NBA Playoffs: Celtics bounce back, shut down the Heat

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It looks like the Miami-Boston series might just live up to the hype after all. After looking sluggish and over-matched in the first two games of the series, the Celtics were able to get a convincing 97-81 win over the Heat by doing what they do best: spreading the ball around on offense and playing lock-down defense.

The Celtics were able to get out to an early lead against the Heat’s Bibby/Wade/James/Bosh/Ilgauskas starting lineup, which has been an unmitigated disaster throughout the playoffs; the Heat were outscored by 15 points during Ilgauskas’ eight minutes of floor time. The Heat were able to get back into the game thanks to the spark provided off the bench by Joel Anthony, and actually went into the half with a two-point lead.

At the beginning of the third quarter, the Celtics were once again able to abuse the Heat’s starting lineup, and this time the Heat weren’t unable to dig themselves out of the hole their starters put them in.

Boston’s defense was absolutely stifling. LeBron James had a performance that evoked memories of his abysmal performances against the Celtics in the final games of the 2010 conference semifinals. He shot 6-16 from the floor, and spent most of his time dribbling in no-mans land, either trying to force drives through lanes that weren’t there or tossing up floaters that had little hope of going in. For his part, Chris Bosh was completely invisible, and Bibby and Ilgauskas combined to score a grand total of two points.

Mario Chalmers and Dwyane Wade were able to hit some shots, and Joel Anthony had one of his best offensive games of the season, but that wasn’t nearly enough to make up for the Heat’s big three going a combined 13-38 from the field against a dialed-in Boston defense.

Offensively, Boston was able to move the ball and shoot from the outside with accuracy, but everything ran through Kevin Garnett. Garnett is often the fourth option on offense for the Celtics, but it wasn’t that long ago that he was the league MVP, and Garnett had a throwback performance on Saturday night. The Celtics tossed the ball to Garnett in the post time and time again, and he was able to score over whoever was guarding him with ease.

Rajon Rondo’s performance was another huge key for the Celtics — his final line was pedestrian, but he gave his team a huge energy boost when he played all-out on one arm after dislocating his left elbow early in the third quarter.

But as good as Garnett and Rondo were, the story of the night was the Celtics’ defense. They completely broke down one of the best offensive teams in the league, and held the “Big Three” to their lowest point total of the season. This is the relentless, swarming, physical brand of defense that the Celtics have been built on ever since they traded for Kevin Garnett and became title contenders, and it’s the type of defense they will need to continue to play if they want to even up this series and send LeBron James and Dwyane Wade to an early vacation for the second year in a row.

As for the Heat, they may need to change up their starting lineup, and they will need to get back to containing Garnett and moving the ball they way they did in Games 1 and 2 — Miami may still have a 1-game lead and home-court advantage, but Boston is too experienced, too talented, too hungry, and too dangerous to be given chances to get back in the series.