CELTICS 98, HEAT 75
Off and running
New-look Celtics blast Heat in season opener
The Danny Ainge Era, the second coming of uptempo Boston basketball, officially arrived at the FleetCenter last night. The Celtics' season opener against the Heat had the type of big-event feel customary at unveilings. After an exhibition season remembered most for the trade that sent Antoine Walker to Dallas Oct. 20, there was an understandable curiosity about the reconfigured Celtics.
Governor Mitt Romney was there to watch, sitting just behind Celtics patriarch Red Auerbach. John Havlicek attended, too. Season ticket-holders wanted to know if they would get their money's worth. No one was quite sure what coach Jim O'Brien and director of basketball operations Ainge had put together. But much to the enjoyment of the sellout crowd, there was plenty to appreciate about the Celtics' new style and new look as they ran and romped over the Heat, 98-75.
"We were ready to get the season started," said Mike James. "A lot of people counted us out after the trade. We're not really concerning ourselves with what other people have to say about us. We know what we have to do. We know what we have. And we're very happy with what we have."
The season started with many questions concerning players and team potential. How would Paul Pierce handle the pressure of being the sole captain and focal point of the offense? Pierce rarely forced shots, looked for his teammates, missed some time in the third quarter with cramping calves, and finished with 23 points (8 for 15), 7 rebounds, and 4 assists in 35 minutes. How would Vin Baker perform in a game that really mattered? The starting power forward received several standing ovations for his 15-point, 5-rebound performance on what he called "the most special night of my career." What about James as the starting point guard? Try 6 assists and 1 turnover.
But the biggest intrigue was the offense. How well would the Celtics play the fast-break/passing-game system? Pretty well, as it turned out. Miami was a tired team that was struggling through the second of back-to-back road games. O'Brien rotated a near constant supply of fresh legs. The Celtics finished with 28 assists and just 10 turnovers. When they pulled away in the third quarter, all 12 field goals came on assists. They shot 50.7 percent. They scored 13 points on the break and 38 in the paint.
"We're finding when we're playing well offensively in practice, our defense finds it very difficult to stop our offense," said O'Brien. "So, we're getting the same type of looks that you saw [last night]. So, if you practice well, you practice hard and you practice unselfishly, it should carry over when the lights come on."
Boston broke the game open in the third quarter, turning a 10-point halftime lead (49-39) into a 20-point advantage (79-59) when Raef LaFrentz hit a 20-footer with 37.9 seconds remaining in the third. The basket capped a 14-1 Boston run, which started with a strong defensive unit of Eric Williams, Baker, James, Pierce, and LaFrentz. The Celtics made the most of their stops and open looks.
The Celtics finished with six players in double figures, including reserves Williams (15 points), Tony Battie (10 points, 7 rebounds) and LaFrentz (12 points). Six players in double digits was a rare and noteworthy accomplishment last season. It should be a regular occurrence this year. Defensively, the Celtics looked like their old selves, holding the Heat to 36.6 percent from the floor.
But there was a new wrinkle in the middle. Entering the fourth quarter, the Celtics had more blocks (6) than turnovers (4). Also, they gave up just 2 points in the paint in the second half.
"That's all we do in practice, play defense," said Williams. "We're going to emphasize defense and that's what's going to help our team win. We've got scorers, but we built this on defense."
O'Brien sat his starters as the first quarter was winding down and at the start of the second. As a unit, the reserves extended the Celtics' lead to 8 points (25-17). Williams and Battie, starters last season, played as if they were campaigning for their old jobs. When the starters reentered the game with 9:25 left in the second, the advantage increased. An 11-3 run was capped by a pair of James free throws, giving the team its largest lead of the first half, 39-25, with 5:18 remaining in the second.
"Guys really came to play on opening night," said Pierce. "I kind of expected a lot of nervousness, with all the fresh faces in the lineup. But guys played like it was midseason."
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.