NBA

Heat must play better to win title

The Heat and Celtics react after an epic Game 2.
The Heat and Celtics react after an epic Game 2.
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Billy Witz

Billy Witz has contributed to The New York Times and covered a multitude of sporting events. A Tulane University grad, Witz has won Associated Press Sports Editor awards for investigative reporting, feature writing and game stories. He covered the Lakers' every move last season for FOX Sports West.

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MIAMI

At the end of a long and spectacular night, in which testimonies and adjectives on the singular greatness of Rajon Rondo appeared to be as exhausted as many legs, the question that hung in the air after Miami's 115-111 overtime victory over Boston was this: After throwing so much into Game 2, what more could the aging, aching, depleted Celtics possibly have to give when they return home?

Fair enough, if you consider that down 2-0 — and down to essentially Rondo, and enough pride and bailing wire to hold together hope — this is still a series.

But that in itself requires a great deal of faith, given that only three times has a team come back from a 2-0 deficit to win a conference final.

So, the larger point about Wednesday night, lost in the gloss of a Miami win, is this: In a season that will be defined by LeBron James and Dwyane Wade's pursuit of a title, do the Heat have anything more to give?

If not, if they can't play any more consistently, any more intelligently and any better, then they, like the Celtics, are bound by a shred of hope — that Oklahoma City somehow wins the West.

Never mind that Chris Bosh will likely be healthy by the time the Finals arrive. Miami will need plenty more against San Antonio, which is much like the Celtics — dynamic, unpredictable point guard; crafty, aging forward masquerading as a center; and a coach who will carve out and exploit every advantage.

Except that the Spurs are much deeper, healthier and better.

The Heat, as it were, have had their hands full with the diminished Celtics. They had coasted to a victory in the series opener, one in which bad habits from last year's Finals revealed themselves — hubris in the form of behind-the-back passes and jacking up three-pointers with a big lead in the fourth quarter.

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Then, in Game 2, the Heat, after having to rally from 15 points down, coughed up an eight-point lead in the fourth quarter and survived when the game turned on a pair of calls that had the Celtics, who watched Paul Pierce foul out at the end of regulation, again gnashing their teeth — Rondo getting whacked by Wade on a drive to the basket with no call and Wade scoring while being fouled by Garnett, despite him kicking the Celtics center on his way to the rim.

"If we lose this game, this series becomes a lot tougher," Wade acknowledged.

And so would the questions.

The Heat managed just four baskets in the fourth quarter — none of them by James or Wade. James, whose brilliant career has had an asterisk attached to it for his late-game shortcomings, missed a drive to the basket and a jumper over Rondo in the final 21 seconds of regulation that would have won it.

And Wade was nearly the goat, too, after the Celtics tied the score on Ray Allen's three-pointer with 34.2 seconds left. It came when Wade gambled defensively, leaving Keyon Dooling on the wing to try to strip the ball from Kevin Garnett at the top of the key. Dooling cut to the basket, Garnett hit him with a pass, and as the defense collapsed, Dooling kicked it out to Allen.

Allen, who has been battling bone spurs in his ankle that have prevented him from doing any conditioning or getting his normal lift on his shots, had arrived at the arena before the team's shootaround to get an extra 30 minutes of shooting in, a rarity for a creature of habit.

But the extra work seemed to work. Allen, who was 1 for 7 in the opener, sank the three and pumped his fist as Miami called timeout. When they made their way to the bench, Wade and James were engaged in a discussion.

"As I told them, it was a bonehead play on my part," Wade said. "I had to make something happen in overtime to make up for it."

The Heat's two stars were not the only ones who would have had some explaining to do if they had lost. Miami coach Erik Spoelstra was on the wrong end of Wednesday's two strategic decisions.

Boston, intent on not allowing Wade or James to get to the basket, doubled Wade at every opportunity to get the ball out of his hands. And when James ran a pick and roll, he often found himself hemmed in. Wade didn't score his first basket until the waning seconds of the half.

Miami's decision to play under screens on Rondo — about six feet under — looked like it was from a circa 2008 scouting report when he was petrified to shoot. The Heat were so far off Rondo that he was given uncontested shots from the elbow.

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Rondo gladly took them, getting in a rhythm he never got out of. He finished with 44 points, making 16 of 24 shots, and had 10 assists, eight rebounds and three steals, and never went to the bench, playing the entire 53 minutes.

"I have no idea, I'll be honest," Spoelstra said about how to defend Rondo. "We've tried almost everything with him and the conventional wisdom of saying he's got to beat you with the score, beat you with the jump shot, beat you by not getting all the other guys going. They only had 15 assists and you would never think that he would have that kind of monster game. So, somehow, we were able to withstand his incredible game."

In fact, the Heat did so in large part because of their role players, the ones who have taken to calling themselves "The Other Guys."

Mario Chalmers was as good in Game 2 — with 22 points, including three three-pointers — as he was bad in Game 1. Udonis Haslem had 13 points, 11 rebounds and two crucial plays — he kept alive the rebound on James' miss in the final seconds, ensuring the Heat and not Boston would have the final shot in regulation, and his dive to the basket on a pick-and-roll allowed him to take a feed from James and put Miami ahead for good in overtime. Shane Battier hit a game-tying three late in regulation.

It was enough, along with 47 free-throw attempts, to get past Boston on Wednesday. But to win a championship, presumably against a team playing as flawlessly as the Spurs, the Heat will need much, much more.

Tagged: Celtics, Heat, Spurs, Keyon Dooling, Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Rajon Rondo

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