THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Celtics brace for a heated-up James

By Julian Benbow
Globe Staff / February 13, 2011

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WALTHAM — As if the 41-point explosion against Indiana Tuesday weren’t enough of a statement after he had dropped 51 on Orlando three games earlier, LeBron James felt the need to give the league an official warning.

The Heat star is in a zone. He’s not feeling his way through anymore. After four months in Miami, he feels like the hoops Swiss Army knife that has won the last two MVP awards. He was so pleased with his newfound comfort level he couldn’t help but speak in the third person.

“I’m back to playing LeBron James basketball,’’ he said.

When that interview popped up on Celtics coach Doc Rivers’s radar, he didn’t see it as breaking news.

“I knew that already,’’ Rivers said. “I was surprised by that statement, actually. I didn’t know he was anybody else.’’

The Celtics don’t need to be warned about James. In his last six meetings with Boston, James has had a 30-point minimum. The last time, Nov. 11 in Miami, he nearly put up a triple-double (35 points, 10 rebounds, 9 assists), and even though the Heat lost, he put them on his back when they were still figuring out how to work all the bells and whistles on their newly assembled machine.

Now, though, the Heat are a much different team, riding an eight-game winning streak into today’s game against the Celtics at TD Garden. That roll has given them a half-game lead over the Celtics in the Eastern Conference, as James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh have come into their own.

The teams will meet for the third time this season, and the Celtics, who won the first two, will have to figure out a way to slow both James and Miami’s momentum, even though they are shorthanded.

“He’s just a great player, and so is Wade,’’ Rivers said. “They can go off for that number any time. I don’t think that’s anything new. I think they’re both more comfortable with each other and with Bosh as well, but we assumed that that would happen, anyway.’’

With Marquis Daniels out, the Celtics must face James with Paul Pierce essentially their only small forward.

“Whenever you defend LeBron anyway, it’s not going to be one guy,’’ Pierce said. “It’s not going to be Paul Pierce defending him. It’s got to come from all five guys. We all know that. No one guy can stay in front of him and guard him.

“They call so many plays for him. Pick-and-rolls. He’s constantly putting pressure on you, the way he attacks the basket, so you have to have help at all times from your bigs, from your perimeter guys. Whoever’s in front of him, the first guy usually doesn’t matter.’’

With their bench thin, the Celtics know they’ll pay for any unnecessary fouls. They learned it first-hand Thursday night against the Lakers when Ray Allen picked up three fouls in the third quarter, allowing Kobe Bryant to go off for 12 of his 23 points. The biggest victim was Von Wafer, who was thrown to Bryant like a chew toy and had to try his best not to get ripped to shreds.

“It was Kobe Bryant,’’ Wafer said. “I’m just going to play the man tough. If he makes the shot, he makes the shot. If he hits 70 on me . . . he had 81 before. If he makes it, he makes it.

Because of the circumstances, Wafer has been small forward in a pinch, and he’ll likely wind up face-to-face with James. But Pierce knows that for most of the afternoon it’ll be his draw, which means he can’t let fouls take him off the floor.

“I think I’ll probably have to be a little more aggressive, but at the same time be responsible and not pick up any cheap fouls offensively or defensively,’’ Pierce said.

They’ll try to do to James what they failed to do against Bryant in falling to the Lakers: close all the gaps in the defense, making it difficult for him to be aggressive.

“I thought Kobe attacked more because he saw more gaps than he saw the last game we played him,’’ said Allen. “We have to do a better job of loading, because we did that to LeBron in the playoffs. He had to second-guess. ‘Should I shoot this?’ There was no driving option. So he had to shoot it.’’

Having lost three of four in a stretch in which they’ve seen a sampling of the league’s elite (losing to Dallas, beating Orlando, sleepwalking in a loss to Charlotte, and falling apart against the Lakers), this meeting with Miami has meaning even if the Celtics are playing with a depleted roster.

Said Pierce, “This will be a great win for us if we can get these type of wins going into the All-Star break and really see who we are regardless of the injuries.’’

Julian Benbow can be reached at jbenbow@globe.com.

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