BOSTON — While the TD Garden crowd got louder, the shoulders of the Miami Heat players sagged a little lower. The Celtics' lead reached 11 points, ballooned to 18 points and by the end of the third quarter reached 24 points. Less than halfway through the fourth, the Heat looked up and saw they were down by 29.
They signaled for the obligatory timeout, but when they retreated to the huddle, it was unlikely they had anything constructive to say. The Celtics owned every facet of the game, and no amount of X's and O's would help the Heat on this night.
"It was a good, old-fashioned you-know-what," LeBron James said.
The Celtics, who suddenly aren't as old as they used to be, made their latest bid for Eastern Conference supremacy with a 91-72 victory over the Heat on Sunday. The game was quickly labeled a "statement" win for what it told the rest of the NBA about these supposedly fading former champions.
Kevin Garnett did not care about that. It was a win.
"I don't know how other teams feel about us or how they see us," Garnett said. "We don't pay too much attention to that around here. We're focused on getting better and taking games one game at a time."
While the Celtics could not hide their good mood after defeating a potential playoff opponent in the Heat and staying ahead of the Philadelphia 76ers in the Atlantic Division race, they downplayed the significance of one win. The win made a statement, but it did not eliminate all the questions.
"We still have to play them again," said Rajon Rondo, who had 16 points, 14 assists and 11 rebounds. "It's one win. We want to take each game and strive to win. Other than that, we try to take each game one at a time. We've got a back-to-back coming up against some good teams, but we want to focus on San Antonio. That's who's coming up next."
The Celtics (30-22) finally outrebounded a quality opponent, besting the Heat (37-14) on the boards 49-47, but they still could not keep the Heat from dominating their own misses with 15 offensive rebounds and 17 second-chance points.
Yet the Celtics found a blueprint for beating Miami in the playoffs, as long as that blueprint includes Rondo playing out of his mind four times in seven games.
"It's going to take this, and better, because they're going to be better," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "Miami didn't play well [Sunday]. We had something to do with it, but they didn't play well. They're better than that. We know that."
Rivers promised his players this game would be a boxing match, and it was one of those wild, unrealistic bouts from the Rocky movies, filled with haymakers and wind-up uppercuts. There was no feeling-out phase in the early rounds, no jabs to soften the opponent.
There was instead a 13-4 whack by the Celtics to open the game, a 14-5 jolt by the Heat to pull within one point in the second quarter and finally a 40-16 wallop by the Celtics in the second half that swayed the Heat on their shaky knees. It ended with the Celtics dragging the Heat through the final six minutes like a champ propping up the beaten challenger in order to give the paying customers their money's worth.
"I always laugh when people say it's going to be a boxing match, and then, when you get hit, you're shocked," Rivers said. "When you're going into a boxing match, you actually get hit. That's doesn't mean you don't win, but you go in there to get hit.
"I thought our guys had that mentality, and that showed in the second quarter when they made their run. We had some resolve. I said, guys, they're supposed to hit you. You're in a quote-unquote 'boxing match.' You've just got to keep punching. That's how the playoffs are. You've got to be prepared to get hit hard, and then you've got to hit back and hit hard."
Garnett, Paul Pierce and Rondo were not the only players who did some swinging, which is how it needs to be if the Celtics are to move far in the playoffs. As usual, Avery Bradley played relentless defense and Greg Stiemsma used up his six fouls, but Sasha Pavlovic contributed 14 minutes of sound defense on James and Dwyane Wade and finished off an alley-oop layup from Rondo to extend the Celtics' lead to 24 points late in the third quarter.
"We played great tonight," Pavlovic said. "We played together tonight. If we play defense like this, we can beat anybody."
For about the first 2 1/2 months of the season, Boston was the team almost everyone wanted to see in the playoffs. They were decimated by injuries and struggling to discover their chemistry, and it was doubtful how much the Big Three had left in the tank.
Now they are preparing to host the Spurs on Wednesday in a game between the two hottest teams in the NBA.
Still, Garnett was not ready to say the Celtics were at their best.
"You don't know who's going to be out," Garnett said. "Injuries happen. This is a no-nonsense league, and you don't know who's going to be in or out. I think we can get better."
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