meetings as the Heat engaged in their grand chemistry experiment.
The storyline saw a bit of a monkey wrench thrown into it when Boston GM Danny Ainge dealt starting center Kendrick Perkins to Oklahoma City in February, in exchange for center Nenad Krstic and forward Jeff Green, along with a first-round 2012 draft pick (the Thunder also received Nate Robinson). Perkins’ interior defense, rebounding, and warrior mentality were an important part of Boston’s three-year run that included one championship and one game-seven Finals loss.
Celtic Pride revolved around the fact that this team had never lost a playoff series when it had all five of its starters healthy and ready to play. Rajon Rondo was visibly furious when his closest friend on the team was sent packing. Boston was 41-14 before the deal, 15-12 after it.
Ainge made the deal with Miami in mind; he saw Green as a young and athletic pair of legs that could help give Paul Pierce a rest from his duties guarding LeBron on top of his heavy load on the offensive end. He also hoped that Krstic could combine with the over-the-hill O’Neal gang, Jermaine and Shaquille, to make up for the absence of Perkins inside. All of that assumed the Celtics could work the new players into their team’s rotation on the fly, with just a third of a season to do it before the playoffs began.
So much for Doc Rivers’s prized ubuntu, the spirit of collective success he’d worked to instill since the arrival of Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett.
As it turned out, Pierce needed no help from the bench in getting some rest. A pair of double-technicals within 58 seconds – an absurd overreaction by the game officials – sent him to the locker room with seven minutes to go in the fourth quarter. In all, the Celtics were called for three technicals, two defensive three-second violations, and the game’s only flagrant foul; Miami was whistled for the two technicals on the Pierce calls.
If a David Stern edict to crack down on physical play was Miami’s secret weapon, its biggest surprise was a season-high 25 points off the bench from James Jones. Jones made five of seven three-pointers, all from the right side, on assists from nearly everyone wearing a Heat uniform. He added ten points on free throws, to go along with Dwyane Wade’s 38 points and tremendous defensive effort on Ray Allen.
The Heat stood tough inside, contesting shot after shot as Rondo attacked the basket; five Miami players blocked shots in the game. The Celtics were just 13 of 32 on shots in the paint, negating their torrid 50% shooting from behind the arc. Allen and Pierce had 25 and 19 respectively, but Garnett was invisible on offense, shooting 3 of 9 from the floor with zero free throw attempts.
“I told you, first day of practice, if you think you’re going to beat them in an athletic contest, you’re kidding yourself,” Doc Rivers told his team during a second-half timeout.
Boston actually had more fast-break points than the Heat, 15-6, but was unable to overcome its deficiencies in the half-court game.
For one day, Miami got more from its bench, played stronger inside, and its biggest stars came up bigger. Remind me again: Which of these two represents team values?