Celtics getting warmer, but they still fall to Heat
MIAMI -- Progress takes many forms. Last night at American Airlines Arena, it was a last-second 17-footer by Ricky Davis that skipped across the rim. Without the buzzer-beater, Boston failed to force overtime and came up short in its fourth-quarter comeback attempt against Miami, losing, 106-104.
But the defeated team was not the same one that has collapsed in the final period several times this season.
"I told them if we play like that most nights, we're going to win more than we lose," said coach Doc Rivers. "That's a hell of a basketball team we played. The part that I liked the best was we got down and there were no heads hanging like we've had in the past. The young group got us back in the game. I wouldn't have taken that bet before the game, but that's nice."
It took the insertion of the second unit, plus Jiri Welsch, at the start of the fourth quarter to remind the Celtics what team play looks like on offense. The reserves mounted a 9-0 run behind impressive passing. Delonte West found Tony Allen for a 19-footer to start the spurt. After Allen made good on a 3-point play, Welsch found a wide-open Davis on the weak side for a 22-footer that brought Boston within 3 (87-84). With 8:28 remaining, the Celtics made it a 1-point game (90-89) when Allen hit Davis for a 3-pointer.
With Damon Jones hitting 3-pointers with ease, Miami mounted a quick 8-0 run as Rivers gradually reinserted some of his starters. Allen and Davis remained on the floor for energy. The strategy worked to some extent as Boston trailed by just 4 points with less than two minutes remaining.
But Allen blew a chance to bring Boston closer when he sent a pass intended for Davis out of bounds. However, the game was far from over.
Paul Pierce closed the gap to 2 (105-103), hitting a pair of free throws with 1:05 to play. Wesley Person missed a 3-pointer with 11.3 seconds left, giving the Celtics a shot to tie the game.
Pierce drove to the basket, then went to the line for a pair of free throws with 5 seconds left. He missed the first, then made the second.
Boston put Christian Laettner on the line for a pair of free throws with 3.1 seconds remaining. Laettner missed the first, then made the second, giving the Celtics a glimmer of hope. Davis double-clutched, threw up his off-the-mark jumper, and Boston (4-8) left with another loss.
"I got a good look, but I just didn't get it off the way I wanted to," said Davis. "I didn't really get the shot I wanted, but it should have gone in anyway."
During the third, the Celtics couldn't make a shot, either. They went away from what worked so well in the first half and took a more individualized approach on offense. As a result, they struggled from the floor, shooting 22 percent (6 for 27). Boston's 60-59 halftime advantage turned into a 8-point deficit (85-77) entering the fourth.
The Heat opened the third with a 13-0 run that pushed the home team ahead, 72-60, with 8:03 left in the quarter. Miami led by as many as 13.
As expected, Dwyane Wade (25 points, nine assists) and Shaquille O'Neal (21 points on 9-for-9 shooting, 13 rebounds) showcased a perfect partnership, though it was far from a perfect game for the Heat.
"We have to pick it up a little more," said O'Neal. "It is about us. It is not about what anyone else is doing. We won the game, but we should have won it by 15 or 20 points. We did not get back on defense. The Boston Celtics had 33 fast-break points. The more mistakes we make, the closer these games will be.
"We cannot keep winning games like this."
Despite one of the best records in the NBA (10-5), coach Stan Van Gundy knew the Heat defense needed to improve dramatically despite recent strides.
Teams like Boston -- with its quickness on the perimeter, big men who can shoot, and heavy use of pick and rolls and drives -- present problems for Miami. Utilizing a variety of offensive weapons in the first half, the Celtics shot 54 percent and took the 60-59 lead into the break.
Van Gundy worried in particular about Boston's ability to stretch opposing defenses. In the second, power forward Raef LaFrentz proved Van Gundy's worst nightmare as he hit a pair of 3-pointers. Both shots from the arc produced ties that kept Miami from making runs. Before he went to work from the outside, LaFrentz converted a 3-point play with 4:48 left in the second, capping a 10-2 run and evening the score for the first time in the period. LaFrentz scored 11 of his 21 points in the second.
"I really see us taking baby steps right now," said Pierce. "Even though we're not winning these games, we're playing a lot of close games. I saw a lot of positive things."