Wow. Apart from offense, that game was everything an NBA fan could have hoped for. Playoff-level intensity from both the teams and the crowd, clutch execution by the Celts’ veterans, a couple of awe-inspiring sequences by LeBron, and even, against all odds, a tight last couple minutes. Here are some quick thoughts:
1. The Celtics Aren’t Going Anywhere
That’s not to say they’ll win the East again. The odds were stacked pretty strongly against that last year, and probably even moreso this year. But that defense looked every bit as stingy tonight as it has at any point in the Big 3 era. If they can stay relatively healthy, it’s hard to give any team a truly decisive edge over them in a 7-game series. Since teams won’t be able to blow them out or build big leads, they’ll have a fighting chance against anyone.
2. Dwyane Wade Isn’t Ready Yet
The Heat had some of their most productive spells with LeBron on the floor as Wade sat, and it had little to nothing to do with the pair’s chemistry or lack thereof. They’re both naturally unselfish, see the floor well, anticipate teammates’ movements, and, though it sounds corny, it matters in the NBA: they get along with each other. But Wade needs to find his own rhythm, and was clearly hurt by time off this preseason dealing with his hamstring injury and family situation. 13 points on 16 shots, to put it simply, is not something Dwyane Wade does. Give the Celtics credit for playing him physically, but Wade was very rusty and didn’t appear to have the explosion to finish plays he normally makes. Fortunately for the Heat, this is the first time in years–maybe ever–that they can afford to give Wade the time he needs to smooth things out by putting the offense in someone else’s hands, be it for a couple quarters or a couple games.
3. Mike Miller Will Help The Heat
It’s easy to look at Miami’s brick-laying exhibition of a first half as evidence that they haven’t gelled yet, but the truth is they did a good job, even early in this game, of creating open looks for their 4th and 5th options. Carlos Arroyo, James Jones, and Eddie House had mixed success knocking down those jumpers (Jones actually missing 2 where he might as well have been practicing in an empty gym), but the point is, it’s very difficult to defend against the Heat’s Big 3 without leaving someone open. LeBron might be the best “skip passer” in the NBA; expect him to get a lot of his assists this year feeding Miller for 3.
4. Boston Is Still Its Own Worst Enemy
The Celtics will obviously be encouraged by tonight’s result, but it must have felt like deja vu when their 19-point lead became 3 after James’ layup with 1:09 to go. Maybe they aren’t in midseason shape, or maybe the Heat are just too good to go down without a fight, but it’s an all-too-familiar problem for the Celtics. No lead seems to be safe with them. No team gave away as many games when they were ahead last year, and it quite literally cost them a championship, as they failed to put the Lakers away in Game 7 after jumping to a double-digit lead in the 3rd quarter. The important thing for them, tonight, is that they held on for a result. But if they don’t figure out how to patch the leaks, it’ll mean trouble down the road.
5. LeBron Won’t Be Feeling The Love For A While
It’s a testament to the stamina of the crowd at TD Banknorth tonight that LeBron got booed every time he touched the ball, from start to finish. Loud, palpable hatred. And he touched the ball a lot. He didn’t really seem to mind, but if he regularly gets this kind of treatment on the road, he’d have to have some kind of superhuman resolve to not let it affect him psychologically over the course of the year. I doubt what we saw/heard tonight will be a regular occurrence; Boston crowds are particularly passionate, and the Celtics are as natural a “rival” to the Heat as just about anyone else, since it’s their dominance in the East that the Heat are threatening. I wouldn’t expect the same treatment in Minneapolis or Charlotte, since a good segment of those crowds will probably be paying mainly to see him anyway. But in Boston, Orlando, Cleveland, and L.A., I know I wouldn’t want to be in the guy’s skin.
6. Chris Bosh Needs To Channel His Inner KG
That was a bad game for CB4. Really bad. He had one very nice take, grabbed some rebounds and re-directed a few others, but he really needs to turn on the nasty for the Heat to be as dominant as they can be. That doesn’t mean sinking feathery 12-foot jumpers. That might be what he does best, but it’s not what the Heat need him for. They need him to lock down the paint, grab 10 boards a night, and be the type of defensive presence a guy with his length and athleticism should be. I know. He’s a nice guy, he never developed that killer instinct, he’s spent too much time in Canada, whatever. He really didn’t need to do the dirty work at any point in his career, because that’s not what franchise players do, and that’s what he was in Toronto. But he’s a distant third option on this team, and the best way he can help it is with rebounding and defense. If he focuses on that, the other pieces–for him, and for the Heat–will fall into place.
7. The NBA Is Serious About The New Dissent Rules
All that needed to happen to warrant the first technical foul of the season was for a Heat assistant to stand up really fast in reaction to a call. The death stare he immediately got from Erik Spoelstra indicates that coaches have been well-trained on just how little is permissible under the new guidelines. It seems a little iron-fisted on the part of David Stern & Co., but it should make for a more watchable game experience. The NBA, for whatever reason, is the only league where coaches have to wear suits. It’s probably a good idea to restrict them from acting like little league dads.
8. LeBron’s Been Working On His Range
He’s never been shy about launching it, and 3-for-6 is a small sample size to work with, but James’ stroke looked sure tonight, particularly later on once the Heat had settled their nerves a bit. 10/21 from the field represents a solid improvement on his last 6 games against these Celtics, and a lot of those looks were from deep. Considering that he’ll be getting far better looks than he’s used to this year, it’s a safe bet that he’ll improve on his career-best .344 3-point shooting clip from two seasons ago. It’s always best that a guy as big and quick as LeBron doesn’t fall in love with his jumper, but if he really has extended his range, he’ll be that much more difficult to stop.
9. Shaq Isn’t Done Yet
Provided the Big Fella doesn’t stir up any locker room issues in Boston, he looks spry enough to provide a pretty impressive return on the modest investment the Celtics put in him. Jermaine O’Neal was completely anonymous, but Shaq was determined and just as immovable as ever, grabbing 7 boards in 18 minutes and finishing with a tidy +7. If the Heat’s bigs are having trouble with him, God help them with Dwight Howard, but in a week that saw Iverson land in Instanbul, it’s nice to see a suggestion that Shaq will make a meaningful contribution this year.
10. Ray Allen Isn’t Haunted By Game 3
He’s a nice guy, and the type of consummate pro that all NBA fans, biases aside, should root for. So for him to be entrusted with the Celtics’ most delicate possession and have the cojones to put the Finals behind him and knock it down, was great to see. A Ray Allen 3-pointer is one of the most aesthetically pleasing plays in basketball. On tonight’s evidence, his touch is back.
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