MIAMI -- The opposing trends couldn't have been more obvious. The younger Heat were peaking, and the older Celtics were breaking down. LeBron James (35 points) and Dwyane Wade (28) were seizing control of the biggest moments, while Paul Pierce (13 points) and Ray Allen (7) were being used as fourth-quarter decoys.
After watching the Heat finish their 102-91 win in Game 2 on the waves of a 14-0 final quarter run, the Pierce-Allen-Garnett-led Celtics find themselves trailing 0-2 for the only time in their four postseasons together. Their urgency will be tempered by the facts of approaching retirement, that four days of rest is essential to curing the injuries to Allen (chest), Pierce (Achilles), Rajon Rondo (back) and Shaquille O'Neal, who must now make his return for Saturday's Game 3 with the understanding that any later return may be too late. "It was tough for me out there today because I didn't know who was healthy or who felt good out there," said Boston coach Doc Rivers. "It was sketchy."
No one can say Miami hasn't earned its advantages in this crossroad series. Early in the year, the Heat was humbled three games in a row by the Celtics, who used their teamwork advantages to exploit the uncertainty between James, Wade and Chris Bosh. The difference between the two franchises is the Celtics were gambling their old players would remain healthy -- a risk that resulted in this Game 2 loss -- while the Heat used the regular season to invest in their young stars and build their defensive style fundamentally.
"This series is far, far, far, far away from over,'' warned James after he had taken an important step toward fulfilling his potential. "Now the series starts in a very, very hostile environment, so we look forward to the challenge." Indeed, it could yet shift Boston's way. Think about the impact Shaq could have made in the early going of Game 2, when the Heat was able to sneak to the rim for catches or drives. Over the games ahead he could yet -- if healthy -- provide another target for the passes of Rondo, who in the third quarter appeared on the verge of hijacking the tempo by creating looks for his teammates, but instead wound up leading the Celtics with 20 points (and 12 assists).
But if the Celtics were to win Games 3 and 4 in Boston on their way to victory in four of the series' five remaining games, they'll need to turn Miami's group inexperience into a vital weakness. That doesn't appear so likely to happen, given how focused the Heat have been in showing respect for Boston while managing this three-game winning streak against the Celtics. "This is a great team that we're playing,'' said Bosh, who had 17 points and two blocks, in addition to his team-high 11 rebounds and four assists. "Sometimes you're going to play good defense and they're still going to score. It's all about how you react and move onto the next play and worry about getting the next stop. We've made a major step in that, and we're a lot better than we used to be."
Last summer's talk of feeding off one another and celebrating onstage before they'd played a game has been overlaid by the multiple efforts they seek to make defensively, and the patience each has shown offensively in this series -- and in this game especially. "They have unselfish personalities and both of them are introspective,'' said Miami coach Erik Spoelstra of James and Wade. "They want to win, but they will look within themselves to see how to make it work. They knew they would both have to make sacrifices. They were dramatic sacrifices that surprised both of them even in November.
"When you're taking the ball out of your hands at least 50 percent of the time that you're used to having it, that took some weeks and months to develop a cohesiveness and trust and chemistry. Did it help that they were friends? I think ultimately you have to build chemistry on the court. Now they're learning how to play off each other and play off the ball and impact the game, and they still can make strides in that area."
By his own account, James had not shot the ball well in Game 1 and therefore spent Sunday afternoon focused on complementing Wade and James Jones, who combined for 63 points. Game 2 was LeBron's turn. After Rondo and Kevin Garnett (16 points on 20 shots) had made their third-quarter run to provide Boston with a brief one-possession lead, James scored 14 of 16 Miami points --beginning with a pair of threes and highlighted by a dunk in transition -- to provide a 74-67 advantage early in the fourth.
Delonte West (4-of-4 for 10 points off the bench) helped drive the Celtics back to 80-80 as Rondo sat on the bench resting his sore back. By the time Rondo touched the ball again, James had grabbed an unclaimed offensive rebound and slammed it for a three-point play to make it 88-80 with 5:46 remaining. Boston would go scoreless for almost four minutes during Miami's clinching 14-0 run. Not only did the Heat's Big Three score Miami's concluding 19 points, but altogether it outscored Boston's not-so-Big Three 80-36.
"Just having options on the court," said James of Miami's newfound strength. "In the past, knowing that if I don't bring my A-plus game, there's a good chance we're not going to win that game. That's not taking anything away from my previous teammates ... Having guys on the court that can take over the game, that takes a load off you. That is the vision I had during the free-agent period when I decided to come here. It is all coming together at the right time."
Isn't it, though? Win either of the next two games in Boston and the Heat will be on the verge of eliminating their most intimidating rival. "We've all been on edge for the last 64 hours," said Spoelstra. "I want them to relax their minds. We've been hanging on, it's been tense around our locker room, very focused, guys have been taking it very seriously."
The Celtics can attest.