It should have been apparent when LeBron James was gobbling up a McFlurry about 75 minutes before game time that he wouldn’t be available Wednesday night for the Miami Heat. He then planted himself at the end of the bench and watched as his teammates became embroiled in a struggle with the Celtics that brought back memories.
The Celtics are in rebuilding mode and yet they have found the fortitude to compete and beat the Heat twice this season, including Wednesday’s 101-96 victory that brought a playoff atmosphere to TD Garden.
Nights such as these have been rare during this troublesome season. The Celtics haven’t always brought their best effort at home. They haven’t always executed down the stretch.
But they did so against the two-time defending champions, even though Miami was without its megastar. The Heat provided resistance. Coach Erik Spoelstra extensively used his bench, which scored 40 points. Udonis Haslem was vintage for a while, with 14 first-half points. Dwyane Wade returned after resting his knees for one game and played 32 minutes, although he wasn’t quite himself.
Miami, which remains a more than capable team without James, could have used a victory to pick up a game on the Pacers, who lost to the Knicks Wednesday but continue to lead the Eastern Conference by three games. And those who believe the Celtics should lose every one of their remaining games (now 13) to potentially improve their draft position, don’t understand the importance of an occasional victory, even for a franchise whose focus has shifted to development.
“You know, the thing that’s probably a bad sign is we’ve been down [big in games] some this year,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “I guess the good sign is we can come back, and it’s happened I think four straight games. The lead doesn’t really faze you as much as we need to tighten everything up. Guys are playing fairly hard through all that. We beat the two-time defending champions, but they were missing a fairly good player.”
This rivalry is obviously not what it once was, when the court was littered with superstars playing for high stakes. The NBA acknowledged the lack of sizzle in Heat-Celtics matchups by scheduling just one visit to Boston by Miami this season, where usually conference rivals play each other four times each season. There was no glitz to this game. ESPN passed it up in favor of Indiana-New York, but the Heat fully understand that the Celtics will be back soon as a consistent Eastern Conference opponent.
Before the game, James called Stevens a “pretty cool guy,” while Spoelstra called Stevens “a very bright mind, forget about his experience in this league. Good coaching translates, and if you’re diligent, dedicated, and have an integrity to what you do, it can transfer from college to the pros.”
Even the most ardent supporters of the Celtics tanking would embrace a victory over the Heat. What’s more, the Celtics played their three best games of the season against the Heat, although Miami wasn’t all that invested in the games.
What matters is that this late in what has been a difficult season, the Celtics continue to play hard, although they have had difficulty closing out games. On Wednesday night, Brandon Bass, Jeff Green, and especially Rajon Rondo closed out the game.
While Rondo downplayed the matchup and rivalry, it was apparent this game was significant to his comeback. He looked to distribute the ball from the opening tip, and then he finished off the Heat with a couple of difficult floaters, including one that kissed the glass.
Rondo finished with 9 points, 10 rebounds, and 15 assists in his most complete performance in two months, perhaps sending a message to those who doubt whether he can return to previous form.
And more importantly for the future, Rondo appears to have better trust in his younger teammates. He was firing passes at Jared Sullinger and Kelly Olynyk and finally played a complete game with Avery Bradley, who could potentially team with Rondo in the backcourt next season.
“He played with a lot of juice today, no question about that,” Stevens said of Rondo.
While this victory was meaningless in the big picture — the Celtics are still playing .333 ball — it was significant for the team’s momentum and confidence. It was significant to win at least one of these close games down the stretch and walk away having accomplished something.
Right now, the Celtics-Heat rivalry is on hiatus, but with Stevens, a healthy roster, and a summer’s worth of work by Danny Ainge, it could be revived quickly. It at least was on this night.