One team came in boasting a historical winning streak, while the other continued to defy the odds with every passing week.
One team sat atop the Eastern Conference, while the other was busy fighting and clawing its way up the standings.
One team featured arguably the best player in the NBA right now, while the other featured a former All-Star who refused to allow the lights to dim on his career just yet.
After 47 minutes Monday night, it was nearly impossible to differentiate between the two.
However, the final 45 seconds provided all the clarity needed.
Coming out of a timeout, the Celtics had the Heat right where they wanted them. The score was knotted up at 103-103, and a raucous, sold-out TD Garden had the momentum entirely in the home team’s favor. It was as close to a sure thing that the ball was going to either Paul Pierce or the hot-handed Jeff Green.
Except it did not.
Instead, Brandon Bass found himself with the ball at the top of the key, dribbled past his defender and—still can’t believe I’m about to type this this—drove in for a wild attempt at the basket that wasn’t even close.
Was Doc serious?
Bass was the same guy who had only attempted four shots all game long. The same guy who had only scored two points since the opening minute and a half. The same guy who had essentially been a mere spectator on the court for much of the game.
But before Boston fans could completely wrap their heads around what had just happened, LeBron James—not some scrub—was rising up for a well-contested jumper that would find the bottom of the net.
With 10 seconds remaining, the Celtics still had a shot.
But next thing you know, Pierce is chucking up a desperation three-point attempt—with his defender draped all over him—that clanks off the rim. It was an attempt so audacious that it made Jordan Crawford’s shot selection seem rational.
I guess someone forgot to inform Pierce of the full seven seconds he had to find a more reasonable shot.
With that said, Boston watched as Miami walked off the court, full of smiles and jubilation. While the Celtics, and their fans, walked away in disappointment, heads down.
The Heat’s winning streak grew to 23 games. Boston’s home winning streak expired at 11. Green’s career-high, 43-point performance was all for waste.
But more importantly, in the heavyweight bout of measuring stick games, the Celtics fell just a bit short.
And although Miami proved it was clearly the better team Monday night, Boston deserves props for a valiant effort.
However, don’t expect Pierce to settle for moral victories.
“There’s always positives from every game, but you’ve got to look at negative things when you play against the best team in the NBA right now,” he said. “It’s always going to come down to the little things and those things really add up at the end of the game when you have a two-point loss.”
In a game riddled with mistakes, Pierce won’t have to look too far.
Here are the Celtics’ most glaring needs that need to be addressed over their final 16 games of the regular season.
1. Protecting the Paint
Sometimes, it’s easier said than done.
In Boston’s case, it’s not even done at all.
Protecting the paint has been an issue that has plagued this team since the beginning of the season. Opposing players have waltzed into the paint with ease, finding buckets easy to come by.
But that’s to be expected when the 36-year-old Kevin Garnett is your last line of defense and practically the only frontcourt depth on the roster.
It’s also what makes losing rookie Jared Sullinger to a season-ending injury in January so backbreaking (no pun intended).
In 22 games since, opponents have averaged 44.5 points in the paint per game. That’s an increase over the Celtics’ season per-game allowance of 42.4.
In comparison, Boston has only averaged 34.1 points in the paint per game during the same stretch. That’s down from the team’s season per-game output of 37.6. Only four teams average less.
On Monday, it was an issue that crippled the Celtics.
The Heat came into the game ranked 10th in paint production—averaging 42.6 points per game—so it was expected that they would have the upper hand down low. But no one could predict that they would outscore Boston 50-34 in the category.
Time after time, Miami would spend much of the shot clock struggling to find an open look. Then, right when the Celtics thought they had stopped them, the Heat would dump the ball down low and be bailed out by an easy bucket.
In fact, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and James all combined for 30 field-goal attempts from inside five feet. They converted 22 of those attempts.
Boston’s 87-86 loss to the New Orleans Hornets was much of the same.
Not only were the Celtics outscored inside the paint—42-40—but they were also out-rebounded on the offensive glass. New Orleans collected 11 second-chance boards compared to Boston’s four.
Not surprisingly, it was an offensive rebound that led to the game-winning tip-in at the buzzer that sealed the Celtics’ fate.
You’re not going to win too many games like that.
2. More Green, Less Bass
Fool Doc once, shame on you. Fool Doc twice, shame on him.
It’s what the majority of the Boston faithful are thinking when it comes to Green.
On Feb. 22, the 26-year-old received his first start of the season against the Phoenix Suns. In 39 minutes, Green made Rivers out to be a genius, finishing with 31 points, seven rebounds, five blocks, four assists and two steals. He shot 11-of-14 from the field and 3-of-5 from three-point range.
However, in the next 10 games, Green would only start two more times.
Then on Monday, with Garnett sitting out with the flu, Green started once again.
It was an occurrence that almost single-handedly delivered the Celtics with their biggest win of the season.
Green finished with 43 points, seven rebounds, four blocks and two steals over 40 minutes. He was 14-of-21 from the floor and 5-of-7 from beyond the arc.
Miami had no answer for Green in the first half, where he scorched them for 26 points.
But this recent surge shouldn’t be surprising anyone.
In 24 games since losing Rajon Rondo to an ACL tear, Green has stepped up, averaging 15.9 points, 4.2 rebounds and 1.5 blocks over 31.3 minutes per game. He’s also shooting 49.8 percent from the field and 42.7 percent from distance.
During that same stretch, only Pierce has averaged more points a night than Green.
So why is he still not starting regularly?
It can’t be because of Bass’ gaudy stat line over the past 10 games—7.9 points, 5.9 rebounds and 0.9 blocks over 27 minutes per game. Don’t forget, he’s also shooting a stellar 54 percent from the field. Then again, anyone can accomplish that when they’re only attempting five shots a game.
On Monday, Bass was the only starter who attempted less than 10 shots. And he was the one who Doc decided deserved a chance to try and beat the Heat?
He was practically non-existent during the 48 minutes. So it comes as no surprise that Boston is actually better off when Bass isn’t on the floor.
Over the 1,659 minutes he has been on the court, the Celtics average just 91.8 points per game, while posting an offensive rating of 99 and a defensive rating of 102.5.
In the 1,397 minutes Bass has been off the court, Boston averages 96.6 points per game, while registering an offensive rating of 102.5 and a defensive rating of 94.3.
I repeat… why is Bass still in the starting lineup?
3. Close Out Games
Building up a lead is the easy part. Putting the finishing touches is a little more difficult.
The Celtics probably know that better than anyone else.
Through 67 games, they have already lost six contests in which they held a double-digit lead at some point. That includes leads of 16, 17 and even 27.
To put in perspective just how important those six games are, consider this: Boston currently trails the New York Knicks by 4.5 games in the Atlantic Division.
How badly do you think the team wishes it could have those games back?
But instead of looking in the rearview, the Celtics should aim to correct the cause of these shortcomings.
The catalyst might just be the team’s poor play in the fourth quarter.
In the final period, Boston holds an offensive rating of 97.4 and a defensive rating of 101. The team averages 22.1 points in the quarter, while allowing an average of 23.2.
The numbers get even worse in the clutch (i.e., under five minutes with neither team winning or trailing by more than five points).
The Celtics have been in 34 such situations this season, going 18-16 in those games.
However, they have shot just 36.6 percent from the floor and 30.5 percent from beyond the arc. Boston also has an offensive rating of 92.3 and a defensive rating of 97.1.
A team is supposed to play its strongest in the fourth quarter. That’s when the games are won.
Just imagine where the Celtics’ season would be now had they been much better at closing out games.
Summing It All Up
Luckily, Boston has plenty of time to right the ship before their next encounter with the defending NBA champions.
While these issues are severely detrimental to the well being of this team, they’re also not impossible to fix.
And if there’s something Doc is good at, it’s learning from his mistakes. Don’t expect that to change this time around.
Heck, this recent slump might even prove to be the wake-up call that ensures the Celtics a date with Miami in the Eastern Conference finals.
Sure, the Heat will probably be heavy favorites.
But then again, everybody loves an underdog story.