BOSTON -- The Miami Heat were supposed to be a different team entering Round 3 against the Boston Celtics on Sunday than the one that lost the first two meetings back in November.
The Heat were supposed to be healthier and more whole this time after overcoming most of the injuries that left them staggering into the season after training camp. They were supposed to be more cohesive and confident after responding to that 9-8 start by running off 21 wins in 22 games during December and January, and entering TD Garden on Sunday with an eight-game winning streak.
This was, finally, supposed to be the no-excuses-necessary-this-time type of game to measure exactly where the Heat stand in the face of the biggest obstacle between them and a championship.
Yet when it comes down to those devilish details that separate the Heat and the Celtics, there remains one obvious gap between them regardless of how close they are in the Eastern Conference standings. The Heat-Celtics -- well, after Sunday's 85-82 Boston victory, make that Celtics-Heat -- will always be billed as the battle of the respective Big Threes.Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty
Glen Davis: Better than anyone the Heat had off the bench on Sunday.
But the outcome of Sunday's slugfest was decided by the Best of the Rest. If the Heat can't beat the Celtics on a day when Boston had one point from Paul Pierce, one 3-pointer in the second half from Ray Allen and one of the longest injury reports in league history, then you have to wonder if Miami will ever be able to get over this hump.
LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh didn't have their best games. But they did enough to neutralize the production from Pierce, Garnett and Allen. But remove the combined contributions from those six stars and the results are staggering.
Boston's supporting cast: 52. Miami's, 20.
That was the difference between the teams Sunday, and it will continue to be the case until the Heat can consistently find someone as rough and rugged in the post as Glen Davis and Kendrick Perkins, as fearless and committed to playmaking at the point guard position as Rajon Rondo and as aggressive off the bench as Von Wafer was on Sunday.
Instead, what the Heat got was a combined one rebound from the center-by-committee contingent of Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Joel Anthony and Erick Dampier. Miami also got next to nothing out of the point guard position and a combined 1-of-10 effort on 3-pointers from specialists Mike Miller, James Jones and Eddie House.
“We weren't better than them today,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said after Miami slipped back to second in the conference standings behind Boston and lost the tiebreaker by falling to 0-3 in the four-game season series. “They are the defending Eastern Conference champions, and you have to go through them. And they aren't going to make it easy.”
And the Heat didn't have to make it this hard on themselves, either.
Miami was staggered by a one-two punch. Turnovers caused the self-inflicted wounds in the first half, with 12 of the Heat's 15 miscues coming in the first two periods. And poor shooting doomed the Heat down the stretch, as Miami shot just 31 percent from the field in the second half.
At a time when James, Wade and Bosh needed their supporting cast, they got an assortment of air balls, bricks and other bad misses from their shooters, including a potential game-tying 3-pointer from Miller before the buzzer on what will be the most wide-open look he'll get this season.
“Our shooters had some great looks,” James said. “Mike had one in the corner that he shot over the rim, E-House had a few in the first half and one in the second half. [Jones] had a clean look. They know we have shooters, and they know when we're rolling our shooters are rolling. [Boston] did a great job of making sure they didn't get off tonight.”
Through three games, Boston has proved to be a tailor-made bully for the Heat. The Celtics are deeper, tougher, more experienced and more poised in pressure-packed, late-game moments when the teams meet. The Heat's supporting cast walked out of TD Garden Sunday acknowledging that gap, despite the slight difference in the final score.
“We know we can play with those guys,” House said. “We just didn't get it done.”
The Heat are a three-man team surrounded by a group of specialists who weren't that special Sunday. The Celtics are a four-man core that always seems to have a little something extra in store.
That's especially true against the Heat, who were supposed to be a different team this time around. Three months had passed since the Heat and Celtics last met.
But when it came down to results, time essentially had stood still.