Players will downplay its importance. In fact, they already have. “They have homecourt advantage,” Dwyane Wade said, “and so we have nothing to lose in these [first two] games. These are free games for us.” But just as there is no such thing as a free lunch, there is no such thing as a free playoff game.
Make no mistake about it: Game Two is a huge game, for both the Miami Heat and the Boston Celtics.
Should the Celtics win, they will take a commanding 2-0 lead back to Miami, raise their own confidence level that was undoubtedly shaken during the past four months, and send a memo to the rest of the NBA: Guys, we ain’t done yet. Building on a masterful second half in Game One, a Game Two win without Kevin Garnett would serve notice that the Celtics aren’t the same regular season pushovers anymore. That, and they’ll push the Heat to the verge of extinction. (I would say they’d also shut Quentin Richardson up, but he doesn’t seem to be discouraged by losses. Even really, really, really big ones.) Wade says the first two games are free games, but the Heat are going to have to win one the road at some point in the series, right? If they can’t do it while Kevin Garnett is sitting in Danny Ainge’s living room, it’s likely that they’ll never be able to do it.
Lose, though, and the Celtics open the door to allowing Dwyane Wade to steal the series from right under their noses. Lose tonight, even though it’s without Garnett, and all the momentum gained by finally reverting to normal on Saturday night is gone. Lose tonight, and Miami goes home to South Beach thinking it can win this thing. Lose tonight, and the Celtics could be fishing within a week or so.
Even without their leader, the Celtics have enough to take down the Heat. They’ve even proven it this year. The Celtics already beat Miami back in January without Garnett, using Rajon Rondo’s buzzer-beating alley-oop to send the game into overtime and unseal the stranglehold of defeat. Dwyane Wade said of playing Boston without #5, “I’m not going to say easier. This is a good defensive team no matter who’s in the game. KG didn’t play all 48 minutes the other night, so with KG being out it brings a different game, a different style — it doesn’t make it easier.”
Despite Wade’s claims, the Celtics are a far better team when Kevin Garnett is on the floor. “In the first game a lot of our open shots came off Kevin being involved in the play,” Rivers said. “That’s my biggest concern. It’s not a high-scoring offensive game to start with, it loses us 18 points, but more importantly it loses all the picks, all the post-ups, all the attention that he got where they had to overload and we lose that. That’s big.” Then, there’s Garnett’s defensive presence. Plus, umm, there’s that whole thing about Garnett’s replacements: Neither Rasheed Wallace nor Glen Davis has been reliable this season. Both have had their times, but let’s face it… they’ve got issues. Davis gets his shot hammered like it’s a pinata. Wallace is shooting with the accuracy of Teen Wolf… now that Michael J. Fox has Parkinson’s Disease. Neither has consistently put together good games.
While Wallace and Davis have a lot of deficiencies, the Celtics’ reliance on them tonight should hardly lead to a Heat blowout. After all, it’s not like either Carlos Arroyo or Joel Anthony is a candidate to light the Garden nets on fire. The Heat are a one-man team whose one star occasionally gets help from a few other (flawed) teammates. Even without Garnett, the Celtics are deeper and more talented than their foes. They’re also more experienced.
But the jury is still out on whether they’re hungrier. Game One was won with a return to the basics: boxing out, help defense, and head-whipping ball movement all made a revitalizing comeback in the second half as Boston turned on the after-burners and left Miami in the dust. Game One was won because, when it game down to winning time, Boston simply wanted it more.
Can the Celtics continue to maintain effort and energy in Game Two, even without Garnett? Even as the Heat scrap to even the series, with the added motivation of Garnett-Gate? Miami is going to throw a haymaker tonight, but will the Celtics be able to counter it?
The series, and thus the season, might depend on it.