The Celtics do not play the Miami Heat again until April Fool's Day, which leaves 48 games between now and then for other teams to capitalize on the gift Celtics coach Doc Rivers gave them for film study.
For much of the second half, while the Celtics virtually erased a 15-point halftime deficit, Rivers called for zone defenses. The move was necessary to slow down the dribble penetration of LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, who were able to get to the rim at will against the slower Boston guards.
Running a sort of 3-2 matchup zone, the Celtics kept Wade and James from getting to the hoop whenever they wanted, although Boston wasn't able to stop the dynamic duo completely. Wade still finished with 24 points and James with 26, but the zone forced the Heat to find another player to beat the Celtics down the stretch.
The Heat found that player in rookie guard Norris Cole, owner of a degree in health science from Cleveland State University, one-time salutatorian of his senior class at Dunbar High School and former owner of a sick high-top fade.
Cole now rocks a different jersey and a toned-down hairdo (sadly), but he ruined the Celtics' comeback chances on Tuesday. His 20 points were the most by a Heat player not named James or Wade, and his drawn offensive foul on Brandon Bass helped turn the momentum at a critical time for Boston.
Perhaps Cole will do this every game and this was a breakout game for Miami's point guard of the present and future. If not, however, Rivers will have provided a blueprint for how to limit James and Wade, who appeared downright unstoppable for most of Miami's first two games.
Wade is an almost peerless attacker off the dribble, arguably matched only by the Bulls' Derrick Rose, and it's difficult to imagine any defender in the league stopping him one-on-one. James is the NBA's only point-fullback, and he is murder on the move in the open floor.
Yet the Celtics — old, slow, disjointed and thin on the bench — were able to surge back within three points twice in the final minutes by packing the area inside the 3-point arc, shutting down penetration and forcing Miami to shoot jump shots. Opponents employed zone defenses last season against the Heat, but rarely with such success in such dire circumstances as the Celtics faced Tuesday — down by 20 late in the third quarter. Had Rajon Rondo not thrown an ill-advised three-quarters-court pass when the Celtics had a chance to tie it up, Rivers' move to a zone defense might be hailed among all the experts on Wednesday as the move of the young season. With practice time so scarce in this condensed season, these sort of moves on the fly could become pivotal.
The Celtics made their move, and for a while, it worked. On this night, though, no defense could have accounted for Norris Cole.