Celtics Still a Better Team Than Heat, Christmas Day Performances Aside

Celtics Still a Better Team Than Heat, Christmas Day Performances Aside In Orlando, the Celtics fought through injuries to key players and mounted a large lead only to fall in the final minutes.

This, as the Heat enjoyed a Dec. 25 start-to-finish romp in Los Angeles over the Lakers (21-9).

It was enough to leave the NBA world wondering if Miami (23-9) has overtaken Boston (23-5) as favorites in the Eastern Conference.

And there's good cause for such speculation. After a 9-8 start to the inaugurative campaign of the new "Big Three," the Heat have gone 14-1, including double-digit wins over Atlanta, Utah, New Orleans, the Knicks and the Lakers. Throughout that span, Dwyane Wade and LeBron James have meshed well, trading high-scoring honors from game-to-game, while Chris Bosh has emerged as the team's most consistent player, averaging 20 points and 10 rebounds for the month of December.

Most impressive? Miami's defense. They're now ranked ahead of Boston for first in the league in both points allowed per game (90.8) and field-goal percentage allowed (42.4).

That stinginess was on display Saturday in L.A., where the Heat held the Lakers to 41 percent shooting and 80 points, their second-lowest total on the season. Kobe Bryant — 17 points on 6 of 16 from the field.

Pair that with the fact that they also sit at No. 1 in point-differential (+9.7; followed, again, by Boston in second), and the Heat look like the better team.

On paper.

While Miami was dismantling Kobe and the Lakers, the Celtics spent Christmas Day outplaying Orlando for almost the entire afternoon. They held the new-look Magic to 39 percent shooting and forced 17 turnovers. Dwight Howard managed just six points.

What led to Boston's demise? No Rajon Rondo (out with an ankle injury), foul trouble for Shaquille O'Neal and a cold streak in the final three minutes of the game. Nothing fundamentally wrong with the team. Not poor play by the bench (Glen Davis was phenomenal — again). Not even age. Add Rondo, who likely won't be back until late this week or early next, and Boston wins that game by 10.

I’m not trying to discount Orlando’s chances in the East. But I think it’s way too early to tell if their blockbuster holiday trade made them better, worse or the same. At the moment, I’m leaning toward the same.

Would the same be true against Miami? The Celtics are 2-0 against the Heat, but those wins came early in the season (Oct. 26 and Nov. 11), long before Miami found its rhythm.

And yet, despite the box scores Christmas Day, there is much reason to believe that Boston remains atop to East.

1. Miami is still deficient at perhaps the two most important positions on the floor. I'll take a platoon of Shaq, Jermaine O'Neal, Semih Erden and (eventually) Kendrick Perkins over Zydrunas Ilgauskas (who might have the slowest feet in the history of the sport) and Erick Dampier.

2. At point guard, Carlos Arroyo and Mario Chalmers had fewer assists combined than Rondo does all by himself (and it's not even close — 14 to 4). It's no coincidence that Boston ranks first in the NBA in dimes per game, with Miami at No. 22. And you're fooling yourself if you think that doesn't hurt against good defensive opponents.

3. Perhaps most important, the Celtics are still the better "team." This is the Boston Big Three's fourth season together. It's Miami's first. That showed when the teams met earlier in the season, and it'll show again.

The Celtics also shoot the ball better, boast a better coach (sorry, Erik Spoelstra, but it's not even close on that debate) and create more turnovers.

Numbers aside, it'd be difficult to argue that these teams aren't closely matched at this point in the season. We'll have to wait until Feb. 13 to see which holds the edge.

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