[dropcap]D[/dropcap]o moral victories exist in the minds of NBA players? Do they consider the difficult circumstances, appreciate their team’s effort, and accept the fact that, although they lost, they played really well? The short answer is probably not. Yet when the Celtics (36-30) gave the Heat, a team that has seemed untouchable throughout their 23-game winning streak, everything that the defending champs could handle on Monday night, it’s hard to believe that the C’s didn’t gain some confidence.
At first, it was the Celts that were untouchable, as Jeff Green led his squad to a 17-point lead midway through the second quarter. With Kevin Garnett sidelined due to a sore abductor muscle and flu-like symptoms, Boston needed to essentially play a perfect game, and Green’s 22 points on 8-10 shooting from the field at that point was just the type of transcendent performance that they required. It was reminiscent of perhaps the greatest upset in NCAA Championship history, when the 8th Seeded Villanova Wildcats defeated a Patrick Ewing-led Georgetown Hoyas squad that was heavily favored. The ‘Cats only managed to win by two because they shot an incredible 78 percent from the field, and during their 17-0 run in the second quarter the Celitcs hit 11 of 13 field goal attempts as they set a similar pace against the Heat.
However, as the adrenaline wore off, the Heat keyed in on Green defensively, and the C’s began to turn the ball over at a rapid rate, their lead slowly shrank. The Heat (54-16) trimmed the deficit to six at the half, opened the third quarter on a 6-0 run, and looked as though they would take control of the game. The Celtics continued to hold them off through a combination of feisty defense, transition offense, and timely three-point shooting, but ended up coming up a few plays shy of a miraculous victory.
It would have been miraculous because the absence of K.G., which was not a huge factor against an opponent like the Bobcats, was glaringly apparent on Monday. Boston held Miami to only six fast break points, which is less than half of what the Heat average per game this season, but the C’s squandered their large lead by committing several defensive miscues in the half court. There’s no way to track exactly how many points the Celts allowed due to lack of communication, yet without their defensive leader, they allowed a stunning 50 points in the paint. The Heat found their offensive rhythm by exploiting the C’s interior defense for lay-ups and dunks as Boston’s players shrugged their shoulders and wondered who was to blame.
The Celtics ended up turning the ball over 20 times, as their offense gradually slowed down to crawl. Yet a deep three from Jordan Crawford, a contested corner three by Courtney Lee, and a clutch triple from the opposite corner courtesy of Avery Bradley kept the C’s ahead towards the end of this game. Although Paul Pierce’s questionable fade-away three-point attempt went awry with seven seconds left to play, there were plenty of positives in the last two minutes.
Mainly the play of Green, who stepped into the starting lineup again to provide a career-high 43 points along with seven rebounds, and four blocks. While he was stellar offensively, it was Green’s defense that nearly made the difference down the stretch, and should inspire confidence for Celtics’ fans in the playoffs. Three times the Heat cleared out an entire side of the floor for LeBron James, and Green stopped him in a one-on-one situation three times. Even though LeBron got the best of him on the fourth occasion by rattling in a 20-footer with 10 seconds to play, Green has proven that he can check the greatest player in the game during clutch situations.
Despite the loss, this Celtics team has clearly shown an ability to come together in the face of adversity. Boston has always been a franchise with championship pedigree, but this group is showing a different type of determination. They seem to rise to the occasion whenever the stakes are high, and to exceed expectations when their doubted most. The C’s attitude shouldn’t change much after a narrow defeat without their defensive MVP, because in some sense, their shorthanded loss to the best team in the Eastern Conference was in fact a moral victory.