MIAMI — Fire blazed forth from metal cannons, illuminating a half-vacant arena moments to tip-off, reflecting off the bare backs of lonely orange and red seats.
Heart-thumping bass piped in to liven the space, lights flashed rapid-fire like a throwback discotheque, and a primed LeBron James nodded, preparing to trade blows with a hated rival.
Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade gave Miami extra firepower, rounding out its vaunted Big Three.
The stage stood ready — or as ready as can be at AmericanAirlines Arena — for a classic Heat-Celtics battle Friday night, but it was absent two components that would have given it the proper punch, perhaps enough to make Heat fans punctual for once:
Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce.
With Boston missing its two stars, any buildup fizzled out.
A loss was all but guaranteed to Boston’s record. The only uncertainty was the margin of victory and whether Miami would let up deep into the game when it was already won.
Miami did win, for the record, though the final tally wasn’t all that decisive: 109-101.
The Celtics couldn’t gripe. Any setback without Pierce and Garnett is a setback with an asterisk at its side.
“Overall, I was happy with the effort,” Celtics coach Doc Rivers said.
The night brought good tidings for the Celtics: Atlanta overcame a 19-point deficit to beat Milwaukee, meaning that the Celtics only need to win one of their final three games to clinch the seventh spot in the Eastern Conference standings.
If the Celtics can clinch that spot, it will guarantee a first-round playoff matchup with their Atlantic Division rival, the New York Knicks.
And Boston can earn the right to play New York with a win Saturday at Orlando, a game that Jason Terry called a “must-win.”
“I don’t want to give them any fuel,” Terry said of Orlando, “but they’re terrible.”
Moving on . . .
Garnett and Pierce, who sat with sore ankles, should play Saturday, as should Jeff Green, who suffered a bruised left elbow after landing on it following a dunk early in the fourth quarter of Friday’s loss.
“I’m cool, man,” Green said of his elbow.
Before leaving in the fourth quarter, Green scored a game-high 25 points and was dynamic once again against the Heat, helping the Celtics to a 12-point lead in the first quarter, when the forward scored 8 points on 4-of-5 shooting while grabbing six rebounds.
Then the Heat woke up.
After shooting 7 of 20 in the first quarter, Miami made 16 of 19 in the second as it scored 41 points, its most points in any quarter this season.
James made seven shots in the first half — five dunks and two layups — and the Heat led, 58-50, at intermission.
Rivers said the game turned because Miami’s substitutions simply played better than Boston’s.
“Early on, we attacked and that’s what we have to do against this team,” Rivers said. “We moved the ball; that’s what we have to do against this team.
“But as they made a run, I thought we stopped attacking and each guy was trying to make plays and that’s why we had these little turnovers and things like that.”
Jordan Crawford scored 8 consecutive points during a third-quarter spurt to pull the Celtics to within 5, but Miami responded with a 7-0 run.
The game slipped further from Boston’s grip from there. Miami made 10 of its 17 shots in the third quarter and built a lead as large as 19 in the fourth.
“We played well,” Green said. “Little mistakes. We’re getting better, that’s all that matters.”
Boston had advantages in fast-break points, points in the paint, and second-chance points, but Miami made 12 of 23 from 3-point range while Boston made 6 of 23.
“Smoking hot,” Terry said of Miami’s shooting. “I need to catch one of those kind of games. That was good shooting.”
James scored an effortless 20 points (8-of-10 shooting) to go along with 9 assists and 6 rebounds. Wade had 11 points, 7 rebounds, and 6 assists. Rashard Lewis scored 19, and Ray Allen and Bosh each added 17.
Crawford scored 20 points, Courtney Lee had 18 — including 13 in the fourth quarter — and Brandon Bass added 17.
Terry picked up a technical foul with 3:30 in the fourth for what he described as taunting after he fouled Allen, the former Celtic.
“[The official] said I showed him up,” Terry said. “My wife’s going to be mad at me.”
And so went another game where the shorthanded Celtics were even more shorthanded.
The most recent hubbub about Green’s game is that he only puts up big numbers when Garnett isn’t on the floor, and Green’s performance did little to squash that theory, as he rebounded from two poor games since Garnett returned from an eight-game layoff.
“Jeff was great,” Rivers said. “He attacked early on. They did a good job after that of clogging [the lane] up.
“I thought Jeff made plays and we missed shots and the more we missed, the more they could clog it up to take away his drives.
“I couldn’t have been happier with the first half of Jeff. That was terrific.”
As for playing without star players, Green said it “allows us to just play free.”
He continued, “At the end of the season, I think a lot of guys’ confidence — we’re going to need it come playoff time.”
Playoff time is creeping closer, but the Celtics seem no closer to being ready.
Among other items on the to-do list, they still need their stars to return to full strength, to the court, and to a normal rhythm.
But the regular season is nearly gone.
If the Celtics have issues still to work out before the playoffs begin, there is sparse time remaining to do so.
At least they’ll have a break Saturday when, as Terry said, they’ll face a “terrible” team.