This time, it’s Celtics unable to take Heat
MIAMI — When Jermaine O’Neal threw his shoulder into LeBron James like a linebacker protecting the goal line, he had his reasons.
“They called a touch foul a play or two before when he went to the cup,’’ O’Neal said. “I didn’t think I made much contact. It’s about just being physical. I’m not out there trying to hurt anybody.’’
And when James then fired the ball at O’Neal like a basketball player who was tired of being treated like a football player, he had reasons of his own.
“You feel like they get out of control with a foul or a play,’’ said James, who already was sensitive to rough treatment after being hogtied a week and a half ago by the Wizards’ Maurice Williams. “You just react without thinking about it sometimes.’’
When the situation mushroomed into a mosh pit — Paul Pierce shoving Dwyane Wade, Rajon Rondo jawing with Mario Chalmers, and James, Wade, and Pierce being hit with technicals — the Celtics and the Heat had their reasons.
Neither team could afford to give an inch.
“We’re not backing down from nobody,’’ James said. “I don’t think they are either. It’s a man’s game.’’
Miami’s 100-77 win yesterday was about more than just the No. 2 seed, which was dangling over this matchup like a half-eaten carrot.
The Heat had lost all three meetings this season. James (with Cleveland) and Wade both had been bounced from the playoffs by the Celtics last season.
If they were going to get anything from the Celtics — a win, a measure of respect — they were going to have to take it.
So, they did.
One rebound at a time, until one offensive board became 15. One point in the paint at a time, until they stomped through it for 44. One second-chance point at a time, until they had rung up 18.
The Heat had spent the offseason with paper crowns and trophies, only to have the Celtics beat them in the season opener and then twice more, blowing holes in their egos and forcing them back to the drawing board.
Since then, the Heat have beaten the Lakers and Spurs, and had a point to prove yesterday against the Celtics.
“That’s what you expect,’’ said Kevin Garnett (21 points). “It’s Boston-Miami, close to the two, if not the two top teams in the East. You’ve got to expect that. You’ve got to expect that they were going to give you the best, you beat a team three times. Not just beat them, we beat them. So, what other team do you expect to show up?’’
After racing to an 11-2 lead, looking like a team trying to make up for the letdown Thursday night in Chicago, the Celtics unraveled, turning the ball over 19 times.
“We came out and we kept the game simple, and I loved what we were doing,’’ said coach Doc Rivers. “Then all of a sudden we went in that stretch where every play had to be brilliant. Throwing lobs to [O’Neal], cross-court passes were intercepted, and I just thought that gave them life.’’
James finished with 27 points, 7 assists, and 5 rebounds. After drawing two early fouls and returning to the bench, Chris Bosh scored 13 points and grabbed eight rebounds (five offensive). Miami’s bench outscored Boston’s, 32-12.
In one third-quarter sequence, Wade chased down Ray Allen on the fast break, snuffed out Allen’s layup, and gave the Heat an extra possession. When Mike Bibby missed a 19-footer, Bosh raced to the corner to gobble up the loose ball, then drove hard to the rim to get the basket and a foul, converting a 3-point play that made it 67-55.
“We understand what it is,’’ said Pierce, who scored 24 points on 9-of-14 shooting. “The hustle game is killing us. We’re not rebounding the ball. It is very disturbing when I look up and we’re down 15 rebounds to a team that is not known for their rebounding.
“We’ve just got to get our heads right. We’ve just got to look at ourselves individually and [players should] ask themselves what can they do better.’’
After dropping games to the Bulls and Heat, the Celtics look as vulnerable as they have all season.
The most obvious missing element is Kendrick Perkins, who was shipped to Oklahoma City at the trade deadline. When they made the trade, the Celtics were banking on Shaquille O’Neal and Jermaine O’Neal being healthy at this point. But Shaquille O’Neal missed his fourth straight game yesterday with a strained right calf.
“Kendrick Perkins brought a certain element to their team,’’ Bosh said. “And it’s not there anymore.’’
“They’re good,’’ Rivers said of the Heat, now one game ahead of the Celtics in the race for the No. 2 seed.
“We knew they were going to be good before the [season]. We’d like to play them, and we may have to if we want to go somewhere.’’
Julian Benbow can be reached at email@example.com.