Commentary

Celtics still in the running

Team built on defense shows Heat it can score with best of them

Updated: April 11, 2012, 8:34 AM ET
By Chris Forsberg | ESPNBoston.com

MIAMI -- Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers takes great pride in his team's defense. He's convinced it's that side of the ball that will dictate the success of the Green.

But that doesn't mean the Celtics can't get offensive from time to time.

In a meeting of two of the league's top defenses, the Celtics scorched the floor by connecting on a season-high 60.6 percent of their shots (43 of 71) while winning a track meet with the rival Miami Heat 115-107 on Tuesday night.

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"We finally got all our plays down," Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo deadpanned about a much-maligned offense that entered Tuesday's action ranked 29th in the league with an offensive rating (points per 100 possessions) of 100.6.

In fact, all of the headlines about the Celtics' recent resurgence seem to center around their defensive dominance, particularly how the team has thrived since shuffling Kevin Garnett to the center spot and moving Avery Bradley into the starting lineup in place of Ray Allen.

Maybe the offense was a little jealous.

The Celtics missed their first two shots Tuesday night but rarely missed consecutive attempts again. Boston shot 52.9 percent in the fourth quarter and that was far and away its worst frame of the night.

As Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said, "None of us were expecting that, to give up 115 points on our home floor. That is not our style."

Don't worry, Coach; it's not Boston's style either. But maybe that's all the more reason for the rest of the Eastern Conference to be leery of the surging C's.

Even amid the defense-fueled resurgence in the second half (the Celtics are 18-7 since the All-Star break), the big question has been whether jumper-happy Boston can make enough shots to get by in the postseason.

Sure, it's a one-game sample, but Tuesday's win in Miami certainly seems to suggest this team is capable of leaning on its offense when need be.

[+] EnlargeKevin Garnett
Steve Mitchell/US PresswireAlways a rock on defense, Kevin Garnett keyed the Celtics' offense Tuesday, hitting 11 of 14 shots.

"Really, you don't want to get in these type of games. You scout them, you do the pregame thing and it's 'Don't make this a track meet,'" said captain Paul Pierce, who scored a team-high 27 points. "But I guess that's exactly what it was. We showed we can go out there and put up over 100 points if we move the ball."

To be fair, the Heat were no slouches. Miami shot 44.8 percent, including 51.2 percent in the first half. But the Heat seemingly kept waiting for Boston to go cold and it never happened.

After closing the first quarter on an 11-0 run, the Celtics hit their first five shots in the second quarter (including a pair of 3-pointers from reserve swingman Sasha Pavlovic) and their lead ballooned to 18.

Miami made numerous charges, knocking the lead to single digits by the end of the half and to a single point in the fourth quarter, but the Celtics got a big bucket every time they needed one.

"We left Boston feeling awful about our performance," said Miami's LeBron James (game-high 36 points) of a lopsided loss at TD Garden earlier this month. "I don't feel as bad tonight. Those guys were locked in. Not only did they make their open shots, but they made all their contested shots. We tip our hat to them tonight."

The Celtics' game plan was alarmingly simple, according to Rivers. "All we kept saying was, 'Take what they give you,'" he explained. "They are a great defensive team, they're going to overload at times. Please no cross-court passes; just take what they give you. Our guys stood, waited and made shots."

Ill-advised passes often were responsible for what little trouble Boston encountered. The Heat converted 14 turnovers into 24 points, often stealing the momentum with loud dunks in transition, but it wasn't enough to throw Boston off its rhythm.

Here's all you need to know about the Celtics' night: Their worst shooter (percentage-wise) was Ray Allen (3-of-7). When a surefire Hall of Famer and the best 3-point shooter in league history is your worst performer, things are probably going pretty well. Allen was the only Celtics player to shoot less than 50 percent on the night.

All five of Boston's starters finished in double figures, while a three-man bench of Allen, Greg Stiemsma and Pavlovic kicked in 23 points on 9-of-14 shooting.

Maybe it shouldn't be surprising that the team fed off Garnett. Typically they do that in the defensive end, but on Tuesday they hopped on the back of his midrange game. Garnett made 11 of 14 shots for 24 points.

In the fourth quarter, soon after Miami had rallied to within two, Garnett made four consecutive shots to help stretch the lead back out to 11. He made all six shots he attempted in the quarter for 12 points.

Garnett passed on talking to the media after the game, but rookie center Stiemsma (fresh off his own 4-of-5 shooting effort) summed up what the rest of the room was thinking.

"That's what he does; that's KG all day," Stiemsma said. "We will take those looks any time we can get them, and he can get them whenever he wants. It gets us fired up."

The Celtics' postgame locker room was about as jubilant as it has been this season. Music blared as the room opened to reporters (and kept blaring until it cleared) as players darted to the airport for a flight back to Boston and Wednesday's back-to-back against a well-rested Atlanta Hawks squad.

Boston's defense inarguably has helped the team turn around its season. Now here comes the offense, and the rest of the East can only shake its head. The Celtics are just two games back of the Indiana Pacers for the No. 3 seed, and between their talent and playoff experience, few teams are going to want to encounter them in May.

"It took a while, but as long as we're peaking at the right time, I think our chemistry is growing each game and our confidence is growing each game," Rondo said.

Yes, the Celtics are still a defense-first team, but they like reminding everyone that they can still put up big points.

"We are taking steps forward and coming together as a team," Bradley said. "Defense wins games for us. We come out and play defense hard every night. [But] it's hard to beat us when we move the ball like that."

Chris Forsberg

Celtics reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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