MIAMI -- Shaquille O'Neal sat this one out with a left calf contusion no one seems to remember him getting.
That gave the Shaqolytes a chance to get their very own selves on "SportsCenter" for a change.
"We definitely showed there are other guys on this team," reported Udonis Haslem, who helped himself to 18 points and 17 rebounds as the Shaq-less Miami Heat pulled away to a 108-100 victory over the Celtics at American Airlines Arena last night.
Haslem walked off with Best Supporting, no question. The undersized (6-foot-7-inch) power forward embarrassed the Celtics with his aggressive inside play. But the Best Performer In A Leading Role was Dwyane Wade, whose 33-point, 11-assist, 11-for-20, 4-steal line did not adequately represent his full contribution to the Miami cause.
"Wade killed us," acknowledged Celtics coach Doc Rivers. "But he killed us more with his toughness than anything else. That's what bothered me."
Rivers saw this game in very coach-like terms. Forget the 53-percent first half shooting. Forget the halftime lead (a late '50s-like 60-59). Forget, in fact, everything but things he can't fully document, but he knows what he saw. He sounded more like Bruins coach Mike Sullivan -- remember him? -- than your average NBA coach. "I thought we were completely outworked. Every loose ball, every long rebound, everything belonged to them."
Did he also say something about not mucking it up in the corners?
It just didn't feel right to the Celtics' mentor, even with his team trailing by just 2 (87-85), with 11:26 remaining. The way Rivers saw it, the scoreboard was hiding the truth.
"Part of me said we were OK, because we've had games like this lately and we've pulled through," he said. "But I kept looking up and seeing the "Hustle Stats' [on the auxiliary scoreboard], and all the indicators were bad. We were getting crushed in all the key areas, and I didn't know how we were going to turn the corner."
He was right. They didn't. They lost touch with the Heat almost immediately, scoring but 5 points in the next six minutes. When they snapped out of it, they were down by 11 at 101-90.
Once Rivers heard that Shaq was not going to play, he knew he had a new set of problems. A coach can approach a situation like this in different ways, but in the end he just doesn't know how his team is going to respond. What he got from his squad was a nice display of finesse basketball. The Celtics like to run, and it was just fine with them to become engaged in a 33-33 first period -- it wasn't too long ago that this would have been a Heat halftime score -- and a 60-59 half. But while the Heat were mixing in some helpful hustle plays, the Celtics were subsisting on the run-and-gun stuff exclusively.
It surely didn't help the cause when they lost Ricky Davis for the evening on a questionable Category 2 flagrant foul on Wade with 3:26 remaining in the third quarter.
With the Heat ahead, 80-76, and in the midst of a 10-3 run that broke the game's 19th, and final, tie, the ubiquitous Wade made a superb blind-side steal from Gary Payton and set sail for the basket. Davis gave chase and arrived in time to block the shot and knock Wade to the floor. Referee Bob Delaney unhesitatingly made the Category 2 call.
"I thought Ricky Davis was thrown out of the game just for being Ricky Davis," said Rivers. It was a big loss, because this was a game of athletic one-upmanship and Davis is perhaps Boston's best athlete.
"The guy got out on the fast break," Davis said. "I tried to make a hustle play. I tried to make a good block. And, yes, I definitely fouled him. But they said I whacked him on the head, or something."
Wade picked himself up, sank the free throws, and resumed torturing the Celtics. Rivers had made the observation before the game that one of the downsides of there being no Shaq was that there would be more Wade. We call that prescience.
Rivers's coachy objections aside, the fact is this was pure fan entertainment from start to finish, with dunks and drives and oohs and aahs aplenty. It was yet another example that the NBA many of us fell in love with is creeping back. They could have played this one in the shorty-shorts and Chuck Taylor high-tops.
All Rivers was asking was for someone to go on the floor or knock someone on their butt. Maybe he'll get that stuff tonight when the Knicks come to town.