Posted Feb 13 2011 6:36PM
BOSTON -- Bottom line: The Heat are a lot better than they were at the beginning of the season, but they're still not good enough to beat the Celtics.
Not good enough to beat the Celtics without Shaquille O'Neal, Jermaine O'Neal, Delonte West and Marquis Daniels. Not good enough to beat the Celtics with Paul Pierce bothered by two injuries and shooting 0-for-10.
Before Sunday's 85-82 loss at the TD Garden, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said that this would be an opportunity for his team to get more experience in close games against elite teams. He was right. But clearly, the Heat will need even more before they're ready for the postseason.
The Heat fought back from a 13-point deficit to start the fourth quarter, but they failed on all five opportunities they had to tie the game in the final five minutes. After losing eight of their first nine games decided by five points or less, the Heat had run off four straight close wins. Progress had been made. But then came Sunday and a step backward.
It's not that simple, of course. Sunday's result was about a lot more than late-game execution, and the Heat were the better team in the fourth quarter, holding Boston to just 11 points.
They were the better team in the first half too, but 12 (mostly careless) turnovers kept them from taking more than a four-point lead into halftime. And then they couldn't come up with a stop in the third quarter, when the Celtics scored 35 points on 21 possessions. The Heat even lost their cool, with Dwyane Wade picking up a flagrant foul trying to retaliate for a hard screen set by Kevin Garnett.
"We can't expect to come into Boston and turn the ball over 12 times in the first half," LeBron James said. "We also can't afford to come in the third quarter and not have our motor going."
The Heat can't afford such breakdowns because they don't have a championship and four seasons together to fall back on. In terms of chemistry and trust in each other, the Celtics are what the Heat want to be.
"We're not catching them in terms of games played together," Spoelstra acknowledged, "but we have other things that other teams can't catch up to us with."
Other teams, including the Celtics, can't match Miami's top-of-the-line talent. But right now, that talent is only at its best in certain opportunities. Specifically, when the Heat have transition opportunities, they can't be stopped.
But on Sunday, those opportunities never came. With Doc Rivers willing to sacrifice offensive rebounds, the Celtics have always been one of the best teams in the league at getting back on missed shots. And on Sunday, 12 of Boston's 15 turnovers were dead-ball situations, on which the Heat had no chance to run. The result was a 15-7 edge for Boston in fast break points.
The Celtics might not be so lucky with their turnovers next time. And if these two teams meet in the playoffs, there probably won't be much to take out of this game. In many ways, it was typical Eastern Conference basketball, with both teams scoring less than a point per possession. But both teams missed a lot of open shots and, in the end, it was a strange game that could have gone either way.
What the Celtics can definitely take out of it is first place in the Eastern Conference, as well as the tie-breaker should the two teams be tied at the end of the season. After losing in Game 7 of the Finals on the road, they really want home-court advantage this postseason. And make no mistake about it, they wanted this game on Sunday.
"It was obviously a huge win for us, with all the stuff we have going on," said Rivers, who admitted before the game that of the Celtics' four games against elite teams over the last 10 days, it was the ones against their fellow Eastern Conference contenders that meant the most. They got both of those, having defeated the Orlando Magic here last Sunday.
Huge win, but don't say it was a statement game.
"If there's a mental message, I don't know what it would be," Rivers said. "[The Heat] are pretty tough over there."
And in the end, this game will be good for the Heat. They're a much better team than they were the last time they played the Celtics, but coming up short once again, they know they've still got work to do.
Still without a win against the Celtics and still trailing Boston in the standings, the Heat will stay hungry. There's no chance of complacency when you're 0-3 against the team you'll eventually need to get past.
"We continue to know what's ahead of us," Wade said.
"We can go to another level or two," Spoelstra added.
So can the Celtics.
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