BOSTON -- It can't be emphasized enough how much the Miami Heat have grown over their three years together. They've won 23 games in a row, of course, which leaves them trailing no one apart from the 1971-72 Lakers and their record of 33 straight. But more impressive and important and meaningful was the way they won Monday night. Here. With the ball in the hands of LeBron James.
The shot clock was approaching expiration as he dribbled to his left, which is his favorite move for a jump shot. Jeff Green, who was having the night of his young life, was on him with nothing to lose and everything to gain. "Jeff backed a little bit, gave me a bit of room," said James matter-of-factly. "I took the shot with confidence."
That was not for him to say a year or two ago. The reason he could say it now with such certainty, having seen his 21-footer pinball down like a putt of Jack Nicklaus or Tom Watson or Tiger Woods rattling aggressively off the back of the cup, is because he has achieved a standard of performance demanded of him by these Celtics. That shot transformed a tie game with 10.5 seconds remaining into a 105-103 victory. James (37 points and 12 assists) made that shot because he has been inured for the last three years by the NBA's most important rivalry.
The Celtics set the modern standard for stars to sacrifice and win that inspired James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh to join together in Miami when they still believed, naively, that they would make the game easy for one another. How wrong they were. How badly they were humbled. How quickly they've learned. LeBron defined his career last year with his monstrous Game 6 victory here that rescued the Heat from elimination in the conference finals on their way to the championship. The lessons of that game, and the marbling of all kinds of losses and wins against the Celtics mixed together, have made James into the kind of player who now so casually comes through when the second-longest winning streak of all time is at risk.
"I know the history of the game," said James of the winning streak. "For us to be there and doing it the way we're doing it, it means a lot."
The way they did it Monday was both dramatic and routine. "We've been in this situation before with them," said Heat coach Erik Spoelstra of the 17-point lead that was seized by the shorthanded and just plain short Celtics in the second quarter. This is a rivalry of two teams that continue to mirror each other in the least anticipated ways. On Jan. 27, which was the day the Celtics found out that star point guard Rajon Rondo had been sidelined for the rest of the season with a torn ACL, they instantly turned into a more resilient team that was able to upset Miami in double overtime.
The Heat lost another game four days later 102-89 at Indiana, and they haven't lost again in the 34 days since. This should have been an easy night for them here, because Kevin Garnett was out sick with the flu (along with a strained left adductor). The Big Three that came together with Rondo to win the 2007-08 championship was decimated. All that was left Monday was 35-year-old Paul Pierce.
"I believed we were going to win the game before the game," said Boston coach Doc Rivers. "I thought we were going to win the game during the game. And I thought we should have won the game."
Pierce turned out to be almost enough, and that's because the Celtics have established a program. They aren't merely a system team, because the system has changed in the last couple of months. They've reacted to the challenge of losing Rondo by trying, in turn, to play even faster than Miami. For most of this game they succeeded.
"There's no one in the league that tests your mental capabilities and boundaries like the Celtics in the Garden," said Heat small forward Shane Battier. "It's always heated, it always seems to be some controversy, and it's very easy to be out of whack against these guys. At times it didn't look like we had our emotions under control, but I'm proud of the way we responded, especially down the stretch in a stressful environment like this."
James stands for excellence now, and even now the Celtics keep pushing him to improve. The Celtics brand has meaning even as Ray Allen moves with the enemy now, even as a refugee scorer like Jordan Crawford is able to make a huge fourth-quarter three. Rivers patiently and confidently has stuck with Green, who responded Monday with a career-high 43 points as he started in Garnett's place. Green missed all of last season while recovering from heart surgery that saved his life, and there had been frustration, unfair as it was, that he hadn't been able to meet the demands of his franchise more quickly. But now he was attacking the basket and spotting up for threes and hearing the fans chant his name, in recognition that he was, after all, a Celtic.
When Jason Terry fed him for a goaltended layup with 9:06 remaining, the Celtics were up 93-83, and Green had amassed 43 points on 18 field goal attempts. He would miss his next three shots down the stretch to finish 14 of 21 overall. Great, and yet not good enough. "It was the best team in the league and we took them to their breaking point," said Green. "We['ve] just got to, when Kevin comes back, continue to play like we did today."
The Heat were trailing by 13 when their defense and offense synched through James to outscore Boston 22-7 over the final eight minutes. Corner threes by Avery Bradley and Courtney Lee tried to hold off the inevitable Miami comeback. After James had made the biggest shot of all, a drive by Green was snuffed by the defense of Battier, out of bounds to the Celtics; and then an awkward catch-and-shoot three was front-rimmed by Pierce.
"We've maintained the entire time this is about sharpening who we are as we march toward the playoffs," said Battier. "For us it's about ultimately reaching our best basketball in the future. And that's the fun part: We feel we can improve for the future."
There is good reason to believe these teams will meet in the second round or conference finals in another couple of months. When Garnett is back on the floor and captaining the Celtics defense, they won't be giving up the high number of back-door layups and dunks that killed them in this game against the defending champs. There is no postseason opponent in the East that Boston will fear, including Miami.
"I told our guys that that was our first playoff game for a lot of the new guys," said Rivers. "And I was really looking forward to the game because I didn't know how a lot of guys were going to react."
The Heat move onto Cleveland and a Wednesday night homecoming for LeBron as champion. He said it will be nothing special for him. If the streak continues they'll be able to break the record April 6 at home against Philadelphia, but that won't be a finish line. What matters to this team is what continues to matter to the Celtics, and to hell with their injuries. Nothing less than another championship will do.
For the Heat to win another championship, they'll probably have to win more games like this one. Because they'll have to win here.
The hatred these teams feel for one another is, truly, a beautiful thing.