Two years ago at this time, it was the Heat that had to mesh after LeBron James’s talents arrived from Cleveland, and the argument could be made that the puzzle never consistently had all the pieces in the right place until his transcendent performance during Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals last season.
This year, it’s the Celtics who are trying to figure out how everything best fits, something we were reminded of during their opening-night hiccup, a 120-107 loss to the defending champion Heat.
While the circumstances are different — the Heat had to integrate newcomers LeBron and Chris Bosh with another superstar, Dwyane Wade two years ago, while the Celtics used five new players among the nine who saw the court Tuesday night — it’s apparent that it’s going to take a little time for this thing to work, especially on the defensive end. I’d be willing to bet that we’ve already seen their worst defensive performance of the season, and wouldn’t a June peak be nice?
So with the Heat looking comfortable and familiar, newly crowned and basking in their designated shooter upgrade from James Jones to Ray Allen, let’s pass on assessing the teams for now, one game in and 81 to go, and instead focus on some opening-night takeaways regarding individual performances.
We’ll start with a Celtic who is getting way too much grief for his performance …
Jeff Green: Maybe Scal’s half-serious James Worthy comparison is valid. After all, James Worthy is 51 years old. All right, Green’s tentativeness coming off a very encouraging preseason was frustrating, a flash back to his struggles to fit in after the Kendrick Perkins trade two years ago. But despite my inability to resist a weak joke, I’m going to try my best to be patient with him. After all he’s been through and the determined effort he puts forth, he deserves that much. Last night was his first NBA game since May 11, 2011.
Rajon Rondo: Yeah, his performance was a letdown if you were expecting him to seize control of the game or carry himself with maturity in the face of frustration, things he needs to do this season if he’s going to take that next step to becoming a genuine franchise player and not just a cornerstone. He didn’t score his first hoop until the score was 43-42, and he probably overdid himself trying to involve all of the new players in the offense. Then again, when a bad night is 20 points, 13 assists, and 7 rebounds, that does get you thinking about how much fun the frequent good nights will be.
Paul Pierce: He didn’t shoot particularly well — 6 of 15 en route to 23 points — yet his performance might have been the most encouraging sign of the night for the Celtics. He looked healthy and spry, the greatest confirmation yet that it was injury and not the effects of age that rendered him so ineffective at times Also: He should be miked up every game. His defensive orders to Jared Sullinger and his admonition of Rondo (“You need to play ball right now and stop thinking so much!”) were gold.
Kevin Garnett: He gave Ray Allen the cold shoulder and never got the hot hand. He was out of sync the whole game, something that won’t happen more than a half-dozen times this season. Personally, I think he was thrown off by Allen’s weird attempted acknowledgment as he checked into the game. (KG’s instant monologue: “He touched me. Did you see that, Darko? I can’t believe that traitorous @(#*%&!*@* jump-shooting *$@(@)!***#()!)@) front-running ##$(% momma’s boy touched me. $**$#@@.”)
Leandro Barbosa: Sixteen points in 16 minutes on 6 of 8 shooting? Why, he’s like a super-skinny Brazilian Vinnie Johnson!
Shane Battier: Didn’t notice him. Might have something to do with the cracking down on flopping. Poor guy must be so lost right now.
LeBron James: I get loathing him as an opponent; hell, it’s encouraged. Great players are great villains. But as an aficionado of basketball played at its highest level, I love watching what he’s become, which is essentially a point-power forward who dominates the game selflessly, almost casually, then flips a switch and imposes his will when he senses or the scoreboard suggests. He could average a triple-double. It’s his world now, cramps, self-aggrandizing commercials and all. We’d better get used to it.
Mario Chalmers: Still carries himself like he’s never considered there might be a better player on his team.
Courtney Lee: Can you have three first impressions? Well too bad, because I do. 1) Though he got beat on a couple of back cuts by Dwyane Wade, he’s going to be a tremendous asset defensively. 2) We know he can shoot the corner three as well as just about anyone in the league, but I was impressed with his finishing ability at the rim. 3) He totally looks like an elongated Dana Barros in that No. 11 jersey.
Dwyane Wade: Does he ever miss a bank shot on continuation after he’s fouled? He must shoot 80 percent after contact. Anyway, a team-leading 29 points for him, and a near-Rambising by Rondo. The latter is slightly more surprising than the former.
Brandon Bass: Can’t imagine he’ll ever have a better game than his tour de force 27-point effort — with 18 coming in the third quarter — in Game 5 against the Sixers last May. But last night was about as well as he can play under the umbrella of reasonable expectations. In 28 minutes, he had 15 points and 11 boards — including six on the offensive glass, which led to some rare easy hoops against the Heat. My fledgling campaign for Jared Sullinger to start is suspended immediately.
David Stern: Kommissioner Katrina’s verbal gaffe confusing his natural disasters was embarrassing enough, but weren’t you more annoyed by his cloying interaction with LeBron during the ring ceremony? I may have heard a word or two incorrectly, but did he not say, “I told you you’d do it. I told you in August”? Given the ease with which NBA conspiracy theories are created, I’m just going to have to presume the Heat’s title as predetermined as Patrick Ewing, New York Knick, and nothing can ever convince me otherwise. So there.
Jason Terry: His aggressiveness in going to the hoop is going to be a huge asset, though he could have been more selective in his debut. When he ran the offense during Rondo’s four minutes on the bench, he was the definition of a shoot-first point guard. He’ll shoot much better than 2 of 7 on most nights.
Ray Allen: He laughs first. The Heat come to Boston January 27. Laughter will not be the dominant expression then.