Celtics 90 - HEAT 99 Recap

MIAMI – Now that the Miami HEAT have had a feeling-out game with the Boston Celtics, they’ll have plenty of details to iron out in practice tomorrow. But taking only their Game 1 victory into consideration, the HEAT were exactly the team they wanted to be.

The HEAT avoided the slow starts they had against the Philadelphia 76ers, they swarmed on defense and executed on offense, they got bench production and through every run the Celtics made, they stood tough, both mentally and physically.

It wasn’t perfection, but it was impressive.

Everything the HEAT have done this season has started with defense, so it’s only fitting that that’s where their success came from Sunday. They held the Celtics about five points per 100 possessions worse than their average, but that hardly explains just how difficult some of the shots Boston was taking were.

Blanketed is the operative term here, from LeBron James’ coverage of Paul Pierce – who was ejected with two technical fouls in the second half – inside the three-point line, to the back-line rotations of Chris Bosh and Joel Anthony to Dwyane Wade’s tenacious pursuit of Ray Allen. The Celtics never developed rhythm with the ball, and when Rajon Rondo got into foul trouble in the first half, they never quite found a way to get easy baskets either.

And when they made runs, such as when they got within eight with 3:24 to play in the third or eight again with under five minutes to play, it was because Allen hit contested three-pointers with a hand in his face. That is to say, it was unsustainable offense, and as long as Miami maintained its defensive energy, it would have the upper hand.

Not that the HEAT didn’t thrive at times on unsustainable offense as well. A 51-36 halftime lead is all fine and dandy, but it was the result of 6-of-10 three-point shooting and a number of pullup, low-percentage jumpers from both Wade and James.

“It is striking a balance,” Erik Spoelstra said. “We don’t want to settle. At a couple junctures during the game I thought we needed to be more patient.”

Fortunately, the pendulum never swung too far in either direction. With Wade’s (38 points) abundant energy leading the way, the HEAT were able to find their execution when Boston clogged the middle and were able to bail themselves out often enough when a play was broken that the offense never quite grew stagnant. They had an offensive rating of just 106.4, but that was six points more than the Celtics allowed on average.

This wouldn’t have been possible without James Jones.

“JJ had the best game of anybody,” James said. “Anytime it seemed like they were making a run, we were able to penetrate and kick to JJ.”

Five threes in all for Jones, on seven attempts, for 25 points. Points that, with Bosh struggling offensively as he expended energy on the glass (12 boards) and on Kevin Garnett (3-of-9 shooting), the HEAT absolutely needed. Yet they were still points that Miami won’t be able to rely on night to night, by rule of percentages.

That’s what limits much of any takeaway from the win. Both Allen and Wade hit a number of contested shots they just as easily could have missed. The HEAT might not always find such timely answers to Boston’s runs, nor will Rajon Rondo always be in foul trouble or the Celtics’ big men shoot a combined 8-of-21. The Celtics will earn more than 18 free throws in a future game, and neither team is likely to have the same 26 points off turnovers very often.

That’s the nature of games when neither team scores more than 30 points in the paint. The numbers, the results, become finicky when used as indicators.

The game is best used, then, as a tone setter. The series will be physical, there will be words exchanged, runs made and players that will have to step up in order for their team to win. The HEAT were supposed to win Game 1, and if the Celtics steal Game 2, all positive momentum is immediately halted.

But if the results can’t be counted on, the HEAT still have their process. And as both teams stuck their feet in the water, that process was just what it needed to be.

“At this point in the year you can’t be somebody you’re not,” Spoelstra said. “We are trying to play our game, the habits that we’ve built for five months, for four games.

“Now we have to get amnesia as quickly as possible and try to figure out how we can play better.”