Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce shared a laugh on their way to the postgame press conference podium as they made the long walk to a large marshalling area familiar from last June.
"What, are we in the Finals already?" Garnett asked.
KG shared the anecdote with the media when taking questions, but his assessment was spot on. Given a hype previously unseen in any NBA Opening Night matchup, everything about Tuesday night's game at the Garden felt like the NBA Finals all over again. NBA PR and national TV reporters were crawling all over the building, and there was enough media to overflow the pressroom. And the anticipation in the building was at a pitch a notch just below fever.
While it's brand new to the Heat (at least as a unit), it's the same old song for the 17-Time World Champions after making two Finals appearances in the past three seasons. Heat guard Eddie House, who knows a little something about the big games in Boston, said the Celtics were in "midseason form," and while nobody in green would go that far, it was clear that the Celtics were far more comfortable than the Heat, and it showed from start to finish.
So when it was all over, the Celtics came out on top, knocking off the Miami Heat 88-80 at TD Garden, temporarily tempering expectations for the "Super Team" from South Beach. Moreover, the Celtics showed that they are what we thought they were: a championship contender that takes being the underdog personally.
As for the Heat? They're a work in progress.
"They've been there, to the Finals, and it was a tough game," admitted Heat Coach Erik Spoelstra. "If you shoot 27 percent and you still have a chance, at least that's a grind out mentality that you need in this league. We'll be better than this."
"Rome wasn't built in one day," LeBron James said after his 31-point performance, appearing to miss the irony that in this instance, thanks to The Decision, Miami's roster basically was built in an hour-long TV special. "It's gonna take time. We understand that."
Wade added later, "This is one of 82. Sorry if everyone thought we were gonna go 82-0. It ain't gonna happen."
It took roughly 24 minutes of game action for the Heat to wake up; they scored just nine points in the first quarter. The Heat trailed 45-30 at the half, and looked like they were playing together for the first time in a pick-up game.
LeBron James seemed to be the focal point of the offense, in a setting not to dissimilar from his pre-Decision days in Cleveland. And Dwyane Wade, who played all of three minutes total in the preseason thanks to a nagging hamstring injury, struggled to find his rhythm.
"He hasn't played. He didn't play in the preseason. He's in good shape, he feels good," Spoelstra said. "This game is a bout rhythm and timing and he'll get it back." Wade, who seemed a little less mobile than usual despite being declared healthy afterward by Spoelstra, also cited his lack of rhythm. Miami's Big Three went 7-for-27 in the first half, and their teammates converted on just four field goals before the break.
"I was out of rhythm. Like LeBron said, it's my first preseason game," Wade said. "Continuity is still not there yet. Defensively we played well, holding them to 88 points. The offense will come but that's the least of our worries."
The Heat's defense, especially early, was dreadful at times. Rajon Rondo was carving them up in the first quarter en route to seven of his 17 assists. Meanwhile, Shaquille O'Neal gave the C's early momentum with a pair of huge slams, the second of which brought the house down and nearly the basket as well.
The Heat defense finally dug in during the third quarter and held the C's to just 18 points while Paul Pierce spent time in the locker room with a bruised back. The Celtics had to be feeling a sense of déjà vu, as too often last season they jettisoned first-half leads with poor second-half performances.
"I told our guys at halftime I knew their defense was going to be good but they missed some shots, too," Celtics Coach Doc Rivers said. "I told them at halftime I was not happy defensively because they did not have a lot of points, but I thought they had good looks, and we can't play on luck. We want to be a great defensive team."
Holding the Super Team to 80 points is a pretty solid defensive effort, but perhaps more impressive was the Celtics' late-game execution. When the game was on the line, Ray Allen's 3-pointer with 49.8 seconds to play basically sealed the victory, putting the Celtics up 86-80.
"I've been a witness of it the last three years, and he's one of the best players that I've ever played with. It's an honor just to be able to step on the court with him night-in and night-out. You've got a guy that can take that kind of pressure off you, it's an amazing feeling," Pierce said. "I don't know if you guys realize it, but Ray, he's hit so many game winners for us and so many clutch shots for us, we have confidence to get him the ball in these situations. He delivers nine times out of 10."
So far, Allen's 1-for-1 this season, and so are the Celtics, who know that despite the hype, Tuesday's win is just that, one of 82.
"It was a big game. It was a fun game. We play Cleveland tomorrow. But it was a fun game," Rivers said. "They're going to be a lot better when we see them again, and hopefully we are, as well."