Celtics show off muscle at beach
They make statement by handling the Heat
MIAMI - The Celtics not only needed to prove to the basketball public, but perhaps themselves, that their recent stretch of impressive play was good enough to compete with the NBA’s elite. Last Thursday in Chicago, they had nothing to show their audience in a demoralizing loss to the Derrick Rose-less Bulls.
Tuesday at AmericanAirlines Arena, they displayed much improvement. Facing a Heat team promising to atone for a 19-point beating April 1 at TD Garden, the Celtics countered every Miami run with a damaging one of their own, finally quieting LeBron James and his mates in a confidence-boosting 115-107 victory.
While moving Avery Bradley into the starting lineup has sparked the Celtics, the rejuvenated Kevin Garnett has been just as critical to their recent success. With Boston holding a precarious 5-point lead with nine minutes left, and the announced sellout crowd screaming for the Heat to go on a run, Garnett (11-of-14 shooting, 24 points) looked vintage, delivering four consecutive midrange jumpers as he torched counterpart Chris Bosh.
The 8-point surge gave the Celtics an 11-point lead and Garnett landed a finishing blow with another turnaround jumper with two minutes left for a 110-103 lead. The Celtics shot a blistering 60.6 percent, more than 5 points higher than the previous high against the Heat, who are fifth in the league in percentage allowed.
A team that has struggled scoring all season suddenly couldn’t miss. A team that was considered too old and out of condition to compete in the Eastern Conference is suddenly trending again.
“We were efficient,’’ Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. “I told them to take what they give you. They are a great defensive team and will overload at times. Our guys just stood, waited, and made those shots. They just kept throwing punches at us. We withstood them and kept moving forward. I thought that was important for our team.’’
The second half was especially telling. Although both teams scored 50 points, the Celtics held the combination of James and Dwyane Wade to 7 for 23 shooting, forcing James into a one-man offensive mode. Wade, meanwhile, grew frustrated with the officiating. In one sequence, he stopped as the Celtics began a three-on-two fast break to argue a noncall with official David Jones.
And with 5:18 left in the game, Wade drew a technical from Jones for arguing his foul call on Rajon Rondo. He missed eight of 10 shots after halftime and is now 15 for 38 shooting in the past two games against the Celtics. And suddenly, the Heat are viewing the Celtics’ differently than they did a few weeks ago.
“We left Boston [on April 1] feeling awful [about] our performance,’’ James said. “I don’t feel as bad tonight. Those guys are locked in. Not only did they make open shots, they made all the contested shots. They are the best jump-shooting team in the league. We felt like we played well tonight. We did not defend like we know we are capable of. When we broke down, they made us pay.’’
The Celtics have beaten the Heat the past two weeks in two distinct games. Miami was held to 34.8 percent shooting and three 3-pointers April 1. Tuesday, they made 44.8 percent of their shots and eight 3-pointers. They tested Boston’s defense and the Celtics responded by rebounding.
A Boston team that has been abysmal in that category most of the season competed in the first half, building a 65-57 lead as it outrebounded the Heat, 22-13. Rivers has asked his team to be more passionate about rebounding and interior defense, and that was critical to a mostly double-digit first-half lead.
“Really, you don’t want to get in these type of games when you scout them, you get into the pregame things, you don’t want to make this a track meet,’’ said Paul Pierce, who led the Celtics with 27 points. “I guess that’s exactly what it was and we showed we can go out there and put up over 100 points if we move the ball. The key was we rebounded and didn’t turn it over. We’re a great shooting team when we don’t do that and we know we can score points on anybody.’’
And Rondo aided that offensive effort. While he has mostly focused on distributing the ball in this impressive 18-game stretch of double-digit assists, he was more aggressive offensively, scoring 18 points to go along with 15 assists. His points were his most in 17 games, and he eagerly launched his midrange jumper when the Heat doubled Pierce or Ray Allen.
His contributions helped the Celtics eclipse their season-high shooting percentage for a second consecutive game. They converted 58.8 percent in Sunday’s 103-79 victory over the 76ers.
“We finally got all of our plays down,’’ Rondo said with a smile when asked about the offense. “It took a while but as long as we’re peaking at the right time. Our chemistry is growing each game, our confidence level each game [is growing]. We continue to learn out sets, we’ll be fine. Regardless of who it is, this is a good road win for us.’’