This is what separates the Celtics from many of the league's elite. They are competitive to the core. It's why being five men down against Miami -- as they were Sunday because of injuries -- isn't an excuse to lose, but rather the motivation to win. It's why a subpar shooting outing from Ray Allen and a historically poor performance from Paul Pierce simply means someone else needs to step up.
"Doc [Rivers] said we can't be making excuses," center Kendrick Perkins said. "We got guys in the room we can win with."
They won Sunday, 85-82, because they were tough. Tougher than Miami, at least. For all of the Heat's star power, they have yet to find a way to match Boston's intensity for 48 minutes. They couldn't early in the season, when the Celtics blitzed them twice in less than three weeks. And they couldn't on a mid-February afternoon at TD Garden, just days after overtaking the Celtics for the top spot in the Eastern Conference.
Miami couldn't stop Perkins (15 points, six rebounds), who bulled his way through Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Erick Dampier (who combined for nine points and two rebounds) like they were spaghetti-legged high-schoolers with no business protecting the paint. While Chris Bosh finished with a game-high 24 points and 10 boards, the Heat simply couldn't stop the smallest guy on the floor: Rajon Rondo.
The Celtics' point guard (11 points, 10 rebounds, 10 assists), sparked an early second-half run and, once again, exploited the Heat's glaring weakness at point guard. And on a day when Allen was unusually erratic (5-for-14 from the field) and a hobbled Pierce (0-of-10 while bothered by a sore foot) went without a field goal for the first time in nearly 12 years, the Celtics turned to Glen Davis (16 points) and Von Wafer (10) to pick them up.
In the third quarter, as Boston dominated on both ends of the floor with a 20-3 run, Dwyane Wade was called for a flagrant foul after leveling Kevin Garnett for what Wade perceived to be an illegal screen on Mike Miller. A grand gesture? Yes. An example of physical play? Not even close. Physical is the way Boston's big men chip Wade and LeBron James when they go through the lane, how they dent Bosh's back with forearms every time he turns his back to the basket. It's how Rondo sacrifices his body in an unexpected matchup with James and angrily glares at teammates who dare offer him help. They play until the whistle in Boston. And then they play a few beats longer.
"[Defending James] was Rondo's idea," Rivers said. "I told him to pressure the ball and he took that to mean whoever brought it up. I didn't mean that. Sometimes you go off the book and today was clearly that day."
The Celtics insist that beating Miami is not about sending a message -- "I don't know what that would be," Rivers said -- but they don't have to. Miami reads it, loud and clear. The Celtics had no business winning this game, not with five players who have spent time in the rotation -- Shaquille O'Neal, Marquis Daniels, Delonte West, Jermaine O'Neal and Semih Erden -- on the shelf and a sixth (Nate Robinson) limited to five minutes. But they did, and the Heat now have to go home and figure out why.
After the game, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra expressed disappointment but not concern. He pointed out that Miami -- which trailed by 13 at the start of the fourth quarter -- was in a position to tie the game with just seconds to go before James missed the first of two free throws and again when Miller's open three-pointer bounced off the rim. He recalled memories of Miami's 2006 title team, which lost by double digits to Dallas in the first two games of the Finals only to rally and win the series.
"Nobody in that locker room is afraid," Spoelstra said.
Maybe his words were meant for his Heat, to help them believe they can beat Boston. Maybe, when the two Eastern Conference heavyweights meet again in April, they will. Sunday, however, they couldn't take advantage of a good opportunity.