Latest Heat bid is rebuffed by the banged-up Celtics
For the Heat, this was the definition of a made-to-order handicap match with the Celtics.
They couldn’t have been playing much better, morphing into a more cohesive unit compared with the one that was beaten by Boston twice in the first two weeks of the season. They had strung together eight straight wins, and LeBron James was playing MVP-caliber basketball.
The Celtics were as vulnerable as any team could imagine, thin on big men with Jermaine and Shaquille O’Neal and Semih Erden all out, slim on small forwards with Marquis Daniels down, and coming off losses in three of their last four games.
Nate Robinson was questionable with a bruised knee, and told coach Doc Rivers five minutes before the game that he didn’t think he could play. Paul Pierce was feeling just as bad, not just because of the illness that kept him out of practice earlier in the week but also because of hand and foot injuries.
And still, Miami found a way to look just as disjointed as it did three months ago, turning the ball over 12 times in the first half, shooting 31.7 percent in the second half, and falling to the Celtics for the third time this season, 85-82.
The Celtics managed to bring the Heat’s streak to an end, reclaiming a half-game lead for the top spot in the Eastern Conference and regaining their footing heading into the All-Star break.
“We’re shorthanded but we’re not short of heart and grit,’’ Kevin Garnett said. “We work hard, we will come out here and compete. We’re at home, we’re still a good team. We’re without some major pieces here, but that doesn’t mean we’re not a good team at the same time.’’
In the kind of game in which statistics only made things more puzzling, Miami shot 54.5 percent in the first half while holding the Celtics to 37.2 percent, and only took a 4-point lead into the locker room. But the Celtics needed just 12 shots from the floor to ring up 35 points in the third quarter and take control of the game.
In the end, Miami was still somehow outnumbered. Both Glen Davis (16 points) and Von Wafer (10) outscored the Heat’s bench (8), and Wafer made the most of his 14 minutes, shooting 4 of 5 with a pair of threes.
“It was obviously a huge win for us with all the stuff we have going on,’’ said Rivers. “We were literally thinking at one point, ‘We’re not going to have enough bodies to play this game.’ To gut it out was great.’’
Pierce played 40 minutes and Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo each played 43 as Rivers milked his starters, knowing they’d have two days of rest before playing New Jersey and then breaking for the All-Star respite.
“I told the guys minutes were out the window the next couple games,’’ Rivers said.
James had scored at least 30 points in his previous six regular-season meetings with the Celtics, but yesterday he found no daylight. In the second half, Rondo (11 points, 10 rebounds, 10 assists) defended James, pressuring him to the point that he hesitated to put the ball on the floor.
James finished with 22 points, getting 7 in the fourth quarter. Trying to tie the game at 83, James drove the lane hard, giving Pierce no choice but to foul him and put him on the free throw line with 12.5 seconds left.
“LeBron is so powerful,’’ Rivers said. “That was just a grown man making a move.’’
But James back-rimmed the first free throw before making the second attempt, leaving his team down 1. Davis made a pair of foul shots to put the Celtics up by 3. Miami had one last chance to send it to overtime when James found Mike Miller for a crystal-clear look from straightaway, but that shot clanged off the back iron as well.
On his way out of the visitors’ locker room, Miller yelled across the hall, “Don’t leave me open like that again next time.’’
The Celtics insisted that they didn’t send a message with the midseason win, but the Heat got the point on their own.
“They are the defending Eastern Conference champions,’’ said Heat coach Erik Spoelstra. “You have to go through them and they ain’t gonna make it easy. We understand that this isn’t going to be an easy ride for us.’’
Julian Benbow can be reached at email@example.com.