It was an embarrassing and telling moment for a proud Celtics team that could manage only a meager 79 points in losing the first game of the Eastern Conference Finals to the Heat, 93-79, at American Airlines Arena in Miami. With such a poor performance, Boston has made it all too easy for critics to suggest that the Celtics, particularly as Garnett and Ray Allen’s contracts are up this season, may not make it to another Eastern Conference championship, let alone another ring to go with 2008’s NBA title.
Boston’s “three musketeers” of Garnett, Allen and Paul Pierce – along with their “D’Artagnan” in the person of Rajon Rondo – have already been hobbled with injuries to Pierce, Allen, and guard Avery Bradley. But Monday night they suffered the additional disadvantage and indignity of two technical fouls and a delay of game penalty in the first period that ignited the Heat as well as their home fans and short-circuited any attempts by the Celtics to gain momentum. As it turned out, they scored only 11 points in the first period, but did manage to regain some equilibrium to tie the Heat, 46-46 at the half.
James led all scorers with 32 points and 13 rebounds, complemented by Dwyane Wade’s 22 points and seven assists. The Celtics, by comparison, couldn’t find the basket; they were a collective 11-21 from the free-throw line, and the trio of Pierce, Allen and Rondo hit only 14 of 45 attempted field goals. Part of the reason for this was Miami’s blocked shots: a total of twelve, which is one short of their franchise record. The Heat also out-rebounded Boston, 48-33.
The Celtics have come to expect, if not fully depend on Rondo to manage their offense; as he performs, so does Boston. In the course of attaining nine playoff triple-doubles, he’s piled up the assists from quickly surveying the opponents’ defense and outlet-passing to teammates either on the perimeter or in the post.
But last night, he was prevented from making another breakout by the tight defense of James and guard Mario Chalmers. Rondo was only 8-of-20 from the field, and though he did score 16 points, was held to only seven assists and no free throws.
Boston coach Doc Rivers, who asserted after the game that he admires Rondo’s aptitude and intelligence on the court, suggested that Rondo was not being intuitive enough in solving Miami’s defense.
According to Rivers, “He’s got to be on the attack … I thought he was reading a lot instead of playing on his instincts. I think sometimes his I.Q. hurts him. You can’t read and play at speed at the same time."
Rondo, for his part, said afterward that he felt the Celtics could be more physical with the Heat. He wasn’t intimating that the Celtics might intentionally injure Miami’s players, but hinted that some Heat players might have to “hit the deck” more as the series progresses.
The Celtics are as keenly aware as anyone that in order to get back on track with Miami they will have to score much more than they did Monday night. Simply put, if you don’t score, you don’t win.
Rarely has solid defense been enough to get a team a victory if they score only 79 points. If Boston can’t break the James and Wade juggernaut soon, they will most definitely exit within five games. The Celtics have switched to a zone defense against the Heat to some success in the past, but that strategy also carries risks: Wade’s and James’ athleticism in driving through it, and their superior brand of perimeter shooting.
The Celtics, in contrast, need to drive the lane and use the absence of Miami’s Chris Bosh to take greater advantage of the post. Aside from the obvious benefit of giving Boston more high percentage shots, this conceivably could drive up the Heat’s personal fouls. In short, Boston will have to take the game directly to Miami’s strengths. There really is little alternative for them at this point.