The Miami Heat visited Boston last night and won a playoff game that took place in the regular season. Game #66 for both teams. The Heat won their 23rd straight game. Meanwhile, the Celtics are in a tug-of-war for home court advantage with five teams. As you may have heard, Miami is currently on the second longest streak in NBA history. Only the 1971-72 Lakers, who won an insane 33 straight games, are ahead of them. Miami’s current run dwarfs the 2008 Celtics’ mark of 18 consecutive wins, and will make NBA fans forget about the Los Angeles Clippers’ 17-game-run this past December. In fact, for a team that took the league by storm in December, the Clippers have been struggling to hang onto the 3rd seed in the West now that Denver and Memphis have hit their own strides. What does this tell us? In case we needed reminding, the 82-game regular season has its ebbs and its flows. It also tells us every team is not accurately measured by its current record, despite Bill Belichick’s oft-repeated platitude.
Thirty games without Avery Bradley and with a physically and psychologically-recovering Jeff Green are not thirty games with these Celtics, that should be clear. Whatever anyone else wants to say about these Boston Celtics, they are capable of playing toe-to-toe, foot-to-foot, and hip-to-hip against these Miami Heat. If they meet again in the postseason, no matter the round, the series should last at least six games, and no team will push Miami harder than these Celtics, with the possible exception of the Indiana Pacers.
The game itself lived up to the expectations. Not only did the Heat enter on this historic streak, but the game was a rematch of last year’s seven-game Eastern Conference Finals. Boston and Miami played a memorable overtime thriller at the end of January, in which the Celtics pulled out a 100-98 win. You might remember it as “The Game That We Found Out About Rondo’s Knee.” This game was equally memorable. The crowd was electric, buzzing from the opening tip, which was fittingly taken by Jeff Green in Kevin Garnett’s absence. Garnett missed his second straight with a strained adductor muscle (inner thigh) as well as the flu. In his absence, Jeff Green unleashed himself from the opening tip, and put on a show that should give Celtics fans reassurance about the post-Garnett era in Boston.
After missing his first look, a 25-footer from the top of the key (not his sweet spot, which is the left corner), Green simply took flight. The Heat are using LeBron at the power forward this year, a key reason for their dominant defensive season, which creates match-up nightmares for opponents trying to defend LeBron with their typical 4-men. Playing the power forward position in place of Garnett, Green was defended by a combination of players not named Lebron, who was given the assignment of making life impossible for Pierce. Spoelstra was effectively daring Green to have a career night with Garnett out, and Green answered with a resounding, “Bring it!”
Green’s performance last night might accurately be described as: inspired, otherworldly, magnificent, ridiculous, assertive-yet-controlled, hyper-focused, devastating, and wonderful.
Few players are able to drop in 43-points within the flow of the offense, but that is what Green did. Like Steph Curry’s 54-point barrage on the Knicks with David Lee on the sideline, Green filled in for Garnett’s absence by necessity. Listening to the persuasive voice of Doc Rivers, Jason Terry, Paul Pierce and finally, himself, Green took on the challenge and took his assertiveness to a new level. Like LeBron, who can guard multiple positions and create match-up problems on offense, Green has the versatility to stretch the floor from the corner against slower power forwards and the slashing ability and length to get to the rim against teams that lack an interior presence. An example from earlier this season of Green’s ability to take over a game: 31 points on 14 shots against the Suns, in addition to 5 blocks and 2 steals.
On this occasion, Green finished with 26 first-half points, his corner three setting up defiant drives to the hoop. Hubie Brown, whose commentary for ESPN is worth paying attention to, noted Green’s ability to avoid charge-calls, a Miami defensive strength, while swooping toward the iron. As the shot chart shows, Green finished 9 of 14 from the paint, and connected on all four corner triples. In addition, he shot 10 of 13 from the line.
What came along with the efficient scoring (43 points on only 21 attempts) was a defensive effort that matched LeBron’s. Green swatted four shots including a sensational outstretched deflection of a Battier corner jumper, which highlighted Green’s wing-span. This was a play that only a handful of NBA players could make, as it demands the lateral quickness to rotate and the length and jumping ability to get to a high-arcing three at a point over ten feet off the ground. This swat, in addition to Avery Bradley’s miraculous come-from-behind block of Norris Cole’s breakaway dunk attempt, was most certainly replay-worthy.
You may be thinking, “But we lost!” And you’re right, the Celtics lost, and lost painfully. The Heat defense wore them down in the 4th quarter, and they couldn’t hold a 13-point lead with 8:26 remaining in the game. When LeBron single-handedly cut the lead to 4 (96-92) with 5:33 left, we were all reminded who the best player on earth currently is. When Avery Bradley, who had a miserable game, finally hit a corner 3 with 1:49 left to put the Celtics up 2 (103-101), there was still hope. When Green’s drive to the rim was blocked by the equally-long Shane Battier, the C’s still had a shot. When Pierce’s 3-pointer went long with 4 seconds left, it was over, deflating, all-for-naught. Except not for naught. Green’s performance should give us hope. Not just for this season, but for the next few seasons as well.
All Celtics fans have a measure of uncertainty about what to expect in the future, when KG and the Truth exit the parquet for one final time. Some fans are so terrified of that future, they pushed for a deadline trade this year. While Rondo’s future has been discussed more than I think it needs to be (can’t we be happy that we have such a luxury—a pure point guard with an uncanny knack for rebounding and playing his best in big games?), and Sullinger’s back may always be questionable, Green’s status as a Celtic until 2016 should be a certainty, especially now that we’ve seen him leap that final, psychological hurdle that allows him to unleash this kind of energy without fear of the contact that driving to the rim draws. Will he have some off days? Yes? Will he be able to sustain this kind of intensity over 82 games? No. But does he have the potential to win a playoff game by himself? Possibly. And that’s more than most non-maximum contract players can say.