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Fire has been stoked

Miami still feeling heat from Celtics

By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / April 10, 2012
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MIAMI - When the confetti rained down on American Airlines Arena last May, and LeBron James embraced Dwyane Wade as they battled to maintain their poise as the Mavericks celebrated the NBA title on Miami’s home court, the Heat truly believed they had ridded themselves of the Boston Celtics.

And when the Celtics began the season 5-9, looking well past their prime, unable to compete with the league’s elite, the Heat appeared to clear the hurdle of their biggest rival.

That was until the Celtics worked into shape, moved Kevin Garnett to center, and unleashed secret weapon Avery Bradley into the rotation. (Bradley was so secret, even the Celtics had no idea he would emerge as a factor.)

And that revamped crew extinguished the Heat, 91-72, nine days ago at TD Garden. That game relayed a message to South Florida: The Celtics can no longer be considered an afterthought. Their improved defense, newfound athleticism with Garnett and Brandon Bass in the frontcourt, and the stifling defense of Bradley have changed their image.

So the Heat offered nothing but respect Monday when asked about the Celtics, who they host Tuesday.

“They’re too good of a team, too well-coached, I never get into that too-old mess,’’ MVP candidate James said. “What’s amazing about it? They got four probably Hall of Famers, Garnett, [Paul] Pierce, [Rajon] Rondo is on his way to being one of the greatest point guards, and [Ray Allen]. And then they got guys behind them that just play well. Doc [Rivers] puts them in position that’s great, so it doesn’t surprise me.’’

In some ways, the Heat still judge themselves against the Celtics. Basketball observers don’t really expect the Celtics to compete with the Heat in a long playoff series. The Celtics lost in five games in last year’s Eastern Conference semifinals, as James and Wade outran them. James became impossible to defend because of his 3-point shooting and the Celtics didn’t execute at the end of the crucial Game 4.

Yet, the Heat did not beat the Celtics at full strength. Rondo played the final two games of the series with a dislocated left elbow, forcing Rivers to bench him in Game 5 in favor of Delonte West. Although the Celtics hardly resembled a contender this season in January and half of February because their legs took longer to round into shape, the April 1 victory humbled the Heat. Miami was beaten soundly last month by Oklahoma City and Indiana, and suffered a rare home loss to the Memphis Grizzlies last Friday. The question is whether the Heat have improved from last season.

They still have the league’s most formidable trio in James, Wade, and Chris Bosh, but they are overmatched at point guard and center in nearly every matchup, and that is the case against the Celtics.

“We’re looking forward to playing them again,’’ James said. “They pretty much did whatever they wanted to do to us in Boston. And so we’re looking forward to playing a lot better. We’ll be better prepared. I don’t want to say they caught us off guard, I will never use that as an excuse. They beat us. They dominated us in that game.’’

Although the Celtics are competing for the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference, with an outside chance at the third seed, the Heat have practically locked up the No. 2 spot. But this game is just as crucial to Miami. A nationally televised audience gets to judge whether the Heat are playoff-ready. The Celtics endured their share of detractors and had bouts of fatigue several weeks ago, and the Heat are experiencing the same issues.

Wade missed Sunday’s win over the Pistons to rest a sore ankle. He spent the latter half of practice Monday working on the arc of his jump shot, trying to regain those fundamentals lost during this chaotic season of the lockout. He assured reporters he was going to be ready to play Tuesday.

“You guys write them off, we don’t,’’ Wade said. “The players don’t. You’ve got guys who are Hall of Famers, you’ve got guys who still have a lot in the tank, a lot of pride. They’re together. They have their core together, they know their game.

“No matter what they are going through throughout the year, you know they are going to get it together. And they are going to be a tough opponent for any team when it comes playoff time. You always have to be prepared and always be aware of them.

“If they want to play three more years, it’s going to be the same way, as long as they’re healthy, they’ll be a good team. They might not be as athletic, but they can hurt you in other ways and they don’t forget how to play.’’

Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @gwashNBAGlobe.

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