Funny how a team can look so dramatically different, so increasingly confident, and so poised given its tumultuous road to this point. The Celtics began their treacherous three-week stretch toward perhaps the final postseason of the Big Three Era looking as if they had not spent the previous three months dealing with a series of embarrassments, humiliations, and setbacks.
A team that has spent three months just trying to claim first place in the mediocre Atlantic Division spent Sunday afternoon at TD Garden whipping the apparently unstoppable Miami Heat, getting another nationally televised triple-double from Rajon Rondo to pull away for a 91-72 win.
The final margin was impressive, but the Celtics actually led, 89-60, with 6:39 left, humbling the trio of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh with strong defense, pinpoint passing, and a dominant third quarter.
The Celtics turned a 49-44 halftime lead into an 80-56 advantage after three by outscoring Miami, 31-12, in the quarter. The defense stifled the befuddled Heat. Miami, which was whipped by Oklahoma City and Indiana on the road last week by a combined 31 points, did not lead after the opening minutes and didn’t appear very interested in stretches.
Boston played perhaps its most complete game of the season, not allowing James, Wade, or Bosh to become a primary factor. James shot mostly jumpers and did not record an assist for the second time in his career. Wade was limited by the active defense of Avery Bradley, who wowed the sold-out crowd by stuffing Wade’s dunk attempt in the second quarter.
Bosh missed nine of 11 shots and posed no post threat to counterpart Kevin Garnett, who was able to rest his aging legs, playing just 30 minutes.
It was a masterpiece for a Celtics team that had been embarrassed on national television more than a few times in the season’s first month. Those are distant memories.
“We know we can play with the best,’’ said forward Paul Pierce, who led Boston with 23 points on 8-for-17 shooting. “I think as of late, we’re starting to really come together at this point in the season, knowing that the playoffs are right around the corner, starting to hit our stride right at the right time. A lot of big games, it’s a huge week for us, a lot of contending teams, [so] it’s a good time to see where we’re at, how we measure up going to the playoffs.’’
Suddenly, the Celtics have crept within a game and a half of the Magic for third place in the Eastern Conference.
The Celtics used a furious start by Rondo, who scored 10 of Boston’s first 16 points, to lead by as many as 10 in the first quarter.
The out-of-shape, listless Celtics of January often fell behind by double digits before finding the motivation to rally in the third quarter, only to fall short down the stretch. Sunday, the Celtics led nearly the entire way and were able to withstand Miami’s only significant run, a 17-6 surge that tied the game at 40.
The Celtics began the third period on a 23-8 run, led by Rondo’s frantic pacing of the offense. It was his 13th consecutive game with 10 or more assists and 18th career triple-double, 14 of those on national TV.
“I don’t know what it is,’’ said Rondo (16 points, 11 rebounds, 14 assists). “I think my teammates put the spotlight on me more than the media or the televised game. Guys came up to me today and told me to be aggressive and show them what a great point guard is. I just try to go out there and be great.’’
He used the stage to display how much influence he has over the Celtics’ success. When Rondo is active, offensively aggressive, and passionate, the Celtics usually win. His first quarter provided the momentum they needed over the Heat, who hadn’t played the Celtics since Dec. 27, the season’s second game.
“I think it started from the beginning of the game,’’ Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said. “They were able to get the trigger they wanted to.
“Many times the shot clock got to the end, five or six seconds, they were able to get some relief, an easy basket or foul or a layup. They had great cutbacks and it got them into a terrific rhythm. Baskets weren’t falling for us, and we didn’t help each other make it easier, but we also missed a great deal of open shots in the third quarter.’’
This was the first of three meetings with Miami this month and the rivals could clash in the second round of the playoffs. The Celtics’ strategy was simple - capitalize on their matchups at point guard and center and force James and Wade into the teeth of the defense.
With no true distributor (point guard Mario Chalmers collected two assists in 23 minutes), the Heat were forced to go one-on-one with little success.
The Celtics walked off the court brimming with confidence, realizing they are capable of beating the league’s best when they execute.
“Well, I don’t know if it does anything for our confidence . . . honestly, I think we know we’re playing well,’’ said coach Doc Rivers. “We know we’re shorthanded in playing well as well.
“I thought our guys, they wanted to play this game tonight but I don’t think they had a confidence issue about the game. So it may give other people confidence in us, but I think our guys are a pretty confident group. They feel they can play with anyone.
“We’re a team that, to me, is still trending up, and that’s a good thing.’’