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They can handle Heat

Miami’s championship should motivate the Celtics

By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / June 23, 2012
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The pain from the Celtics’ Game 6 and 7 losses to the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference finals was revived Thursday night when the Heat finished off the Oklahoma City Thunder in five games to win the NBA championship.

Miami entered the series as the underdog, supposedly unable to harness the athleticism of the Thunder, not talented enough at point guard and center to compete, and too reliant on LeBron James to win.

None of those theories came true, and if you use the associative property, and conclude that if Miami beat Oklahoma City in five games, and Miami needed seven games to beat Boston, then the Celtics are the NBA’s second-best team, despite all their injuries.

The success of the Heat should not discourage the Celtics, but motivate them. Miami will be favored to win the Eastern Conference again next season, and unless management makes some substantial deals, the Heat’s title defense will occur with mostly the same roster.

Signing James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh reduced roster flexibility, and with each receiving raises for next season, the Heat will remain a luxury-tax team. The club’s biggest offseason news could come from Mike Miller, Thursday’s Game 5 hero who drained seven 3-pointers despite playing with a back that will require surgery.

Miller may retire, or the Heat may use the amnesty clause on his contract to create cap space. But Miami will enter next season with essentially the same team that won the title, a flawed squad with the game’s best player (James), a superstar perhaps in decline (Wade), and a solid third option (Bosh).

The Heat will be a difficult, but not impossible, team to overcome. You can assume that James will return motivated to prove his first title wasn’t a fluke, but can the same be expected from Wade, and will Mario Chalmers be able to produce for a second consecutive year?

Like the Mavericks last year, the Heat enter the offseason with questions. They weren’t a great team, but good enough to win the title, especially defensively. They capitalized on the Thunder’s immaturity and inexperience. While Oklahoma City players such as James Harden and Russell Westbrook enjoyed the South Beach nightlife during the series, the Heat appeared more focused on winning.

Repeating as champions is the most difficult thing to do in sports, more difficult than winning the first. Although Miami has received its opponents’ best games during the Big Three’s two seasons, that will only intensify next season. And the Heat were able to avoid major injuries during the regular season, and made due when Bosh missed nine games during the playoffs.

Miami coach Erik Spoelstra fully expects similar pressure next season.

“Do you think [having no pressure will] actually happen?’’ he said after Thursday’s clincher. “Who knows what to expect, you know, with the story lines next year? But I don’t think we’ll be able to dodge them completely.’’

It’s difficult to believe the Heat will return with the same passion and good health (mostly) they had this season, just like it was predictable that the Celtics experienced an injury-plagued season with a veteran team rushed into training camp because of a lockout.

President of basketball operations Danny Ainge has been preparing the team for one more run, and Doc Rivers even said during the Miami series, “I want to beat these guys.’’

“We’ll always remember that we had a chance in Game 6 and Game 7 to beat a really good team,’’ Ainge said. “That will always be frustrating because it was so close. I do feel proud of the team. I thought Doc did a wonderful job of coaching this group of guys. I thought they did a great job of hanging in there and fighting through a lot of adversity and they showed me a lot of what they’re made of.

“I feel we have a chance again next year.’’

Ainge is right. The East will be tough to predict next season, with the Bulls dealing with the torn anterior cruciate ligament of Derrick Rose, who may not return until the All-Star break. The Pacers are the most intriguing team because of their growth over the last two years, but they have yet to show they’re ready to take the next step to contender.

The Hawks are talented but not elite, while the Magic just hired a new general manager and have the Dwight Howard issue looming over the next several months. The 76ers are potentially dangerous, but leading scorer Lou Williams is an unrestricted free agent, general manager Rod Thorn is expected to step down, and Elton Brand may be amnestied.

The Knicks are, well, the Knicks. There is no telling how they will fare under Mike Woodson.

So the focus for the Celtics are the Heat, and they likely lamented Friday how close they were to replacing Miami in the Finals for an opportunity at title No. 18. Boston was an energetic fourth quarter away from robbing James again, and that has to serve as an offseason motivator.

Although the games won’t be played until October, the Celtics have many issues to address over the next few months, starting with Thursday’s draft. Those in the offices on Causeway Street should realize how close they were to unseating the Heat, and how close they will remain next season.

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

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