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Dan Shaughnessy

Front-runners appear to be clamping down

By Dan Shaughnessy
Globe Columnist / May 4, 2011

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MIAMI — I hate to say it, but this looks very much like the passing of the torch in NBA East.

This is what we feared might happen in those hideous hours after the odious “Decision.’’

Basketball America did not want to see the Miami Heat reap rewards from the secret-handshake deals struck with LeBron James and Chris Bosh. Everybody north of South Beach spent the 2010-11 season rooting for the Heat to lose. We loved it when they went 9-8. We loved it when they choked at the end of the close games.

Front-runners. Frauds. The Prefab Five. Can’t lose enough. “Beat the Heat’’ was a theme in sports bars across the USA. It was like rooting against Alex Rodriguez or Donald Trump.

Your Boston Celtics have been as signed the job of upholding truth, justice, and the American way of team success. Boston’s veteran ex-champs were projected as the right guys to stop the madness.

But the Celtics might not be up to the job. They lost again last night, 102-91, and now trail, two games to zero, in a conference semifinal showdown that resumes on Causeway Street Saturday night. LeBron scored 35, D-Wade 28, Bosh 17. Ouch.

The book on Miami is (was) simple. The Heat are classic front-runners. They beat up on the bums and fold against the winners. The Heat went 18-19 against .500 teams this season. You want to beat them? Keep the game close. LeBron can’t finish.

In this spirit, it looked like the Celtics were in good shape last night. They fought off a foot injury to Paul Pierce and a flat performance from Ray Allen and still managed to play to a tie with seven minutes left.

Then the Heat did what we’ve never seen them do. They got tough on defense. They dominated on offense. They looked like the team that knows how to close out the big games.

It was White Heat. Miami outscored Boston, 14-0, over a stretch of 3 1/2 minutes to put the game away.

“They scored and we didn’t score,’’ said Celtics coach Doc Rivers. “Simple as that. We can’t allow them to play like this.’’

It started with a Mario Chalmers three. Then two free throws by Wade. Than a thunderous follow jam by LeBron. Even the overrated Bosh got into the act.

Meanwhile, every Celtic on the floor missed a shot. The most grievous clunker was a botched dunk by Jermaine O’Neal.

Game over. An 80-80 game had turned into a 94-80 game with 3:28 left. All the Celtics could do was complain about the referees and hope things get better at home.

In the four-year run of the New Big Three, this is the fifth time the Celtics have lost the first game of a playoff series. The first four times it happened, the Celtics were able to come back and square the series, 1-1. Not this time.

LeBron stuffed Kevin Garnett in a summit meeting in the final minute. Kind of symbolic, wouldn’t you say?

The Heat look young, wildly talented, and ready. The Celtics look . . . old and done.

It’s not as if they can’t beat the Heat a couple times on the parquet floor. But we were hoping to see some of the old Celtic dominance in Miami. We were hoping they could win the mind games against the all-style-no-substance Heat. But they could not.

“They have experience and championship DNA,’’ said generous Heat coach Erik Spoelstra. “They are a tough-minded team, and they played so many tough games together.’’

These Celtics have been the personal tormenters of the young men who play for the Heat. Nine of the 15 players on the Miami roster have been eliminated by the Celtics in a playoff series. Wade calls the Celtics “our big brothers.’’

No member of the Heat has been hurt more by Boston than LeBron. He famously carried the Cavaliers to a seven-game epic in 2008, scoring 45 points in a Game 7 loss. Last year he stood by and watched the Celtics vaporize his vaunted top-seeded Cavs.

He was accused by his own owner of quitting in a playoff game against the Celtics. His final moment in a Cleveland jersey was on the parquet floor. That’s when he stripped the jersey off his torso.

King James came to Miami to win championships. And he knew the first tough test would be a playoff series against the Celtics. Thus far, the Heatles are acing the exam.

At the end of the regular season, the Celtics stopped playing for a top seed. They settled for No. 3 and that means they’re going to have to win at least once in Miami.

“The rest is very good for us,’’ said Rivers. “We are banged up. Game 3 will be in Boston. We like being in Boston.’’

Oh well, maybe Shaq will play Saturday.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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