In the wake of the Celtics' convincing victory over the Heat at TD Garden last week, there was a rush to designate that as a "statement win" for the guys in green. The Celtics defended their home floor and stretched their win streak to a season-high five straight games, with Rajon Rondo recording a triple-double in the process.
One game is one game, however. The Heat, who seldom seem to be braced for that first punch in the gut, never matched the Celtics' intensity and did not seem ready for the renewed vigor brought by Avery Bradley in that game. They were blitzed from the get-go and never seemed to recover. Given a fresh 48 minutes, it stood to reason that the Heat would be better prepared and hungrier after the embarrassing loss.
They may have been hungry Tuesday, but the Celtics never gave them more than a taste. The Celtics led by as many as 18 points and absorbed a late Heat rally that cut the margin to one point before Boston closed out a 115-107 win at American Airlines Arena, where the Heat own the NBA's best home record.
The Celtics (33-24) shot 60.6 percent from the field, grabbed a 40-34 rebounding advantage and matched their highest point total in more than a month with the victory over the Heat (40-16). Boston took a half-step toward catching Indiana for the third seed in the Eastern Conference and supplied more evidence that Ray Allen coming off the bench is more just than a crazy experiment.
"They just kept throwing punches at us," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "We talk about it in fighting terms. We told them again before the game, if you're in a boxing match, you have to expect to get hit. They're going to hit you. They did, and we withstood and kept moving forward."
For only the fourth time all season, a road team departed Miami with a victory. Paul Pierce led the Celtics with 27 points, Brandon Bass quietly chipped in 12 points and 10 rebounds, and Rondo dealt out 15 assists to record double-digit assists for the 18th consecutive game, but none qualified as the Celtics' most impressive performance. Kevin Garnett took those honors with a 24-point, nine-rebound masterpiece and may have planted a seed of doubt as to whether Chris Bosh will be able to handle him when the games really matter.
Garnett scored 10 points in a furious fourth quarter in which the Heat closed within one point at 89-88 on a jumper by Bosh. Garnett responded by hitting four long jumpers in a one-minute, 24-second span to essentially seal it for the Celtics.
Once again, Allen played starter's minutes while he powered a newly effective second unit. Allen scored nine points in 34 minutes, Greg Stiemsma scored eight points and Sasha Pavlovic had six points as Boston's bench outscored Miami's bench 23-16.
And once again, LeBron James faded in the fourth. James continued his run of high-scoring games by dropping a game-high 36 points, but in the fourth quarter he shot only 2-for-7 and netted three of his seven points in the frame at the foul line. The Heat's chance at a comeback basically ended when James missed a contested 3-pointer with 23.3 seconds on the clock.
Until Tuesday, the Celtics had not beaten the Heat in Miami. Now they have. They had not taken the Heat's counterpunch after the April Fool's Day massacre. Now they have. They had not tested Bradley as a starter or Allen as a reserve against the Heat. Now they have.
After the Celtics' rousing win in Boston a week ago, there were still questions. After Tuesday, there were no questions — only one very loud, very clear statement.