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This chance clearly went up in smoke

By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / May 29, 2012
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MIAMI - Let’s get this out of the way right now. The Celtics shouldn’t blame the officials for their Game 1 loss to the Heat. Although the officials were rather strict during the second and third quarters, the Celtics wasted an opportunity to steal the opening game of the Eastern Conference finals with their ineptitude.

Monday night’s 93-79 loss at AmericanAirlines Arena was more than the Heat being more athletic than the Celtics. That was on display only on occasion, as the Heat scored just 10 fast-break points. Instead, they opted to pound the Celtics in the paint and rely on the greatness and physicality of LeBron James, who led all scorers with 32 points.

The Heat weren’t the dominant bunch expected to punch the Celtics in the mouth and laugh at the blood dripping from their lips. They played an average game and the Celtics’ defense took the ball out of Dwyane Wade’s hands, forcing the Heat to count on their secondary players, who delivered.

The problem was the Celtics were a one-man team, overusing Kevin Garnett because nobody else bothered to show up except in the second quarter, when the Celtics climbed back into the game with a 35-point effort. In the other three quarters, the non-Garnett Celtics starters were a pathetic 10 for 41 from the field. The main culprit was Paul Pierce, who was visibly psyched out, not attempting one free throw.

During a late third-quarter stretch, Pierce was stymied on three consecutive offensive trips. He was snuffed by James on a layup attempt he believed was a foul, he forced a runner that missed badly, and on the final trip he casually made a pass to Rajon Rondo that was snatched by Shane Battier and turned into an uncontested Mario Chalmers dunk for a 70-58 lead.

Pierce’s passiveness was apparent. Perhaps it was the matchup against James, or fatigue, or his balky knee, but the Celtics captain understands that his overall game has to vastly improve for the team to have any chance in the series.

“We were able to establish Kevin, but the rest of us got to be able to step up with him,’’ said Pierce, who went without a free throw attempt in a postseason game for the first time since that infamous Game 6 NBA Finals loss to the Lakers two years ago. “Myself in particular. I have to be better on the offensive end and defensive end. I have to be able to slow LeBron down a little bit. Tonight I thought it was a little too easy, [they] got a lot of easy opportunities at the jump.

“I think it was both ends of the court. We allowed them to shoot a high percentage and we didn’t play well offensively, either.’’

The Celtics were way too casual Monday night. The Heat were steady from mid-range but struggled from the 3-point line (5 for 25). A focused and undaunted Celtics team would have won this game, but they were neither.

It was almost as if the Celtics expected to get pancaked because of their fatigue and were halfway looking toward Game 2. They denied thinking in such a way, but they essentially bunkered themselves in the basement, waiting for a tidal wave that never really occurred. Wade scored 10 of his 22 points in the fourth quarter, when the game was essentially decided.

With Chris Bosh out indefinitely, the Heat are basically a two-man team, but the Celtics fell asleep in a second-quarter stretch against Mike Miller, who scored all 8 of his points in a 2:24 period. Those glitches are going to happen, but otherwise Boston limited the Heat’s role players from making a huge impact.

James is brilliant and dominant enough to catapult the Heat by himself, as he did through the first three quarters. What’s disheartening for the Celtics is that even a modest contribution from a few others besides Garnett would have put them in a position to steal the game, and that’s something they have a day to stew over.

“We let Wade, we let LeBron play in extreme comfort, and we gave the other guys everything they wanted as well,’’ Boston coach Doc Rivers said. “I just know when we took our time in the second quarter, we got everything we wanted. And then we went back to the way we started the game in the third quarter. On the road, you just can’t have two quarters of lulls. You just can’t afford it.’’

In the first quarter the Celtics played as if they were hung over from Game 7 against the 76ers. They were saved by Garnett, who scored 6 of their 11 points in the quarter while the rest of the lethargic roster went 2 of 16.

The Celtics have made a bad habit of easing into games, and Monday night it cost them because the Heat weren’t the juggernaut that snatched the final three games of the Eastern Conference semifinals away from the Indiana Pacers.

The Celtics were hindered by their lack of attention to detail. They missed 10 free throws, were two steps slower to loose balls, and sometimes gave up defensively when Miami made the extra pass.

The Celtics paid so much attention to James and Wade that Battier could have picked dandelions on the other end of the court while taking several uncontested jumpers.

That’s a matter of execution and passion, not athleticism.

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

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