There's an emerging school of thought that the Boston Celtics — the ancient, past-their-prime, should've-blown-it-up-at-the-deadline Boston Celtics — could be a lying-in-the-weeds title contender in the coming playoffs. The Celtics, who host the Atlanta Hawks in Boston on Wednesday night in a matchup of surging squads fighting for top-of-the-conference playoff positioning, have won 18 of their last 25 games, thanks in large part to a smothering defense and a dynamic five-man unit featuring second-year guard Avery Bradley and offseason steal Brandon Bass. They've been excellent, but not flashy, as they've choked out the opposition en route to a three-game lead in the Atlantic Division.
On Tuesday night, though, it wasn't the Celtics' grind-it-out defense that took out the Miami Heat. It was offense — beautiful, precise, relentless offense, piloted by Rajon Rondo (15 assists to three turnovers, his 18th straight game with double-digit dimes and his 24th in the last 26 games) — that knocked Erik Spoelstra's squad on its collective backside in a 115-107 dousing that left Miami feeling like it just tried to drink from the firehose.
Clearly feeling very at home in their white kits as the Heat continued to rock the all-black-everything look in the AmericanAirlines Arena, the Celtics made 43 of the 71 shots they took on Tuesday night, an eye-popping 60.6 percent success rate that blew the doors off the Heat's fifth-ranked defense. They hit 9 of 14 attempts from beyond the 3-point line and 80 percent of their free throws (20 of 25), too. It was suffocating offense from the opening tip; Boston hung 33 on Miami in the first quarter and 65 by halftime.
Try as they might — and they did try, producing a scintillating 117.6 points per 100 possessions against that stingy Boston D — the Heat just couldn't close the gap. Every time they got within hailing distance, the C's — led by Paul Pierce (27 points on 16 shots, seven rebounds, two assists) and Kevin Garnett (24 points on 11-of-14 shooting, nine rebounds, two assists, two blocks) — answered with a jumper that found twine.
As you might expect based on the box-score stats, the C's advanced shooting numbers were similarly amazing. To wit:
• For the game, Boston managed a 70 percent True Shooting percentage, which accounts for a team's field goals, 3-point field goals and free throws. For some context, league average for team TS% is 52.7 percent this season, according to Hoopdata, with the Oklahoma City Thunder leading the league at 57 percent on the year.
• The Celtics posted a 66.9 percent Effective Field Goal percentage, which accounts for the fact that a 3-pointer is worth more than a 2-pointer, on Tuesday night — league-average eFG% is 48.7 percent, with the San Antonio Spurs leading the NBA at just over 52.2 percent.
• Boston put up a stunning 17-of-29 mark (58.7 percent) on shots taken from between 16 and 23 feet away from the basket. League average from that distance? More than 20 percent lower, at 38.1 percent, with OKC again atop the league with a 43.3 percent mark.
• Beyond that, it's not just that the Celtics were white-hot from one area on the floor; as CBSSports.com's Matt Moore ran down after the game, they were ludicrous from everywhere.
You can say it was an outlier. You can say it was an anomaly. You can try and say it was bad defense, but most of them were well-contested by Miami. The Celtics just made shots. But you can't say it wasn't effective ...
Here's where we say those things: It was an outlier and an anomaly.
It's not like Doc Rivers' team was a crummy middle-school team before or anything — Boston's among the league's top 10 in TS% (53.4 percent), eFG% (49.4 percent) and 17-23 mark (41 percent) for the season — but their shooting performance on Tuesday night was approaching-Dallas'-Game-4-against-the-Lakers good. Miami's defense was sloppy at times, as SI.com's Zach Lowe noted, but Garnett was unconscious in a way we've rarely seen him (6 of 7 from between 16 and 23 feet, double his 48 percent success rate on the year). That was especially true late in the fourth, when the Heat were gaining on the C's, and Garnett hit all five of his shots (all of which came from 15 feet and out) to keep Miami at arm's length.
That's awesome, and should be commended. It just shouldn't be relied upon.
On top of that, the C's won despite letting Miami take 30 shots at the rim on Tuesday, including 20 by the combination of LeBron James (who went 6 of 9) and Dwyane Wade (8 of 11). That's what Miami wants — to get its two best creators, penetrators and finishers a ton of looks right at the basket, and let the chips fall where they may. The Celtics got away with that Tuesday night, but it took a Herculean shooting effort to do it. Even for good jump-shooting teams, and the Celtics are that, that's just not a sustainable way to beat Miami. You can't play their game, let them charge you and try to counterpunch for a full series. Eventually, as they did against Boston in last year's playoffs, they're going to get you on the chin.
With that defense, Boston is still exceedingly dangerous in the postseason, especially with the Heat and Eastern Conference-leading Chicago Bulls looking vulnerable heading into the season's final two weeks, and especially if the Pierce-Rondo-Garnett-Bradley-Bass lineup keeps looking like a full-court meat grinder. But while the volatility throughout the Eastern Conference playoff bracket in this absurd lockout-shortened season means that just about anything can happen over the next couple of months, here's one thing that absolutely won't — Boston won't shoot like that consistently in the playoffs. (Hell, they might not shoot like that again in their dreams.)
As it's always been with this iteration of the Celtics, if they're going to make significant postseason noise, their defense is going to have to carry them. And as ESPN.com's Beckley Mason argued, if the Celtics' fate rests on their ability to knock down 60-plus percent of their long-range shots while the Heat make repeated runs to the rim over the course of seven games ... well, the Celtics' fate may be sealed, Tuesday night's result aside.