After their 99-90 loss to the Miami Heat in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals, those of us who picked the Boston Celtics to win this series and advance to the NBA's Final Four had a slew of explanations for why those picks still made sense, why the opening frame was more the rare exception than the expected rule.
"James Jones won't pop for 25 points off the Miami bench again" was a popular one. "Paul Pierce won't get himself ejected twice" was another, and a lot of people liked Rajon Rondo's chances of shaking off a dicey Game 1 to fulfill the pre-series expectations that he'd torch Miami's point guards every trip down the court.
Following Tuesday night's convincing 102-91 victory, though, explanations — rationalizations, really — are growing harder and harder to find.
Having traveled to South Beach in search of a split to seize home-court advantage, the Celtics instead return to Boston facing an 0-2 deficit for the first time since Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen teamed up, as ESPN Boston's Chris Forsberg noted. Danny Ainge united the three stars just four seasons back, but given the pace at which the NBA has evolved since they joined forces, it feels like it happened ages ago — which, as Dave Hyde wrote for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, is sort of Boston's problem in a nutshell right now:
One by one, they made Boston's stars grow old before us. [...]
Dwyane Wade made a magic move and —where'd he go? — Boston's Kevin Garnett was a lost child in the mall, turned completely around, as Wade blew by for a layup.
Wade then made another move, hitting the air brakes. Boston's Ray Allen couldn't stop. Allen fell to the ground, like a supplicant, watching Wade's three-point shot swish.
In Tuesday's 102-91 Heat win, the Heat's Big Three played Boston's Big Three like youth plays age. It was that simple.
For the Celtics, identifying solutions looks to be anything but.
Time and again, Miami's two signature stars displayed their physical advantages in Game 2, leaving Boston looking nearly as overmatched and outgunned as they made the New York Knicks look in their first-round sweep.
Whether it was a white-hot Dwyane Wade unveiling an evil Euro step on a backpedaling Garnett (the "lost child in the mall" play Hyde referenced) ...
... or dropping Allen to the deck with a sudden now-you-see-me-now-you-don't crossover in the closing seconds of the first half ...
... or LeBron James barreling down the court on a late-third-quarter fast break, sending all 6-foot-9 and 270 pounds (or thereabouts) careening into Rondo — who bravely but kind of insanely and, in the end, fruitlessly attempted to draw a charge on a Mack truck with its brake lines cut and was left wrecked by the collision — and spinning free for a momentum-shifting dunk ...
... or James ending matters with a final-minute block on Garnett that The Score's Bomani Jones perfectly described as "a reminder [that] KG was drafted the summer before I went to 11th grade" ...
... the Heat had answers for everything Boston could do, and they had them all night long.
While the game on the scoreboard was nip-and-tuck for the lion's share of the 48 minutes, it oddly almost never seemed that close on the floor. The James block on KG punctuated the victory, sure, but it was less a sudden, violent exclamation point than a bold period closing an emphatic, declarative sentence.
The stuff that's not easily captured in highlights bears out the dominance, too.
In each of the series' first two games, the Heat put up offensive efficiency numbers that would have comfortably led the NBA this season (111.2 points per 100 possessions in Game 1 and a blistering 117.2-per-100 in Game 2) while holding the Celtics to league-average-or-below performances on the other end (101-per-100 and 104.6-per-100 for Boston, although it should be noted that the C's were slightly below average in terms of offensive efficiency this year anyway). Keyed by its stellar wings taking advantage of their quickness and strength advantages over Boston's perimeter defenders, Miami is attacking the rim and getting to the foul line, racking up 68 free-throw attempts in two games and hitting 53 of them.
On the other end, the Celtics — whose half-court offense depends so much on sharp movement of ball and man, well-timed screens and precise execution to create windows for open shots — are swinging the ball in search of seams, but are instead finding hard-rotating Heat defenders closing the distance and cutting off angles for penetration. That leads to an awful lot of well-contested, late-in-the-clock jumpers, which means fewer trips to the foul line; Boston took just 40 freebies (hitting 31) in Games 1 and 2 combined. (As SB Nation's Tom Ziller notes this morning, this free-throw disparity was to be expected, and should not — repeat: NOT — be seen as indicative of referee bias against the Celtics.)
As for the stuff that Boston backers held onto after Game 1:
• Well, Jones was scoreless off the bench in Game 2, so, right on there. But when Wade turns in another excellent performance (28 points on 20 shots, eight rebounds, three assists, +11) at the same time that both James (35 points on 25 shots, seven rebounds, two assists, no turnovers, +10) and Chris Bosh (17 points on 10 shots, 11 rebounds, four assists, two blocks, +11) step their respective games up, Miami's bench doesn't need to score. They just need to space the floor, get in the Celtics' chests defensively and kind of, y'know, eat minutes.
• Pierce didn't get himself ejected, so, right again. He was, however, fairly quiet, scoring just 13 points and looking a bit the worse for wear after suffering an injury that the team later announced was a strain of his right Achilles tendon. Pierce called himself day-to-day after the game.
• Rondo did play better in Game 2, scoring 20 points on 16 shots (missing nine, though), dishing out 12 assists and grabbing six rebounds. He's still not torching Heat point guards, though — his scoring numbers are down a bit against Mike Bibby, while his field-goal, distribution and fouling numbers are off-line against Mario Chalmers, according to NBA.com's handy StatsCube.
The setting shifts to Boston for Game 3 on Saturday night, but that can't make Celtics fans feel too bullish as they search for answers this morning — if, indeed, there are any answers to be found at all. From Paul Flannery at WEEI.com:
"It is what it is and we have to deal with it," Kevin Garnett said. "We need to go protect our homecourt. Period. There isn't much to talk about. It's do or die."
Unfortunately from the Celtics perspective, Garnett is right. There isn't a lot to talk about. This isn't about making adjustments. It's not about subtle tweaks or design flaws. This is about a team that has been taken out of its game offensively and has to deal with two stars in the prime of their careers playing almost flawless basketball with a cast of role players understanding and executing their role.
If the Celtics can't get back into an offensive groove and jar James and Wade out of theirs on Saturday, Boston fans everywhere could find themselves wearing the same face that Celtics General Manager Danny Ainge wore in the closing minute of Game 2 (courtesy of mad genius Timothy Burke at Mocksession.com):
Not an attractive proposition, is it?
International readers ("Int'l read'rs"): If the clips above aren't rocking for you, you can find them elsewhere thanks to Ben Golliver.