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It's still way too soon to crown the Heat -- or dismiss the Celtics

When Miami generated leads of 35 points at Dallas on Christmas and then 20 points against the Celtics two nights later, the Heat looked like inevitable champions. They were on the verge of turning the next six months into a parade of full-court sprints.

Then Boston reminded the rest of the league that it's much too early to make any final judgments. Boston's 115-107 loss Tuesday turned out to be a statement on behalf of patience and common sense. Now is not the time to speak with finality about any team, good or bad.

The performance of the Celtics in Miami showed that at this time of year, following an extended lockout and a shortened training camp, winning and losing is not as important as how you play the game. Consider the combined 0-6 start of the Mavericks, Celtics and Lakers -- did their miserable starts put all three champions on the verge of irrelevancy?

The answer, obviously, is no. Dallas looked passive after replacing Tyson Chandler and other components in response to the financial rules of the new collective bargaining agreement, but the Mavs remain too talented, deep and proud to not recover. The Lakers should have beaten Chicago on opening day, which itself was a kind of victory, given the (as yet) uncompensated departure of Lamar Odom, the four-game suspension of Andrew Bynum, the shooting-wrist injury to Kobe Bryant and the attempts by Mike Brown to create a new style in spite of minimal practice time.

Then there are the Celtics, who should actually be inspired by many aspects of their 0-2 start. They played a remarkable game of perserverance Tuesday in Miami. Paul Pierce was on the bench in a tailored suit, and with six minutes remaining his teammates had committed 21 turnovers and enabled Miami to shoot 59.7 percent from the floor. The Heat had attempted 10 more free throws than the Celtics and outrebounded them 34-21. And yet Boston was within 102-93, and would cut the deficit to three points with 1:22 remaining -- in spite of a lousy charge call that unfairly nullified a crucial two-on-one fast break for the Celtics in the late going of their extended comeback.

The Celtics recovered because coach Doc Rivers had decided to install a zone defense that froze the Heat much the same as the Mavericks' zones disrupted them during the NBA Finals last June. Last summer Rivers was laughing about his newfound commitment to the zone because it grated against his man-to-man instincts. "But I'm going to have to do it,'' he said, and this game showed why he was right: Miami settled for jumpers, the Celtics hit timely threes (18 of Ray Allen's 28 points came from the arc) and the game slowed to a pace that Rajon Rondo (22 points and 12 assists) could manage.

The point of these early-season games isn't that they provide conclusions but that they raise questions. That's especially true this season, thanks to the minimal preparation of the teams and limited conditioning of the players.

The Heat know they're going to be seeing a lot more zone this season, which for them is a good thing. They haven't had enough practice time to learn how to attack those defenses since the NBA Finals, but over the months ahead they will learn. You can be sure they'll figure out that part of the game because they've been able to figure out everything else. They've learned how to play exceptional defense, they've turned themselves into a team that seeks to attack in transition whenever possible, LeBron James has learned to play effectively from the post, and he and Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh have learned how to play together in all situations except for those created by zones. By April and May they ought to be much better against those defenses than they were Tuesday.

They've also improved their depth by adding rookie point guard Norris Cole, a senior from Cleveland State who can push the ball in transition and hit the open shots that were created by Boston's zone. His team-leading 14 points in the fourth quarter enabled Miami to beat the Celtics for the sixth time in seven meetings since last April.

The Celtics have reason to be optimistic too. Their bench, despite the absence of Jeff Green, is deep and lively, and when Pierce returns there will be no reason why they shouldn't pick apart most of their opponents. This loss didn't dissuade them from believing they can upset Miami in the playoffs, health permitting.

But the postseason is a long way away, and there are going to be many more surprises to come in a truncated season that is made for them.

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