MIAMI -- The Celtics are old, tired and injured. They were run off the floor in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals by the Heat, who are overwhelming favorites to reach a second straight NBA Finals. Yet Boston enters Game 2 on Wednesday with hope for better performances in the short term and a renewal of their dynasty in the long term around coach Doc Rivers.
"Can you imagine if Doc were a free-agent coach right now?'' Celtics president Danny Ainge said last week. "He'd break the bank.''
Last summer Rivers told friends that he believed he left money on the table in order to re-sign with Boston. It was a hard case to make publicly when his new contract made him the highest-paid coach in the NBA at $7 million annually over a five years. But now his value is obvious.
Ainge didn't dare mention which teams might have been chasing Rivers in the offseason ahead. But the list of suitors is obvious -- the Knicks and Magic surely would have bid to hire him, along with the possibility of the frustrated Lakers and maybe even the Heat, based on the influence Miami president Pat Riley had on Rivers' career when he was a player for Riley's Knicks, as well as never-ending speculation that Erik Spoelstra may be in trouble if the Heat should fail to win a championship two years after their free-agent coup of 2010.
Rivers has driven his Celtics to the NBA's final four despite injuries to a majority of his rotation. And yet the Celtics can be expected to generate a better performance in Game 2 because that is their defining rhythm -- they slip and then recover strong.
"Just time after time over the last few years, they surprise everybody,'' Ainge said of his team. "It's like they play bad, and then they just rise to the occasion. It seems like the greater the challenge, the more they step up -- like they really want to be challenged.''
Boston needs to keep Miami out of the paint after yielding 19 layups in Game 1, according to Rivers. The Celtics also have to establish the scoring of Paul Pierce and Ray Allen (who combined to go 6-for-25 in the opener) around the post presence of the remarkable Kevin Garnett, who provided 23 points and 10 rebounds.
"KG this year has been as impressive as I've seen him in five years, just because of his sheer will,'' Ainge said. "Doc has challenged him to '20 and 10, 20 and 10, 20 and 10,' from the first day of camp. And he's trying to even transform his game at this stage of his career to be different, to be more assertive offensively and to do what Doc wants him to do.''
Pierce vowed to be more aggressive after earning no free throws in Game 1. But Allen couldn't promise anything. He is playing at the mercy of bone spurs that have prevented him from his typical routine of conditioning workouts and shooting drills. His ankle injury has been especially painful over the last few days, acknowledged Allen, and Rivers believe it has upset his sense of balance while shooting.
"People will think it's age,'' Ainge said of Allen's recent difficulties. "It's not age. He's injured. And he'll probably return and recover and still have another couple of good years left in him.''
It has become easy to forget that Allen -- along with point guard Rajon Rondo -- carried the Celtics during the early weeks of the season while Pierce and Garnett regained their conditioning. "Ray, the first half of this year, played at an unbelievable level,'' Ainge said. "He's not just an old guy hitting spot-up shots.
"It's just crazy that our two healthiest players are probably Paul and KG,'' Ainge said. "I think Rondo is just dinged up, nothing serious. His wrist is bothering him a little bit, and his knees are sore, but that's like a lot of guys this time of year.''
They need it now, because the Heat are in control. They hold home-court advantage, they have the two best players on the floor and they won Game 1 going away. The variables appear to be working against Boston, but these are the kinds of situations that have inspired the Celtics to fulfill themselves. Do they have the means to respond one last time? If so, they'll be surprising everyone but themselves.