MIAMI — The Celtics should be versatile, vibrant and, possibly, more often victorious this season. As for chemistry, cohesion, communication – that could take time.
Coach Doc Rivers tried several lineup combinations, some successful and others scandalous, in a season-opening 120-107 loss to the Miami Heat Tuesday night.
The Celtics were consistently poor defensively. But they displayed enough offensive dynamism to nearly overcome a 19-point deficit, pulling within 4 points of the lead in the final two minutes before again collapsing on defense.
“I really thought they took the fight to us most of the game,” Rivers said. “They were the more physical team. I thought they were more mentally tougher than us. When we made our runs they kept their composure, when they made their runs I don’t think we kept our composure.”
LeBron James (26 points, 10 rebounds) carried Miami for most of the game. But the Heat had plenty of alternatives, including former Celtic Ray Allen (19 points), to finish things off when James departed with leg cramps after increasing the Heat’s edge to 95-76 with 11:30 remaining.
The Celtics then turned to Brazilian newcomer Leandro Barbosa, who scored 9 points in a 2:03 span to keep them in contention, as they appeared finally to have found an effective combination.
A Courtney Lee layup off a Rajon Rondo (20 points, 13 assists) feed pulled the Celtics within 111-107 with 2:11 to go. But Chris Bosh spun on Kevin Garnett, then Rondo missed a jumper, and Bosh hit two foul shots for a 115-107 Miami edge with 1:15 remaining. A Paul Pierce drive into a crowded lane was thwarted out of a timeout and Bosh hit two more foul shots, then a dunk, followed by two Dwyane Wade (29 points) free throws following a flagrant foul call on Rondo as the Heat scored the final 9 points of the contest.
The Celtics started the game with a lineup similar to the one that concluded last season with a loss to the Heat in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals. Lee replaced Allen as a starter, and Jason Terry took on Allen’s role as a 3-point threat.
But the Heat played the matchup game better than the Celtics, who concluded the contest with an ultra-small combination of Barbosa, Lee, Pierce, Rondo, and Terry.
“I thought, really, the story of the night was our defensive struggles,” Pierce said. “That’s not who we are. The way we defended tonight, we’re not going to be a team that’s going to give up 120 points. We gave up 30 points pretty much each and every quarter.
“We have to establish our identity, who we’re going to be, make a decision on the season. Because that’s who we are – we’re going to be a defensive team, we’re going to stop teams from scoring, we’re going to keep them out of transition. We’ve got to be a team that‘s the enforcer out there. Tonight we were pretty much on our heels the whole night.”
The Heat started getting in gear late in the opening half, taking a 62-54 halftime edge as James dunked in transition with 27 seconds remaining. The Celtics pulled within 4 early in the third quarter, then Miami went on a 14-7 run over a 3:57 span. Bosh scored out of a timeout for an 81-70 advantage with 4:23 left in the quarter, then James departed.
Miami extended the lead, closing with an 8-0 run over the final 2:17 for a 93-76 advantage.
“They increased it with LeBron and Wade off the floor and that should never happen,” Rivers said.
James returned briefly in the final quarter. Barbosa hit two 3-pointers early in the quarter and the Celtics found some traction.
Garnett blocked a Wade shot out of a timeout, Rondo converting in transition. Then Jeff Green’s free throw pulled the Celtics within 100-89 with 8:14 left. The Celtics went “small” with Green the tallest player in the lineup. But Wade posted Rondo, who then was called for a technical foul, Allen converting. Wade’s jumper made it 105-89 with 6:55 remaining.
But without James, the Heat stalled. The Celtics went on an 11-2 run over a 2:18 span, Garnett’s defending keying the transition game, before Bosh closed things out.
“We have a lot of new guys trying to understand our philosophy defensively,” Pierce said. “We also had a lot of breakdowns. I thought we just didn’t communicate – our defense is all about communicating and we didn’t do a good job talking to each other, rotations and things of that nature.
“But we’ll get it together. Tonight was a good measuring stick for us – we played against the best team in the NBA, the champs, and we’ve got a lot of work to do. This is Game 1. We’re not the same team we are going to be as the season goes on. And understand it’s a work in progress.”
Frank Dell’Apa can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org