Boston would not get steamrolled. You’ve got to give them that. When Dallas found themselves getting overwhelmed early by the aggressive and up-tempo version of the Heat on Christmas Day, the Mavs rolled over and played dead.
Not Boston. They scrapped and zoned all the way back to make it a game.
But in the end the shorthanded Celtics fell to the Heat 115-107. Miami is 2-0 and looks better than they did last season (and the fans have a new hero in Norris Cole). Boston joins the Mavericks and Lakers as recent champions starting the season 0-2 (with a back-to-back in New Orleans on Wednesday).
It’s hard to describe how Miami is playing at a different tempo than their opponents right now. There are college football games early in the season where a young program goes in to challenge a national power and early on you can see the upstarts don’t have the size and athleticism, they look overwhelmed. It takes them a while to find their footing.
That is how Boston looked at the start. Overwhelmed and slow. Miami’s pressure is relentless in their new system — they were always aggressive on defense but now are trying to turn every miss and steal into a chance to run. And that means high percentage shots, like a monster LeBron James dunk early right over Rajon Rondo. Miami shot 81.8 percent through the first eight minutes of the game with Dwyane Wade and LeBron leading the way, and they shot 70 percent well into the third quarter.
Miami not only is trying to run more but they are far more aggressive trying to get to the rim in half court sets. One of their first possessions the got Chris Bosh the ball 15 feet out on the wing and he faced up and drove right at Jermaine O’Neal for two. Playing against Boston and Kevin Garnett seems to bring out the best in Bosh — and he’s knocking down that three trailing on those fast breaks. When Marquis Daniels was on LeBron, they posted him up. Miami is trying to find and exploit mismatches, and doing it much faster than before.
Boston hung around thanks to Rondo (who was looking to score) and 61.5 percent shooting themselves. Boston was also draining the long ball — Ray Allen had six threes and as a team the Celtics shot 12-of-19 from beyond the arc.
Still, it looked like a Heat runaway. But midway through third Doc Rivers decided to try the zone — the first time anyone remembers Boston in a zone — and that slowed the Heat down. Miami missed shots on eight straight possessions to end the third quarter and the Celtics got on an 18-6 run and cut the lead to at 91-83. And we had a ballgame.
Then in the fourth Boston went away from the zone and Miami was a little more patient on offense and suddenly the lead was back to 13. So Boston went back to the zone and their starters, the Heat started to turn it over.
Miami had better adapt better to the zone — flash LeBron or Bosh into the middle of it, have James Jones shooting over the top — because after this game they are going to see a lot more of it going forward.
Boston in the fourth quarter did what they have done for years – take away your primary scoring options and dare anyone else to beat them. Norris Cole did just that with 14 fourth quarter points. He finished with 20 total and more importantly played fearlessly but with the control of a veteran in the clutch. I don’t think Cole should ever have more shots than Bosh (16 to 11) but it worked. And he could have Mario Chalmers job if he keeps this up.
Boston had to play the Knicks and Heat on the road to start the season and do it without Paul Pierce. That might be 0-2 under the best of circumstances. They fought in this game. They are a good team that will be there later.
But Miami looks like a relentless machine. A team that has figured out an up-tempo style that suits them. One they will only get better at. A team that defends hard.
Miami was two games away from a title and they look better than they did last season. Much better. Which is scary for the other 29 teams.