BOSTON – Mike Miller(notes) busted through the doors of the visiting locker room and turned right to walk to the Miami Heat bus when his old coach cropped up in the corridor. Together, they raised hands into the air and waved goodbye late Sunday afternoon. Miller stopped, smiled and bellowed a warning to Doc Rivers.
“Don’t leave me open like that next time,” Miller barked.
Rivers laughed, promised it wouldn’t happen again, and no one could’ve believed the Boston Celtics coach. It will happen again. And again. And again. When the game’s in the balance for the Miami Heat, the ball’s in the air, and LeBron James(notes) and Dwyane Wade(notes) are mere spectators to its flight, the Celtics will live with the consequences.
The Celtics are still waiting for James and Wade to rise up and unleash the fury on them that’s overpowered the rest of the league. They’re still waiting for James and Wade and Chris Bosh(notes) – the three stars flexing and preening on that smoky July party platform in Miami – to trundle down off the stage and wrest away the Eastern Conference championship.
Forget all this back-peddling Miami talk about Boston as a big brother, about themselves as some kind of neophytes trying to overcome the Celtics like Michael Jordan did the Detroit Pistons. Forget it all. The Heat need to be accountable for their expectations, for their mandate: Win now and win it all.
All alone, Miller had forever to set and prepare himself for a 3-pointer that bounced away in the final seconds of the Celtics’ 85-82 victory. Out of the congestion, James made the proper pass to Miller, but it wouldn’t negate his failure to make one of his two free throws with the Heat trailing 83-81 with 12.5 seconds left.
“Some of those go in, and some don’t,” James said. “I’ve been in the same position a few times this year and made both.” This isn’t the rest of the NBA. This is Boston, and no one is going to look to Mike Miller when the Heat lose to the Celtics. The blame goes to LeBron, because that’s where all the fawning and praise go, too.
When he fails in the final minutes against the Celtics again, the King has to come much stronger in his self-condemnation. He doesn’t get a start-over against the Celtics with the Heat, the way he wants one afforded him. All his Cleveland demons come rollicking down to Miami with him, and there’s nothing about the Celtics’ size, strength or depth that stopped him from delivering those two free throws.
Wade was sluggish for the third time against the Celtics, and so much of that has to do with the way Ray Allen(notes) makes him chase and chase and chase on defense. It wears Wade out, drains his legs and leaves his shot wayward.
“I have the same feeling right now as I had when I was in my third and fourth year and we played Detroit,” James said. “Regular season and playoffs, we just couldn’t get over the hump.”
Said Wade: “Everyone has been through it. M.J. went through it with the Pistons back in the day. …This is classic, typical bigger brothers.”
What a complete cop-out. Here’s the difference: Jordan never hopped around on a smoky summer stage, flexed, preened and proclaimed the Bulls prepared to win multiple NBA championships.
James is a two-time MVP and Wade is an NBA Finals champion and MVP. Bosh is a perennial All-Star. These aren’t kids on the rise, but a franchise thrown together with a mandate to win titles immediately. They’re backing away now because they thought it would be a lot easier and have discovered differently.
Three meetings with the Celtics, three losses so far. The Heat had come so far from the two games in the first two weeks of the season, and now they had the Celtics where they wanted them: Depleted with injuries, wounded with a loss to the Los Angeles Lakers, and still the Celtics refused to let the Heat get fast and furious in transition. They made the Heat grind, made them feel the blunt force of Kendrick Perkins(notes) and Big Baby Davis on the frontline. Kevin Garnett(notes) still made the big shots, big stops, and these Heat are still full of excuses on why they haven’t beat Boston.
What’s worse for the Heat, they couldn’t beat Boston with the Celtics missing several top bench players, without an injured Paul Pierce(notes) making a basket. Eventually, Shaquille O’Neal(notes), Delonte West(notes), Jermaine O’Neal(notes) and Marquis Daniels(notes) will be back on the floor. To hear Miami coach Eric Spoelstra say he was impressed how they almost won despite the Heat playing so poorly was surprising. The Celtics will never look so vulnerable to the Heat, and yet they still found a way to beat them again.
Funny, but the Heat didn’t start talking about the process of overtaking Boston until they couldn’t overtake Boston. They believed it would be easy and discovered the truth to be something else. Rajon Rondo(notes) remains a nightmare for the Heat. He disrupts them in every way, with the ball, with his hands, with his cunning, devious basketball psyche. When the Celtics were so listless on the way to the locker room at halftime, Rondo made some suggestions about speeding things up and Rivers told him: “You can’t worry about the other guys now. We have to follow your energy.”
Out of the locker room, Rondo tried something so unconventional, so startling that it resonated in a resounding way with his teammates. Whoever takes the ball up the floor, I’m going after them, Rondo told his coach. It turned out to be James, and Rondo shadowed him step for step, end to end on his way to an 11-point, 10-assist and 10-rebound triple-double.
The Celtics blew out the Heat in the third quarter – outscoring them by 17 – and Rondo’s teammates were mesmerized watching a 6-foot-1, 170-pound guard bodying up and disrupting James.
“I’ve never seen anybody make LeBron turn his back to the basket,” Perkins said. “He really didn’t want to put [the ball] on the ground around him. When he picked him up, the energy just picked up.”
So much so, Rivers resisted pulling Rondo away from James when it began to work against the Celtics. “We can’t do this!” Lawrence Frank, the Celtics’ defensive coordinator, blurted to his boss on the bench.
“You’re right,” Rivers said, “but we’re going to keep doing it.”
As Rivers would say later, “The matchup made no sense, hurt us a couple of times. …[But] the thing that I saw is that it gave us life.”
Rondo dropped a triple-double on the Heat, and they’re still confounded on how to slow him. Once again, Boston exposed Miami’s two profound deficiencies: point guard and the power game. Most of all, the Heat will have to prove themselves willing to stand up to the Celtics’ bullying. From Garnett to Perkins to Davis – and beyond – these Celtics have a penchant for physicality bordering on the unruly.
After Zydrunas Illgauskas flattened Rondo on a screen, Garnett leveled Miller even harder. This inspired Wade to respond with a flagrant foul on K.G., and the Celtics would win that skirmish with two free throws and the ball. The Celtics and Heat were destined for sheer loathing this season and they’ve rapidly hurtled toward hatred. With the resentment these Heat have created for themselves, and with the dour disposition of these crotchety, old Celtics, it was only a matter of time.
So, yes, Doc Rivers had to laugh outside the Celtics’ locker room Sunday afternoon. Now, he gets to go to Los Angeles and coach the Eastern Conference All-Stars, where the Celtics and Heat will combine for seven roster spots. He’s thinking about Garnett and Rondo, Pierce and Allen in this element, and he knows this won’t be a most pleasant weekend under his watch.
“Our guys are old-school in that they don’t like spending time with other people besides our team,” Rivers told Yahoo! Sports. “I find that in All-Star games, guys let their guard down a little, but K.G. and Rondo&hellip” He laughed for a moment, and carefully chose his words. “Well, the other two [Allen and Pierce] can be a little more social.
“It’s awkward. You almost don’t want them to get together with [the Heat] too much out there. But players have a way of hugging and hating.”
The pleasantries and phoniness are long gone out of this burgeoning blood war, and there’s just this unmistakable mandate for the Heat on the way into the All-Star break, on the way toward an inevitable Eastern Conference playoff showdown: Sooner or later, they’ll need to stop flexing and fronting, come down off that stage and beat the Celtics on the basketball court.