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Forget the Lakers: Heat far more important game for Celtics

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  February 11, 2011 09:23 AM

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"We’re way behind those guys. Just look at the number of games played, the number of playoff series those guys have had. We’re only a few months in together — 40-something-plus games. I’ve seen the statistics. Boston has like 250-plus games played together. We’re way behind those teams."
- LeBron James earlier this month

The King is making excuses again, which, of course, is what LeBron James does best. And so while the NBA Eastern Conference suddenly looks like a pure, flat-footed race, James and his legion of suck-ups would somehow have you believe the Celtics are ahead.

They aren't.

Not anymore.

Before anyone puts too much emphasis on last night's 92-86 victory by the Los Angeles Lakers at the TD Garden, remember this: for the Celtics, the more important game comes Sunday. That is when the Heat come back to town. Miami and Boston now possess identical 38-14 records entering the final 30 games of the 2010-11 NBA regular season, a fact that seemed highly improbable as recently as three months ago. After the Celtics and Heat last faced one another, Miami was 5-4. A few weeks later, the Heat were 9-8. No matter where you draw the line, Miami has outplayed Boston for the better part of this season, at least based on the wins and losses that will determine home court advantage when the games start for real.

Since their last meeting, the Heat are 33-10 and the Celtics are 31-12. Over the last 35 games for each team, the Heat are 29-6 and the Celtics are 25-10. If and when the Celtics and Heat end up 1-2 in the East - not necessarily in that order - the teams can only meet in the Eastern Conference finals, at which point home court advantage will be a significant factor.

All of this brings us back to James, who made excuses last season with the Cleveland Cavaliers and is continuing to make them now as Dwyane Wade's sidecar, his talents having been fully delivered to the shores of South Beach. Cleveland blew away the Celtics in the regular season race last year, and even then James tried to deflect the burden of expectation. The Celtics looked "bored," James said. He said the Celtics were "ready for a new challenge" and told us, in no uncertain terms, "I know basketball."

Then James went out and rolled over in the Eastern Conference playoffs, quitting during a second-round series in which the Cavs lasted just five games, precisely as many as Wade and the Heat endured against the Celtics in the first round.

In retrospect, when James gave us "The Decision," shouldn't we have seen the obvious comparison? In the first round, Wade and a bunch of stiffs took the Celtics to five games, each of which featured Wade as the game's high scorer. In the second round, James and the Cavs similarly went down in five games, albeit with a considerably better roster. Wade gave a far better representation than James, which should hardly come as a surprise. One man once lifted his team on his shoulder and single-handedly delivered his club to an upset in the NBA Finals; the other quit in a playoff to expose the inadequacies of his teammates.

Give James credit for one thing.

He does know basketball.

It's the winning he has a problem with.

For the Celtics, the body count is rising. Shaquille O'Neal. Marquis Daniels. Now Nate Robinson. The list goes on. Amid O'Neal's absence, in particular, last night's loss to the Lakers had some eerie similarities to Game 7 of the Finals last year. The Celtics lacked the sheer size to ward off Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom, who alone had nearly as many rebounds (31) as the entire Celtics roster (36).

The good news today is that the Heat lack the same kind of size to exploit the Celtics on the interior, even with the Celtics in a weakened state. For Boston, Sunday remains a very winnable game. A Boston victory would make the Celtics 3-0 against the Heat this year and ensure that the Celtics would possess a tie-breaking advantage should the clubs end up tied in the standings, as they are now. That advantage could earn the Celtics home court advantage in any playoff series.

As for James, he clearly needs a refresher on recent events. He might know basketball, but he is ignorant with regard to the Celtics' history. In 2007-08, the first season in which Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett were united, the Celtics began the season 29-3. They finished 66-16, totaling just two fewer losses than the Heat possess now. Garnett, Allen and Pierce knew then that the Detroit Pistons were their greatest obstacle in the East, but the Celtics never made excuses built on a relative shortage of playing time together. Neither did their coach. The general belief back then was that the Celtics were operating with something in the vicinity of a three-year window, a big-picture view that the Celtics summarily dismissed from the very beginning, when Rivers took the new Big Three on a tour of the championship parade route before the Celtics had played a meaningful game together.

"I didn't buy into that [three-year plan]," Rivers said just before the Celtics began the 2007-08 playoffs. "I think that's what everyone else was saying, but that's not what I believed and I thought it was important for our team to not buy into that."

The Celtics didn't buy in.

They believed, played and acted like they could win.

If LeBron James and the Heat do not beat them this weekend, with the state the Celtics are in, it will have far less to do with chemistry than it will with heart.

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Updated: Mar 1, 07:24 AM

About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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