1. Celtics Punctuate Rise By Handling Heat
But when their 115-107 victory over the Miami Heat was over they all came together near center court to share congratulations, lingering for just a moment and expressing just a little emotion. This wasn't exactly a defining game, but it sure was a satisfying one, and one that provided yet another reason for their confidence to grow.
Nine days earlier the Boston Celtics had smashed the Miami Heat in a one-sided affair at TD Garden, one of those games in which the home team just outclasses the visitor and both teams move on. But this one had a certain mastery to it, the culmination of the six weeks of edging closer and closer to their maximum potential, a goal that once seemed rather farfetched.
This time the Heat played well and did so on their own floor, where they have the best home record in the league. They hit the Celtics with their high-speed offense, their turnover-forcing defense with a full dose of LeBron James wizardry.
And the Celtics swatted it all away, going back to those halcyon days when they were everyone's big brother. The sort of stuff that inspired fear in their opponents and raised a 17th banner to the rafters.
"It took us a while, but as long as we're peaking at the right time," said Rajon Rondo, who had 18 points and 15 assists in a performance that was only one of his team's highlights. "I think our chemistry is growing each game, our confidence is growing each game."
It would be hard to believe the Celtics can possibly play much better offensively than they did on this night. But then it would've been hard to believe at the All-Star break that Boston would've sailed into the Atlantic Division lead and be within striking distance of the third seed in the playoffs with nine games to go. But after eight victories in the past 10, two now over Miami, that is where the Celtics are.
Beyond the standings, though, the way they seem to be coming together has grabbed the league's attention. Already at the top of most of the defensive rankings because of their intensified focus, Tuesday the Celtics nailed 61 percent of their shots and 60 percent of their jump shots, all of it a product of ball and player movement that awed the Heat with its simplicity and execution.
The Heat found themselves going into timeouts shaking their heads. There was no lack of energy or focus this time, the flaw that has been a constant thorn in the second half of their season. For the most part, the Heat were playing really well. They just weren't good enough. Not a feeling they're used to and not a sensation they want against the Celtics, a team that they thought they'd buried after their second-round series victory last year.
"We left Boston feeling awful at our performance. I don't feel as bad tonight," said James, who had 36 points, seven rebounds and seven assists. "Not only did they make the open shots, but they made all the contested shots. They are the best jump-shooting team in the league. We tip our hat off."
It's one thing to beat a team. It's another to impress them. The Celtics have done that twice now to the Heat.
Garnett continued his individual renaissance, not only holding down Chris Bosh at the defensive end but showing off that old midrange jumper that is really indefensible when it's in rhythm. He made eight of nine jumpers from between 10 and 20 feet as part of a 24-point, nine-rebound performance.
Pierce, renewing his old rivalry with James, had 27 points but was the laggard of the group, making only half of his 16 shots. Rondo was feeling so good about his game that he was calling his own number in the second half, setting himself up for midrange jumpers that are supposed to be his downfall.
These sorts of numbers are not sustainable; this might go down as the Celtics' best offensive game of the season. But there are lots of reasons the Celtics shouldn't be where they are right now, from injuries to age to the shaky inconsistency that looked like it was going to be the theme of the season.
Yet here the Celtics are, the playoffs in sight and hitting a stride that some thought was in their past.
"We're not complicating the game right now," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "We're keeping it simple. We played a sensational game."
2. Around The Association
Recap | Box score
MVP: Rajon Rondo had his 18th straight game with 10 or more assists, this time finishing with 15 against just three turnovers. But it was his midrange game that seemed to really victimize the Heat. He nailed 6 of 11 shots and finished with 18 points, the whole package leading a Celtics offense that put up 61 percent shooting.
Defining moment: Kevin Garnett, who has been making midrange jumpers in parts of three different decades now, was left open four straight possessions during the fourth quarter and he buried four straight jumpers to crush the Heat's comeback hoping.
That was unbelievable: The Celtics made 43 of 71 shots but only took 20 of them from the paint. It was a jump-shot clinic as Boston was 31-for-51 on jumpers for the game, including 9-for-14 on 3-pointers.
Recap | Box score
MVP: It pains me not to choose Kyle Korver (14 points, seven rebounds), but Rip Hamilton single-handedly carried the Bulls in the third, scoring 18 of Chicago's 25 third-quarter points. He finished with 20 points, five assists and four rebounds.
LVP: New York's bench. They started the game 1-for-10, and shot just 29.2 percent for the game for 18 points. They were outplayed by Chicago's bench, which scored 33 points, while all recording positive plus-minuses.
X factor: Chicago's rebounding dominance. The Bulls outrebounded New York 51-33 overall and 18-5 on the offensive glass. This allowed Chicago to have a 25-5 edge in second-chance points.
Recap | Box score
X factor: "Trading Places" is a great movie. It's also a sound strategy for struggling basketball teams. With his Sixers sinking faster than their opponents' jumpers, Doug Collins pulled a savvy switcheroo -- starting Jodie Meeks and rookie Nic Vucevic in the stead of Evan Turner and Spencer Hawes -- and the move paid immediate dividends (see below). Looking good, Billy Ray! Feeling good, Louis!
MVP: "It's not how you start, young man, it's how you finish," is advice most of us have endured at some point. Hawes apparently listened. Coming off the bench for the first time in 2012, the injury-addled free-agent-to-be scored a season-high 19 points on 11 shots in just 23 minutes.
LVP: Deron Williams eviscerated Philadelphia the previous time these two met, scoring 34 points to go with 11 dimes in a 97-90 overtime win. His encore wasn't quite as impressive. With Mikhail Prokhorov in the house on Tuesday, D-Will came up short -- scoring 14 with just five assists against five turnovers.
Recap | Box score
MVP: Kevin Seraphin, definitely. He had 24 points and 13 rebounds to take advantage of Dwight Howard's absence. His eight rebounds in the second half helped Washington win the rebounding battle 45-43.
Defining moment: The Wizards held the Magic to 12 points and 20.8 percent shooting in the second quarter to get back in this game. After giving up five 3-pointers in the first quarter, Washington allowed just five makes, total, in the second.
X factor: Jordan Crawford. He has been going through a scoring renaissance of sorts since Nick Young was traded and all of those shots opened up. He had 17 points in the second half to help distance Washington from Orlando.
Recap | Box score
MVP: Lester Hudson was the feel-good story of the game for the Cavaliers. The little-known player out of Tennessee-Martin contributed 25 points, eight rebounds and six assists, and was huge in the fourth quarter.
Defining moment: The Cavs were down by a point after the first possession of the fourth quarter, but took control of the game with a quick 10-0 fueled by a pair of 3-pointers by Luke Walton and Omri Casspi. Yes, you know your team is no longer playing meaningful basketball when Luke Walton is hitting key shots in the fourth quarter.
That was interesting: The Bobcats' big men didn't score much, and the team couldn't find the rim from deep, but Gerald Henderson and Kemba Walker both did a good job of getting into the teeth of the Cavaliers' defense and punishing them inside. Both players lived in the paint, and combined to score 41 points on just 27 shots from the field.
Recap | Box score
MVP: DeMarcus Cousins had the best numbers (25 points, 18 rebounds), but Shawn Marion was the MVP. Marion pulled down 14 boards, eight of them on the offensive glass, in addition to 10 points.
X factor: Eleven Mavs players scored, and 10 of the 11 had seven or more points. A balanced scoring attack will help Dallas compete with whomever they get matched up with in the playoffs, especially on nights like this one, in which Dirk Nowitzki (4-for-14) isn't himself.
3. Tuesday's Best
Lester Hudson, Cavaliers: In only his seventh game with the Cavs after splitting the beginning of his season between China and the D-League, Hudson again made the most of his second 10-day contract in Cleveland. After topping 20 points in his previous two games, the former late second-rounder had his best performance yet: 25 points on 50 percent shooting, eight rebounds and six assists in a win over the Bobcats.
4. Tuesday's Worst
Dwight-less Magic: Orlando got a look at life without Dwight Howard on Tuesday, and it sure wasn't pretty. The Magic mustered only 85 points against the Wizards' 27th-ranked defense and allowed Kevin Seraphin to look like, well, Dwight Howard, as the center finished with 24 points and 13 rebounds.
5. NBA Video Channel
6. Tweet Of The Night
7. Quote Of The Night
"If Kyle Korver blocks your shot there should be a penalty box you should go to."
-- Jeff Van Gundy, on the call for ESPN during the Bulls' 98-86 victory over the Knicks.
8. Running Wild
9. Stat Check
LeBron James scored 36 points as the Miami Heat lost to the Boston Celtics. James has scored at least 20 points in each of his past 27 regular-season games against the Celtics. That's the longest current 20-point-a-game streak for any active NBA player versus one team, breaking a tie with Kobe Bryant, who has scored 20-or-more points in each of his past 26 games against the Warriors.
10. Dunk Of The Night