Any casual NBA fan can tell you that March and April are the dog days of the NBA, when the marathon-like qualities of the 82-game campaign begin to wear down players across the league. Teams that are out of playoff contention use these final 20 games to play their young talent and evaluate who they’ll keep and who they’ll let go of in the offseason. Playoff teams that more or less know where they’ll end up take their foot off the gas pedal, even if they won’t admit it. In short, the final quarter of the NBA regular season, excluding the races for playoff seeding, is somewhat of a formality.
Someone should have told that to the Miami Heat and the Boston Celtics.
On Monday night, the Celtics hosted the Heat at the TD Garden, and there were, to say the least, plenty of storylines. The Heat were riding a 22-game winning streak, the longest ever by a defending champion, and tied for the second longest winning streak in NBA history (trailing only the ’72 Los Angeles Lakers, who won 33 games in a row en route to the championship). The only other team to win 22 games in a row? The ’08 Houston Rockets, who had their streak halted by none other than the Boston Celtics. In fact, Monday’s game was the five year anniversary of the day when the Celtics demolished the Rockets in Houston, 94-74. The Celtics were riding an 11-game home win streak, as well as a 10-game home win streak against the Heat (in the regular season).
Just hours before the game, the Celtics learned that they would be without their defensive anchor, Kevin Garnett. Undermanned, playing the best team (and the best player) in the league, and with the entire nation watching, the Celtics knew that it would take a colossal effort to end the Heat’s streak. The Celtics faithful knew that the Celtics would need them, and the atmosphere in TD Garden felt like a playoff game.
And I was lucky enough to be in the building.
Years from now, fans who attended Monday night’s game will get to tell their children and friends that they were in the building when Jeff Green went toe-to-toe with Lebron James. Green finally showed Celtics fans what the future could hold for his career, he was relentlessly aggressive, didn’t make mental mistakes (he only had 2 turnovers), and hit 5 of his 7 three point attempts. The Celtics rode his early hot hand to a 17-point lead in the second quarter. But as they’ve done for their entire winning streak, the Heat stayed calm and chipped away at the lead until halftime, shaving the Celtics’ cushion down to 6. The catalyst for the Heat’s comeback? Lebron James of course, highlighted by his posterization of Jason Terry.
The Heat immediately took the lead with an 8-0 run to open the third quarter, and the crowd went from nervous to silently stunned. But the Celtics responded, and again Jeff Green breathed life into his team by putting his head down and going to the basket again and again. The Celtics carried a four point lead into the fourth quarter, and then stretched it to 13 points with eight and a half minutes left in the game.
And it was at that exact moment that Lebron decided to take over.
Much has been said of Lebron’s success over the last year and a half, but seeing him in person only exacerbates how physically superior he is to everyone else on the court. After watching Monday’s game from two rows behind the Celtics bench, my lasting memory won’t be Jeff Green’s 43 points, Avery Bradley’s block on Norris Cole, or Mario Chalmers repeatedly killing the Celtics with big shots (for whatever reason, Chalmers has always played extremely well against the C’s). It will be Lebron’s performance in the final minutes, when he posted up his man on the right side time and time again, always scoring when the Celtics didn’t send help, or finding the open man when they did. It was like watching a determined lion chase down it’s prey: merciless.
One play stands out. With the Celtics leading 99-94 with five minutes left Lebron dribbled to the right side, where he was isolated against Brandon Bass. Lebron waited for perhaps five dribbles, then went right by Bass as if he wasn’t there and laid the ball in over the top of the arriving help defender. He made it look like he was doing a drill in practice. After that play, many of the fans in the stands (including myself) could only shake our heads, thinking “It’s all over now, we woke Lebron up.”
Lebron ended up with a stat line of 37 points, 12 assists, and 7 rebounds, and yet the Celtics still had a shot to win the game in the final seconds, trailing 105-103. Unfortunately, Paul Pierce’s three wouldn’t go down, and the Heat won their 23rd consecutive game. As fans dejectedly headed for the exits I stayed, looking up at the scoreboard, checking the stats from the game. The Celtics had shot 54% from the field, made 10 of their 21 3-pointers, and gotten the performance of a lifetime from Jeff Green. And it still wasn’t enough to beat the Miami Heat.
While the memory of Lebron’s fourth quarter dominance was what stood out from the game, the highlight of the entire night came at halftime, when I had an interaction with the one and only Stephen A. Smith. Several Boston fans had been heckling Smith for the duration of halftime, and he had done his best to ignore them. Just before the end of halftime, I yelled over to him myself.
“Stephen!” No response. I tried again.
“Stephen, you just gotta tell me something: are the Celtics gonna win this game? That’s all I wanna know.” Our entire section looked directly at Smith. Smith started shaking his head, continuing to stare out into space. I had no idea if he was responding to my question or simply shrugging me off as another annoying fan. But as he continued to shake his head, he turned, looked directly at me, and mouthed one word: no. And as if that wasn’t enough, he took his hands and pushed them down repeatedly in a sort of “calm down young fella” kind of way.
Our entire section roared with laughter, and I defiantly ended our conversation with “Alright, we’ll see!”
Smith’s reaction perfectly summed up where the Miami Heat (and specifically Lebron James) stand right now. The Celtics might’ve had the lead, but Smith knew that it wouldn’t last. The Miami Heat may not break the ’72 Lakers’ record of 33 wins in a row, but for the time being, every other team in the NBA is a lamb to the slaughter. Until Lebron James shows us that he’s anything other than a cyborg built to play basketball, then it’s not a matter of if the Heat will repeat as champions, it’s a matter of when.