The way LeBron James and Dwyane Wade are rolling right now, one bad quarter is hardly too much for the Miami Heat to overcome.
And with that, the Heat are three wins away from another trip to the NBA finals.
James scored 32 points and grabbed 13 rebounds, Wade scored 10 of his 22 points in the fourth quarter and the Heat beat the Boston Celtics 93-79 on Monday night in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals.
”One down. And they still have an opportunity in Game 2 to accomplish what they want to,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said, referring to how Boston can still grab home-court advantage by winning Game 2. ”At times it was a strange game. Some good runs, both teams. We felt we could have played better and I’m sure they felt the same thing. But we found a way to grind it.”
Shane Battier, playing in the conference finals for the first time, had 10 points and 10 rebounds for the Heat, who wasted an early 11-point first-half lead, then gave up 35 second-quarter points before running away to break a halftime tie – getting going with a 9-2 run early in the third.
Miami outrebounded the Celtics 48-33, blocked 11 shots and didn’t trail at any time.
”A block is like a dunk,” Wade said. ”It gets your team going.”
Kevin Garnett had 23 points and 10 rebounds for Boston, which got 16 points, nine rebounds and seven assists from Rajon Rondo and 12 points from Paul Pierce. Ray Allen shot just 1 for 7 from the floor for Boston, which was outscored by 10 in the first quarter and 11 in the third.
”On the road, you can’t have two quarters of lulls,” Celtics coach Doc Rivers said.
Game 2 is Wednesday night in Miami.
And while both sides would say there’s a long way to go in this series, Game 1 winners have a decided edge in any best-of-seven, the conference final being no exception. In the most recent 10 postseasons, teams with 1-0 leads in conference finals have advanced 15 out of 20 times.
James and Wade scored 197 points in the final three games of Miami’s second-round series with Indiana, all those games being Heat wins. The momentum carried over into Game 1 with the Celtics.
”We get a lot of the press, we get a lot of the headlines,” James said. ”But our teammates, they do everything to help us win ball games.”
It’s the third straight year the Heat and Celtics have met in the playoffs, and the third straight year James has seen his postseason path go through Boston – the first of those matchups coming in 2010 in his final run with Cleveland.
Each of those came in the first or second rounds, not this close to the NBA finals. And yes, the rivalry seems to be heating again.
”They’re home, they’re comfortable and when you’re comfortable you do things like that,” Garnett said, suggesting that Miami was showboating at times down the stretch. ”We have to show them to take them out of their comfort zone. We’ve got to fight a lot harder.”
Last season’s Miami-Boston series ended with James scoring the final 10 points of Game 5, and the start of this year’s matchup had him putting on another offensive display.
He had 13 points in the first quarter – two more than the entire Celtics roster – and Miami ran out to a 21-11 lead after the opening period. Garnett made three of his four shots in the quarter, while everyone else in Boston green was 2 for 16 from the floor.
”I thought they were ready to play,” Rivers said. ”I’m talking about Miami. I thought we kind of joined the game.”
The 11 points matched the lowest output by any team in the opening quarter this postseason. The other team to manage that few was San Antonio, which then dropped 32 on the Los Angeles Clippers in the second quarter of their game on May 19.
The Celtics’ response was even better.
Boston scored 35 in the second quarter, erasing what was an 11-point deficit early in the period by scoring 27 points in the final 8:46 of the half to pull into a 46-all tie. Rondo, Garnett and Pierce combined to score 23 points in the quarter, looking absolutely vintage, near-perfect offensive execution getting to Miami time and time again.
And the Celtics’ comeback happened even while they got hit with three technical fouls in the second quarter, plus Allen missing four first-half free throws – matching his career-worst for an entire game.
”We may never see that again,” Rivers said.
In the end, it went down as merely a one-quarter lapse for Miami.
Another technical foul, this one on Rondo, came in the third quarter, likely born from frustration as the Heat started to roll again.
With the game tied at 50, Rondo missed three shots in a 31-second span early in the third, the last of those getting blocked by Battier – who hit a 3-pointer 11 seconds later. It started a 9-2 Miami burst, including a touchdown pass from Wade to James – Wade grabbed the rebound of a miss by Pierce, spun and delivered a 90-foot pass to the reigning MVP – for an easy score.
”We knew at halftime we hadn’t played our best basketball,” James said. ”So we just had to stop making the mental mistakes and start to play the way we’re capable of playing.”
And that’s what happened.
Miami led by as many as 13 late in the third, before taking a 72-61 lead into the fourth. James scored 10 more in the third, Boston went cold again, shooting just 27 percent in the period, and Wade’s left-handed bullet pass into the lane set up Joel Anthony for a dunk that pushed the Heat lead to 15 with 10:13 remaining.
Pierce was 5 for 18. Rondo shot 8 of 20. Ray Allen was 1 for 7 from the floor and 3 for 7 from the foul line – missing four free throws for just the third time in his 1,270 career regular-season and playoff games.
”We kept fighting,” Rondo said. ”It wasn’t pretty. We missed four or five layups, a bunch of free throws. That being said, we were tied at halftime but we just didn’t come out with the right mindset in the second half.”
Miami did and takes a 1-0 lead into Game 2 as its reward. But James said he knows Boston is far from done.
”I look at them as a top opponent, as a top contender and a competitive group … a championship-caliber team,” James said.
Notes: Spoelstra is now 6-0 in Game 1s at home. … James passed Sam Jones (2,909) for 22nd on the NBA’s playoff scoring list with a layup late in the first quarter, and Garnett passed Dirk Nowitzki (1,314) for 22nd on the league’s postseason rebound list. … The Heat left the floor at halftime with a 48-46 lead, then had two points by Anthony taken off after a lengthy review showed he had a basket after the shot clock expired. … Miami F Chris Bosh did a light pregame workout, but still remains out indefinitely with a lower abdominal strain. He was on the Heat bench for the first time in Miami’s last six games.