My little brother looked at me in wonderment after watching Norris Cole, thought back to Iman Shumpert’s unfathomable aggression and asked, “What is with these cocky ass rookies thinking they’re superstars against the Boston Celtics?”
And that was before Cole attempted 10 fourth-quarter shots, made six of them, scored 14 points in the frame, took an important (and very questionable) charge on Brandon Bass and drilled two late jumpers that kept a resurgent Boston squad from fighting all the way back into the game. The Heat have Dwyane Wade, Lebron James and Chris Bosh, but in the fourth quarter all took a backseat as Young King Cole — a rookie from Cleveland State playing in just his second professional game — carried the Heat to the finish line of a 115-107 victory.
That the outcome was even in question at that point was a testament to Boston’s unwillingness to fade quietly into the Miami night. Down 15 points at the half and being blitzed by a Miami offense that often went from defense to dunking in less than three seconds, the Celtics had every reason to wave the white flag. They were being dropkicked from every direction and could have trailed by 30 points if it weren’t for Ray Allen’s effortless three-point stroke. The second night of a road back-to-back awaited in New Orleans on Wednesday. Midway through the third quarter, with the Celtics down 20, announcer Steve Kerr even suggested the Celtics should put in the subs and rest up for the Hornets.
But Boston wasn’t ready to concede. Allen kept drilling long bombs. Rajon Rondo returned to attacking the hoop with reckless abandon. Keyon Dooling came off the bench and got in the act. Kevin Garnett became more aggressive near the painted area. Brandon Bass hit some key shots. And Doc Rivers went all Jim Boeheim, calling for a 2-3 zone defense the Celtics have rarely, if ever, used in the Big Three era. The move was desperate. It told everyone in the arena that Rivers didn’t have faith the Celtics could keep up with Miami’s athleticism. It reeked of an overmatched team praying for any edge against a powerful opponent that was playing like a locomotive. And it worked.
The Heat’s offense became stagnant. Boston began to get stops. Lebron and Wade stopped scoring so effortlessly. The zone defense ruined Miami’s rhythm and even when the Celtics returned to man-to-man, the Heat were not the same. The lead dwindled to 12, then to eight, then to five, and then to three. It was impossible, but with 1:46 left the Celtics corralled a defensive rebound and had a chance to draw within one or even to tie the score.
It just wasn’t to be.
Rondo threw a turnover in transition and Cole hit a jumper at the other end. The Celtics drew within three once more, but Cole again had the answer, drilling a one-dribble pullup jumper, a rookie displaying the confidence of a 12-time All-Star. There was no deferring to Wade or James, not by Cole, not on this night at least. The 23-year old who played in the Horizon League this time last year was willing to have his team’s fate rest in his shooting hand, and he came through.
While Boston will be able to comfort itself by thinking about the comeback, and that it held on strong in Miami despite missing All-Star Paul Pierce, the Celtics also have reason for worry. For the second straight outing, the Celtics played like their feet were stuck in dried cement during the first half. For the second straight outing, Jermaine O’Neal made a minimal impact, Sasha Pavlovic was Sasha Pavlovic, Avery Bradley played like he does not deserve a spot in an NBA rotation and the Celtics allowed a number of easy shots to an Eastern Conference contender. Boston’s zone defense helped bring Miami’s final shooting percentage down to 56.0 percent, but even that blistering clip was not enough to describe how easily Miami scored against Boston’s man-to-man defense. And if all those concerns weren’t enough, Chris Wilcox went down prior to halftime with a bruised shoulder. He did not return and Doc Rivers did not have enough confidence in JaJuan Johnson or Greg Stiemsma to insert the rookies during the second half.
Paul Pierce’s absence was supposed to hinder Boston’s offense more than its defense, but for the second straight game the Celtics shot better than 50 percent in a loss. The Celtics have looked dazed and confused on the defensive end of the court, not to mention a step or two slow. Even O’Neal — hell, ESPECIALLY O’Neal — who played such an integral role defending the rim whenever he was healthy last year, has allowed opponents direct flights to the rim. On this night the Celtics allowed 56.0 percent shooting and turned the ball over 24 times, while the Heat drained 60.0 percent of their trifectas and outrebounded Boston 38-28. When you take all that into account, it was a minor miracle that the Celtics kept plugging away and kept the score close.
The comeback was admirable, but it ultimately didn’t amount to anything the Celtics could put into the win column. It did force me to develop a man-crush on Keyon Dooling, but other than that, little except pride came from Boston’s second-half resurgence. The Celtics are now 0-2, and they can thank another amateur first half and a rookie who might have stolen Mario Chalmers’ starting position.
As J. Cole raps in The Return of Simba, “Cole under pressure. What’s that make? Diamonds.”
Diamonds and 18-foot swishes. I like the former a lot more, especially when the latter come against the Celtics and ruin what could have been one hell of a comeback.