Regardless of whom you listened to prior to Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals Monday night, all the experts pretty much had the same opinion on how things would go down. In essence, their “analysis” basically boiled down to this: “Yeah, the Celtics have no chance.” In Boston’s defense the overwhelming sentiment for the Heat prior to Game 1 had little to do with the actual Heat themselves, and more to do with ancillary stuff that was out of Boston’s control. Things like their age, the quick turnaround from Saturday night against Philly, and the brutal seven game series they just finished up less than 48 hours prior against the 76ers. Again, Boston’s underdog status entering Game 1 had little to do with their actual opponent.
Well, with the Heat winning 93-79 Monday night, the experts were both right and wrong with how Game 1 shook out. Sure they were “right,” because the younger, fresher, home-court advantaged Heat cruised to an easy victory, exactly like most had predicted. But what most of the experts got wrong was how the Heat won Game 1.
And it’s that how which was not only the story Monday night, but potentially of the series.
Because while the box score will tell you the game was a blowout, what the naked eye will tell you is that it was much closer. Sure Boston’s age was an issue and Miami’s youth prevailed, but if you actually plopped yourself on the couch Monday night and watched, what you’ll realize is that for a time the game was much closer than most expected. Boston used a big second quarter to tie things up at 46 right before the half, making us momentarily forget the pre-series storylines and wonder aloud, “wait, the Celtics can’t really win this game, can they?” Somewhere I’m sure Skip Bayless was foaming at the mouth just thinking about the possibility.
Well unfortunately for old Skip, that sentiment didn’t last too long. Like one of those old Superman cartoons, the Heat went “Boom! Bam! Bang!” on the Celtics, and that tie score at halftime became a blowout by the middle of the third quarter. It was a laugher by the start of the fourth, and a formality with about eight minutes to go.
Now obviously, Monday night was only game, and things can change quickly. As we learn every year it only takes one hard foul, one misguided technical foul, or one twisted ankle to completely swing things the other direction. I get that. At the same time, Monday night did feel different though. It’s one thing for Miami to put up one of those epic spurts and dominant halves against Memphis, Milwaukee or the Clippers in the regular season, or even the Knicks or Pacers in the postseason. But against the Celtics? These prideful, stubborn, never-go-down-without-a-fight Celtics? It sure felt like Monday meant something more than just taking the first game of the series.
And really, Monday night wasn’t just about the win, but how the Heat did it.
Yes, the headline will again read “LeBron and Wade take on the world,” but if you actually watched closely, it didn’t go down quite like that. Yes, LeBron was again phenomenal, doing all sorts of LeBron things (on Monday night it was 32 points and 12 boards), but Wade’s evening was mostly spent as a distributor, piling up seven assists. There’s a reason that Jeff Van Gundy joked on TV that, “Miami no longer has a quarterback controversy,” and it was because Wade was distributing the ball in ways that Matt Moore or Ryan Tannehill (sorry, I can’t help but giggle when I hear that) could never imagine. The box score said Wade had 22 points, but most of them came after the game was already out of reach.
Nope, this wasn’t the two-man wrecking crew of Game 4 in Indiana, but a team win in every sense of the word (something that admittedly, I don’t know if any of us thought Miami was capable of as recently as a week ago). Yes LeBron and Wade were great, but Shane Battier also had a double-double with 10 points and 10 boards. Mario Chalmers did a little bit of everything and Mike Miller hit some big threes. Heck, even Ronny Turiaf…well, umm, he set a good screen that one time. Ok, maybe Turiaf didn’t do anything, but you get the point, with that point being: It’s one thing for LeBron to be great. It’s one thing for Wade to be good alongside him. But if the Heat are actually getting contributions from everyone? Well it’s a wrap. Not only will they beat the Celtics, they will prove to be a worthy challenger to whoever wins the West too.
Really though, to talk strictly about the offense would be to take away from the real story: Miami’s defense. Simply put, it was fantastic, as quality an effort as I’ve seen from any team, in any game of the playoffs so far. Yes, Miami was younger, quicker and faster, and they showed it time and time again on Monday night. They jumped passing lanes, closed out faster than Boston could move the ball, and were basically like those old Visa commercials; in essence, Miami’s defense was “Everywhere you want (them) to be.” Boston finished the game shooting 39 percent from the field and 28 percent from three, and just watching on TV, it actually seemed a lot worse than that.
But again, this isn’t totally about the stats, since the numbers can be misleading. For me it all goes back to watching the game with my own two eyes, and when I close those eyes and think back on Game 1, there was something different about the Heat’s defensive effort too; not just the quality of the stats Miami put up, but more importantly, the way Miami carried themselves on that side of the court. The Heat definitely had a bit more swag than I’ve noticed before, and certainly had plenty of confidence, but also kept their cockiness in check (well, until LeBron starting giggling in KG’s face late in the game, anyway). What they really had was a controlled aggression, nothing dirty, but at the same time definitely a bit more forceful. Rebounds were ripped down a little harder, blocked shots swatted with more ferocity, half-court traps a bit more urgent. If I had to use one word to describe the effort, it’d be that Miami played “tougher,” on defense than I’ve ever seen them before. They’ve always had the youth and freakish athleticism. Monday night they had an edge too.
And above all, that’s the thought that I can’t help get out of my head after Game 1: Miami looks way tougher than they ever have before. They look tougher than they did in last year’s playoffs, this regular season, or even a week ago. That’s a scary proposition for Boston going forward.
As for the toughness itself, well the more I think about it, the more I can’t help but give credit to (or blame, depending on how you look at it), the Indiana Pacers for that. I spent a lot of time writing about this last week, so I won’t get too much into it here, but the more I reflect, the more I wonder if that Tyler Hansbrough-Udonis Haslem brouhaha really was the turning point in who the Heat were, and what potentially they could be. Whether that moment was when they transformed from “over branded hyped machine” to “finally reaching their full capabilities.”
Seriously, if you’ve been watching this team all playoffs (or for the last two years really) it does seem like at the exact moment that Haslem’s two arms came down hard on Hansbrough’s shoulders (justifiably if you ask me), that the Heat are a different team. Up until that point the Pacers had bumped and bruised and prodded Miami, and basically did anything to get into Miami’s heads. But it was at that exact moment- Haslem’s retaliation for Hansbrough’s cheap foul- that a line in the sand was drawn for Miami. Again, I wrote about it last week, but it’s worth repeating here: It was at that point where Miami said “enough is enough,” took it personally, and decided to bully back the bully. And as our parents all taught us in elementary school, when you stand up to the bully, the bully almost always backs down. Six quarters after Haslem out-toughed the entire Indiana roster, the Pacers were eliminated from the playoffs. Oh, and the Heat have never looked better either.
Now of course while all this talk is fun, there’s no guarantee it’ll last. We all know Boston has a counter-punch in them, and after Game 1 Monday the Celtics are already talking about bringing more physicality in Game 2. The Celtics are a team that never goes down without a fight, so when they say that they’ll bring more intensity to Game 2 I have no reason not to believe them.
I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention that the chatter this morning is a lot like the conversations we were having in the midst of the Eastern Conference Finals last year too. You do remember when the Heat blitzed through Chicago last May, right? When LeBron out MVP’ed Derrick Rose, when Haslem and Chris Bosh turned Carlos Boozer into a puddle of frustration and missed layups, when the Heat finished off the NBA’s best regular season team in five games? Remember that? And remember how- as good as the Heat looked- it was still Dirk Nowitzki who held the Larry O’Brien Trophy over his head when it was all said and done? I do, and I’m sure you do too. Point being, there is still a ton of basketball to be played between this morning and when the final confetti of the season falls in a few weeks.
At the same time, today isn’t about gazing into the future, but instead focusing on the present. And in the present, my goodness, the Heat look tough. And when I say “tough” I don’t only mean figuratively, but literally too.
And it’s that “toughness” which could end up as the key to this series.
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