I didn’t know what to expect entering last night’s game.
I’d never seen the Miami Heat play a regular season game before (“no kidding, Jay”), so I didn’t know if they could possibly live up to the hype. I didn’t know whether the Three Amigos could mesh, and I wasn’t sure whether their bench was talented enough to make a difference. I didn’t know whether Lebron or Wade would be the leading man, and I didn’t know whether the second fiddle would take offense to being the second fiddle.
That was part of what made last night’s game so exciting. Nobody knows how good the Heat will be. People predicted 70 wins or 65 wins or however many wins, but nobody really knows. They have talent, obviously, but until that talent proves itself on the court anything remains possible. A lot of fans and analysts have already anointed the Heat Eastern Conference champions, but the element of unknown remains.
That’s why some tickets for last night’s game sold for $3,000. That’s why 500 media members were credentialed (more than a normal Finals game). That’s why I got texts this morning from friends I haven’t spoken to in months. The Celtics-Heat matchup was phenomenal in and of itself, but the Heat aren’t just a basketball team — they’re a mystery and a soap opera and a main attraction, all rolled into one. They’re something to fear, something to amaze, something to mesmerize you with wondrous possibilities.
And you know what else they are? 0-1.
After a raggedy performance that was almost saved by Lebron James’s heroics, the Heat were downed by a game Celtics team, 88-80. We still don’t know how good the Heat will be, and after last night’s uneven performance they still represent an unknown. But the Celtics? That old and familiar product, that overlooked afterthought of a former NBA champion? Their ways are known. Their ways are respected. And on a night that was supposed to usher in a new era of NBA basketball, a new superteam, the Boston Celtics stood in the way of an Eastern Conference torch-passing just by being themselves.
We can’t learn everything from last night’s game. It was only one game, only our first opportunity to see a Heat team that clearly hasn’t gelled, only our first chance to see a Celtics team trying to beat back age and keep the window of opportunity ajar. But we can take some things from the game, even if it was just a sloppy season opener played by two teams not yet fully formed.
1. Rajon Rondo should have made Team USA
In a game that featured Lebron James carrying Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh on his back, Rondo was nonetheless the game’s best player. Somehow, he outscored Lebron while scoring only four points. And by “somehow,” I mean Rondo had 17 assists and completely controlled everything about the game. He set the pace. He determined who scored. He broke down Miami’s defense and got paint touches at will. Rondo dominated with such ease that I almost thought Carlos Arroyo was the Heat’s starting point guard. Then I shook my head and told myself, “This is 2010! There’s no way Carlos Arroyo’s a starting point guard in the NBA!” (Wait, he is? On a team that’s considered Eastern Conference favorites? Oh.)
If Rondo’s as competitive as I think he is, he’ll use Coach K as fuel all season. And if you’re a smart person, you’ll hop on a gambling site and bet that Rajon Rondo will lead the league in assists. At 12-1 odds, that might be the year’s best bet.
2. The Heat are an unfinished product (Captain Obvious strikes again)
I watched the game at my girlfriend’s kitchen table, in a wooden chair, 20 feet away from a small television. The viewing was far from optimal, but there was a reason. She just moved into her apartment a couple days ago and none of her furniture is ready yet. I can tell the apartment’s going to be really nice once everything gets in place — once the couch gets moved in, once I put together the IKEA furniture, once all her clothes are packed away, once she buys some comfortable chairs — but for tonight, my back ached from the miserable chair and my eyes hurt from straining to see the minuscule players.
Her apartment’s a lot like the Heat. They have all the potential in the world. But for now, they are just a painful work in progress. They still have a lot of furniture to put together, ya dig? Most of the time, they looked like the Cleveland Cavaliers-South. I kept waiting for Steve Kerr to blame Mike Brown for the team’s stagnant offense.
Winning is a process. The Heat will be able to overwhelm most teams simply by their superior talent, but they’ll have to learn how to beat the best.
They’re still scary as hell. When Bosh was having his pregame interview, it hit me for the first time: James, Wade and Bosh are all playing together. Like, on the same team! Do you know how dangerous a concoction that could potentially become? Even tonight, when Wade and Bosh were both as bad as they could have been, Lebron kept them in the game. When all three get rolling at the same time, watch out. There’s no better show in ball.
Is it just me, or do Wade and Lebron fail to complement each other perfectly? Look at Paul Pierce and Ray Allen. Pierce is a slasher, a scorer. He goes to the hoop, draws fouls and is often at his best with the ball in his hands. Allen’s a lot different than Pierce, and that’s what makes him so complementary. While Pierce looks to find the hoop, Allen dashes around screens to find a sliver of space. While Pierce draws fouls, Allen spots up in transition. There’s something beautiful about the way Pierce and Allen play off each other. Opposites attract, you know?
And maybe Wade and Lebron will develop that chemistry. But maybe they’re too similar to complement each other so well. They both operate best when the ball’s in their hands, and unfortunately there’s only one ball.
5. Shaq fits
I’ve been saying this all preseason, but Shaq plays a nice role on the Celtics. He rolls to the hoop a lot better than Perk, and he’s a better target. Perk catches the ball near the hoop and always brings it down (and then ties his shoe, eats a box of popcorn and watches a feature movie) before finally taking a layup, but Shaq immediately goes up strong and invites contact.
Shaq won’t be a lockdown defender like Perk was, and his team defense especially can’t compare to Perk’s. But we knew all those deficiencies coming into the season. That’s old news. The new news is that Shaq can be a scoring role player. And he even runs the floor once in a while, too.
6. I adore the Celtics’ bench
I drooled over the Celtics’ bench all preseason, and nothing changed after one night of meaningful games. Glen Davis is poised for a big season, Jermaine O’Neal will shake off the rust at some point (right?), Nate Robinson will hit some of the shots he missed (and continue to be aggressive and make plays), and I’m still trying to find out how the Space Jam Monstars stole all Marquis Daniels’s talent last year. Whatever they did to Daniels, he’s back to making a difference every time he steps on the court. And oh yeah, Delonte West will be back after nine more games.
7. The Heat’s bench sucks
My friend suggested that the Heat bench players be called The AARP Bunch, but that might be too kind. They could barely move. They have no playmakers. James Jones and Eddie House probably won’t step foot in the paint once all season, and Zydrunas Ilgauskas could have retired years ago. Udonis Haslem is as solid as players come, but the next time he creates offense for himself will be the first. The Heat boast a couple decent players on the bench, but not a single player who can put the ball on the floor and make something happen.
The previous paragraph doesn’t matter as much as it should. Why? Because, at all times, Erik Spoelstra can keep either James or Wade on the floor with the second unit. Oh, we don’t have a playmaker off the bench? Here’s Lebron James. How’s that for a playmaker? Oh, Lebron’s on the bench? Well here’s Dwyane Wade. Have fun with him. Having both James and Wade means that they’ll always have one of them on the floor. That’s almost as dangerous a thought as both of them starting together.
9. That was a brutal opening matchup for the Heat
I’m not saying they played brutally (although, for the most part, they did). I’m saying that starting the season against the Boston Celtics was — in the words of Jared Jeffries — throwing the Heat into a lion’s den. The Heat had never played a game together; the Celtics are as cohesive a unit as the NBA holds. The Heat have Carlos Arroyo as their starting point guard; the Celtics have Rajon Rondo. The Heat have a Big Three; but the Celtics have their own Big Three. For the Heat, playing in the rowdy TD Garden, against a team seemingly designed specifically to beat them, with the media spotlight shining as bright as any regular season game in history, was like a rookie cornerback defending an in-his-prime Jerry Rice. Especially when Chris Bosh decided to sit out the game. (Wait, he actually played? I guess I just missed him.)
10. Kevin Garnett health watch
If Kevin Garnett were still as hobbled as he was last season, there’s no way — no way! — he would have harassed Bosh into 3-11 shooting. (Yeah, yeah, I knew Bosh actually played. Even if he did his best to hide.) Last night’s double-double was a nice start for KG. He looked fresh out there. He was bounding around like a kangaroo, hopping into passing lanes and disrupting everything the Heat did. Rich Levine noted this in his column, but I saw it too: Garnett’s first missed dunk (yes, he missed two) was a thing of beauty.
Paul Pierce looked spry too. Even if his 11 clutch, fourth-quarter points only earned him two sentences in this post. Brutal. Make it a third sentence: Pierce had balls of steel to attempt taking a charge from a full-speed Lebron. If Lebron the Locomotive had been charging at me, I would have been running the other direction, crying.
11. Last and definitely least…
Before letting you leave my way-too-long-winded post, here are two points I’ll be bringing up all year long (mostly because they were last year’s biggest weaknesses):
1) Turnovers – I thought Tony Allen might have brought the turnover disease with him to Memphis. Guess not.
2) Rebounding – Nine games into this season (including preseason), the Celtics still haven’t lost the rebounding battle once. They were +3 last night.
… And that is all. Finally. Now that I’ve sufficiently bored you all to death by writing all my thoughts about last night’s game, my job is over. Until next time.