MIAMI — The only thing that was determined Tuesday night at AmericanAirlines Arena was that the Heat are a better team than the Celtics in October. That means little besides bragging rights for Ray Allen.
Allen got the best of his former teammates with 19 smooth points in 31 minutes as Miami led nearly the entire way and beat the Celtics, 120-107. But in the long run, the result may be exactly what Boston needs to understand the rigors of not only returning to prominence but of beating the Heat.
Miami is considerably better than it was last season, according to early projections. The addition of Allen and Rashard Lewis gives the Heat bench two experienced scorers who have been front-line players with other clubs. Even when LeBron James was saddled with leg cramps and limited to just 2:59 in the fourth quarter, the Heat relied on Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, and 7 combined points from Allen and Lewis.
It’s apparent that the newest Celtics will require time to understand the intensity of the Heat-Celtics rivalry. Courtney Lee was subpar in his debut, scoring 11 points but with five fouls (mostly touch fouls) and just one assist in 24 minutes. Jeff Green looked stellar in the preseason but he missed all four of his shot attempts and finished with 3 points in 23 minutes.
The one Celtic who shockingly stepped to the forefront was Leandro Barbosa, who produced 16 points in 16 minutes and was the primary reason the game wasn’t over after three quarters. The Celtics simply faced a team with more cohesion and better chemistry.
The Celtics can practice 100 times and hold 50 feel-good open practices for season ticket-holders, but chemistry is gained slowly in the NBA. Jason Terry was obviously pressing in his first game with Boston, looking to his matchup with Allen as a personal duel, trying to prove president of basketball operations Danny Ainge made the right decision by calling him at midnight the first day of free agency instead of Allen.
It resulted in three missed 3-pointers and three turnovers in 25 minutes. Perhaps matching a team with so many newcomers against the defending champions was unfair, but the Celtics now know they are nowhere close to Miami’s level and nowhere close to where they plan to be in April.
“I thought [the Heat] were the aggressor all game,” Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. “I thought they got on the floor where they wanted to get on the floor. I thought they took us out of stuff they wanted to. You could see that they’ve played together a little longer than us. I thought their continuity offensively was better. We made plays offensively but it wasn’t good offense.”
Rivers was correct. The Celtics were able to score 107 points because they are talented and have playmakers, but those points weren’t a result of a fluid offense. And defensively, the Celtics were putrid most of the night and it began immediately when Shane Battier, who was critical to the Heat’s title run because of his outside shooting prowess, canned two open 3-pointers in the first 3:23.
On another first-half play, Wade saw the Celtics lumbering down the court on defense and simply raced past them for an uncontested alley-oop. Later in the half, James raced his way to the basket and Kevin Garnett and Brandon Bass both looked at each other with a “You take the charge” expression, and James hammered down a two-handed dunk.
Maybe those type of embarrassing moments will encourage the Celtics to work more feverishly on cohesion and teamwork, and there does need to be a level of patience from the faithful because catching Miami is not a quick process.
“I think you still see us in progress, we’re a building team,” Garnett said. “They’ve been together. You see the continuity or whatever. Ray came in and played really well.
“We didn’t expect to come out and play perfect but we expected to come out and play better than what we did, but we’ll get better.
“Some of our defensive strategies are kind of all over the place. We just want to get some things down, consistent with what we do and incorporate everybody in what we’ve been doing. Preseason, we did that and now we’ve got to carry it over to the regular season.”
The Celtics have Wednesday off but will get back to work Thursday in preparation for their next challenge, a back-to-back with Milwaukee Friday and Washington Saturday.
Each season brings a series of small challenges, quizzes that can determine where a team finishes in April. It’s not that the Celtics failed their opening quiz, but they can’t be proud of the C-minus they produced Tuesday night.
They should be disappointed, but also encouraged.
“If we would have won we would have felt the same way [disappointed],” Rivers said. “If we would have come back and stole the game, there’s no way I would have gone in [and felt happy]. You can clearly see they’re ahead of us in continuity and all that. They should be. They’ve played together. We have a lot of work to do.
“We should still win games. It’s going to take time. I said that before the season. But I don’t think take time and lose games. I mean take time, win games, win them ugly at times.”