MIAMI – They were untangling themselves late in the fourth quarter, eyes staring into eyes, and the derisive words started to spit out of Kevin Garnett's mouth. LeBron James has heard it a hundred times and listened for a moment. Only now, his lips creased, his mouth stretched into a smile, and the NBA's Most Valuable Player began roaring with laughter.
"HAHAHAHA," James blurted, reducing Garnett to the kind of bluster that sounds hollow when you're on the wrong end of the scoreboard. One more devastating James drive to the basket on Boston, one more James trip to the free-throw line, and there was nothing that could come out of Garnett's notoriously nasty mouth to leave him with the last word – never mind the last laugh.
Near the end of the Miami Heat's 93-79 victory in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals, perhaps Garnett was delivering a message to the rest of the Celtics: Between now and Game 2 on Wednesday, get your mind around the fact that James, Dwyane Wade and these Heat need to find Celtics challenging them everywhere on the floor. Somehow, the Celtics must instill some apprehension within these Heat stars, because it doesn't exist now. They come and go as they please, granting themselves permission.
Outside his locker late Monday, someone asked Garnett: Had the Heat been "showboating" at the end of Game 1?
"A little bit, a little bit," Garnett grumbled. "They're comfortable, and when you're comfortable, you do things like that."
Too comfortable is code for: No one laid a body on James and Wade, no one made them think twice about driving the ball right through our manhood. Miami was relentless chasing down every loose ball, destroying Boston on the boards, and treating Celtics drives to the rim with downright disdain: Blocking them into the next yard, or slapping shots backward to start a fast break, and an inevitable Heat chin-up on the rim.
Rajon Rondo seethed, and said simply: "Nothing dirty, but they have to hit the deck too."
The Celtics are desperately searching for solutions, and this series will be over fast unless they find them. For Boston, the issues are easy to identify, but far more troublesome to solve. Everywhere James and Wade wanted to go, they dribbled, passed or posted there. They drove the ball into the heart of Boston's defense, and found it beyond bendable – even benevolent.
Boston hung around for a half, controlling the tempo, living on Garnett and borrowed time. Eventually, this would be one of those playoffs nights when the Celtics were unable to take away anything, unable to impose any semblance of will upon Miami.
James didn't destroy the Celtics with his 32 points and 13 rebounds, but with three of the Heat's 11 blocked shots, a dispiriting march to the rim that resulted with rejection upon rejection. Rondo met resistance several times, and Paul Pierce found his drives snuffed over and over. Eleven blocks, and they say these Heat have no rim protection, no inside fortification without Chris Bosh. Eleven blocks, and they seemed to come out of nowhere, speed and quickness and savvy closing down the gaps on Boston.
"Momentum-changing plays, especially when a guy feels like he has a good lane to the rim and someone comes over and gets a block," James said.
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Where do the Celtics turn for scoring after they shoot 39 percent, and miss 10 of 21 free throws, and get destroyed on the boards? Ray Allen's damaged ankle has left him a shell of himself. He has no lift on his 3-point attempts, the shots low, flat and constantly clanking off the rim. He missed six of seven overall shots, and worse, four of seven free throws. Bad enough, but a career 90 percent free-throw shooter is in the low 60's in these playoffs. He was so flustered with those misses at halftime, he left the locker room with nine minutes on the clock to return to the floor to practice them.
"It's like a battle within myself that I have to try and win," Allen said.
This is why the Heat don't need to rush Bosh back to the lineup, because the Celtics are mostly fighting their own advancing age, and fleeting championship mortality. In so many ways, the Heat had reduced the Celtics to fighting themselves, including a series of mostly needless technical fouls. Allen earned one for his mouth, Rondo for a shove, and Rivers, well, he yelled, "Come on, Eddie," to the fragile referee Ed Molloy.
"I don't know how long I've been in the league, but that has to rank as the worst I've ever had," Rivers said. "I would have loved to earn it."
When the league office gets done with Rivers on Wednesday, he'll have earned a fine for telling the truth about one of commissioner David Stern's referees.
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Perhaps Boston still had a misplaced sense of security over the way that it had largely dominated Miami in the regular season, but truth clobbered them on Monday night. James and Wade are on a playoff tear for the ages, and resistance sure seemed futile for Boston.
Yes, Garnett insisted, these Heat are too comfortable. Rondo translated those polite words into this: "They have to hit the deck." Boston sees the problems and Rivers can lay out the solutions, but this isn't the heyday of Garnett, Pierce and Allen. Boston is no longer a monolith, but a proud, defiant fading champion fighting off the hardest opponent in these Heat: Younger, stronger and better.
Once, Garnett could get into James' face and tell him that he couldn't get past the Celtics, that the Celtics would never lose to his one-man Cavaliers show. For the longest time it was true. Now, James has the benefit of Wade, a 2011 series victory over Boston and the understanding he has a chance to deliver the Boston Celtics straight out of their twilight and into darkness.
James stood in the middle of American Airlines Arena late on Monday night and laughed and laughed and laughed. For all of Kevin Garnett's cutting words, James understood the truth: It's one thing for these old, beaten-down Celtics to talk tough about stopping the MVP, and another to see them do it. Yes, LeBron James laughed loudest and longest in Game 1, and perhaps it's just a matter of time until he laughs last too.
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