MIAMI -- "They don't have to score 70 for us to have a chance to win,'' said coach Erik Spoelstra before his Heat beat the Celtics 93-79 in Game 1 of the Eastern finals. And he was right. In this series it's about quality more than quantity.
Miami knows it will advance to the NBA Finals so long as LeBron James and Dwyane Wade are the two best players on the floor. On Monday they combined for 54 points, but most important was the comparison of James against Rajon Rondo, the tiny Boston point guard who must find some way to do to LeBron what Popeye used to do consistently to Brutus. Rondo must dominate despite the overwhelming presence of the world's most talented star.
Rondo missed at least nine layups while going 8-of-20 overall. He produced a line score of 16 points, seven assists and nine rebounds that would be sensational for anyone other than he of the three triple-doubles this postseason already. But the nine missed layups were a symptom of a larger issue that may be unsolvable for the Celtics, traumatized as they are by injuries to those absent (Avery Bradley, Jeff Green, Chris Wilcox and Jermaine O'Neal) as well as to those who are present but not quite themselves anymore.
Ray Allen and Paul Pierce are both playing through injuries and altogether went 6-of-25 from the field, which left Rondo with no threatening option apart from Kevin Garnett and his 23 points (on 16 shots) to go with 10 rebounds. For lack of any better choices, Rondo repeatedly drove the lane like a surfer vanishing under a wave. The Heat lack size in the absence of Chris Bosh, but they compensated with aggressive energy. By the time Rondo was near the basket he would find himself having to toss up impossibly spun layups that looked more difficult than the long three-pointer he made two nights earlier to finish off Game 7 against the 76ers.
In the fourth quarter he attempted his signature fake, by which he extended the ball with one hand like a cardsharp showing the ace of diamonds before recoiling the opposite way for a layup. Well, James saw that one coming. He had been playing far off the ball when he blindsided Rondo with a blocked shot while incidentally flattening him stomach-first to the ground. From that position Rondo raised up his head as if he had swallowed a mouthful of salt water.
"They did a great job of doubling, getting back, playing the passing lanes,'' said Boston coach Doc Rivers of James and Wade. "As much as you can watch it and prepare for it, I do think you need to face it once to see it and get used to it. I thought their speed at times overwhelmed us for sure.''
Rivers will be asking Rondo to play less intellectually and more instinctively in Game 2 Wednesday, which will arrive quickly for the tired Celtics. "He's got to be in attack,'' said Rivers. "Sometimes his I.Q. hurts him. He's trying to read the defense. You can't read and play at speed at the same time.'' When he recalled the advice he gives to his 26-year-old point guard, Rivers sounded like Obi Wan Kenobi: "Rondo, just trust your instincts. Your speed has to be part of it. Your instincts will take over. You'll make the right decision."
The wear and tear, the reverberating impact of the lockout and five enervating years of extended contention have combined with the obstinacy of the Heat to leave the Celtics with one hope. They need Rondo to outplay everybody in his path.
In this series he must overcome two interchangeable stars. Before this game knew it, James was grabbing it around the neck with 13 points to dump his guests into a humbling 21-11 hole after one full quarter. In the meantime Wade looked relatively passive while generating six points by the half, at which time the Celtics were celebrating a 46-46 draw upon closing out the one good quarter they would enjoy all night. But Wade was simply taking his time. It would turn out that he and James had switched roles, with Wade making plays to match the 7 assists of Rondo. The Celtics would have appreciated an announcement of Wade's intentions before the game, but he is one for surprises.
So they watched him complete a third-quarter touchdown pass like a quarterback throwing a bomb for LeBron to dunk at the other end. That play and an ensuing early-offense drive past Allen got Wade going, and he finished with 22 points on 13 shots overall as he and James pulled Miami away throughout the third quarter and into the fourth.
Rivers all but promised to play more zone in Game 2. He held off deploying the zone until the fourth quarter, in part because he didn't want to waste it in a game the Celtics weren't playing well enough to win. At last he decided to show zone in order to see what kind of offense the Heat would run against it.
But his options are limited, while Miami's -- thanks to the perimeter scoring of Shane Battier (10 points and 10 rebounds) and Mike Miller (eight points in the first half) -- are more plentiful and reliable. The undermanned Celtics don't necessarily have to win Game 2, but they must establish a pace or style that will give them hope of mounting a challenge. If James and Wade continue to have their way, then the Celtics can begin planning the reconstruction of their team earlier than they'd like.