THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Bob Ryan

Time flies; they still have moments

By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / April 28, 2010

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They talked. We listened. But did any of us believe them?

Did anyone really believe the Celtics who were 27-27 in their last 54 regular-season games would find some magic winning formula once the playoffs began?

Erik Spoelstra did. The Miami Heat coach saw trouble coming for his team.

“They understand the moment,’’ he said after his team’s 96-86 series-ending defeat last night. “They’ve had injuries. Everyone discounts that, but that’s a big part of an NBA season.

“With their starting lineup, they were 38-18. That seems like a pretty good record to me. They got healthy at the right time, and they’re a veteran team that’s well-coached, and they’re unselfish. They put aside personal agendas.’’

This was over in five, the first time the Celtics have won a seven-game series in that number of games in quite a while. And after excruciating and frightening seven-game first-round series the last two years, the Celtics have taken care of business in an orderly fashion, and can get proper rest before the next series begins Saturday in Cleveland.

“I’m not used to this,’’ said coach Doc Rivers. “I just know it’s nice to have a day off.’’

And five is exactly what it should have been. There were no arguments about Games 1 and 2, especially Game 2, a 29-point blowout. They could have lost Game 3 and they could have won Game 4. And there were just a few moments of suspense last night, since they trailed for just 3:38 of the first quarter.

They led at every checkpoint by at least 6, led by 21 (67-46) with 6:56 remaining in the third quarter, and had the ready answers when the Heat reduced the lead to 3 (73-70) early in the fourth.

It’s not going to be 2008 all over again. The old guys are even older, and the basic dynamics have changed. “Ubuntu’’ was then. What’s now is a nice, solid, veteran-oriented team quarterbacked by an unpredictable, mercurial point guard who is difficult to prepare for because there really is no way of knowing what he’s going to do — ever.

Last night, Rajon Rondoed his way to a 16-point, 8-rebound, 12-assist stat line. He announced himself to the Heat on the game’s first possession when he took Dwyane Wade to the hoop for a running hook, and he really never stopped creating problems for the visitors.

“He plays in another gear,’’ sighed Spoelstra. “He’s much quicker than most point guards, and when he gets to the postseason, he has yet another gear.

“He’s got toughness and big-time confidence, which some people think borders on cockiness. People call them the Big Three. I don’t know why they don’t call them the Big Four.’’

What they’ve done with this performance against Miami was give fans more reason to hope, if not quite believe. They’re going up against a Cleveland team that was 11 games better than them this season, and they won’t have the benefit of the home court. But being on the road certainly doesn’t faze them. They were actually better on the road (26-15) than they were at home (24-17), and that was in their previous, pre-playoff state, not the far more impressive mode they’re in now.

They had moments of true NBA greatness, including last night in the first and third periods, when they played a shell game with the ball, often, as Rivers said, “turning down good shots for better shots.’’ But they also had clunker moments they cannot risk having against the Cavaliers. So for Rivers and his staff, it was the perfect combination of circumstances that a five-game series could provide. Along with the “attaboys,’’ there were plenty of teachable moments.

“It will be great film for us,’’ said Rivers, “because we get the proof that when the ball changes sides, you score. It’s good just to show them, over and over again.’’

“There are so many guys that can make plays,’’ Spoelstra pointed out. “And, more importantly, they are unselfish. When they start to read how you are playing something, they just dissect you and continue to move the ball. They did a terrific job of just executing.’’

Conversely, there were times of great sloppiness with the ball. Nine first-quarter turnovers in the first period of Game 4? Unacceptable. Also fatal, if repeated against LeBron & Friends.

But the great revelation from this series was the defense. Once again, this group never will play up to the smothering standards of 2007-08. There’s the age and injury factor, in addition to which, James Posey isn’t walking through that door. All they can do is maximize the potential of the current group, and Rivers likes what he’s been seeing.

“We’re getting there,’’ he said. “We’re really close, and you could see it defensively. That’s who we have to be, though.’’

And at least Rivers now knows it’s who they can be. After all, there were three months of doubt and worry. That 27-27 does kinda speak for itself.

You’ve heard of the famed second season? You’re watching it.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist and host of Globe 10.0 on Boston.com. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.

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