|Anybody seen my teammates? (Getty Images)|
BOSTON -- Given the opportunity earlier this week, the NBA's MVP refused to look ahead to a return trip to the NBA Finals, saying all the boring, right things about approaching his task one game at a time.
"I don't even think about that," LeBron James said, when asked about a possible match-up with the San Antonio Spurs, who now hold a 2-1 lead over the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference finals.
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Unfortunately for James, he made the trip to Boston for Game 3 and his Heat teammates, including Dwyane Wade, didn't. As a result, the Heat were soundly beaten by the Celtics 101-91 at TD Garden on Friday, narrowing the Eastern Conference finals to 2-1. And now we all have to think about how these Heat will fare in the Finals against a deeper, bigger opponent who will be armed with homecourt advantage.
Game 3's signature moment came with 5:30 remaining in the fourth quarter, after Miami had made a bit of a run, cutting a 24-point Celtics lead to just nine. Then, Celtics forward Kevin Garnett, who finished with 24 points and 11 rebounds, received the ball with James momentarily out of position on his back. Garnett pivoted and dunked it with two hands as James watched helplessly, no other Heat players around to help. The ball went through the net and James punched it towards the court with serious force, sending it skyward on the carom before Heat coach Erik Spoelstra called timeout to re-group.
"[Celtics coach Doc Rivers kept preaching throw it to him," Rajon Rondo said of Garnett. "[Miami] went small. Nobody can jump as high as Kevin. LeBron is athletic or [Udonis] Haslem, but they can't get to the ball."
"I mean, KG is a difficult match-up for a lot of guys," James said afterwards.
Spoelstra can try to stop the bleeding. And James can go nuts -- as he did Friday, putting up 34 points, 8 rebounds, 5 assists, 2 steals and 2 blocks and making the game more interesting down the stretch than it should have been. But the Heat's roster has a few crucial flaws that the Celtics exposed on Friday, problems that have work-around solutions but no great answers.
Miami's issues -- their lack of quality interior players and their lack of depth, which often can lead to an over-reliance on James and Wade -- don't take a rocket scientist or a brain surgeon to diagnose. But they are easy to overlook or forget when the Heat play as well as they did from Game 4 of the Eastern Conference semifinals through Game 1 against the Celtics. When James and Wade are both clicking, both attacking without pressing, both finishing and drawing fouls, everyone else around them looks better.
If there's a hiccup, though, especially if it's Wade turning into a shell of himself, the Heat become very beatable: see Games 2 and 3 against the Pacers and this Game 3. Wade didn't attempt a free throw in a playoff game for the first time since his rookie season and finished with just 18 points.
"I played my game," Wade said. "I attacked when I needed to."
Sure he did. Wade had only 6 points at halftime as Boston had already built a double-digit lead it wouldn't relinquish. Wade pushed harder in the second halves of Games 1 and 2 but this time the hole was too deep. From the end of the first quarter to the middle of the second quarter, Miami went 8 minutes and 41 seconds without a field goal. That's really bad, especially considering the stage.
"They got us out of our offense there pretty much in the second quarter," Spoelstra admitted. "The step-out, the pressure, flattened us out. We had about four or five empty possessions where we didn't even get into what we wanted to."
Even worse: Heat players not named James and Wade went an astonishing 15 minutes and 46 seconds without a field goal in the first half. At one point during the third quarter, James had as many points as the rest of Miami's roster combined. Through three quarters, by the time Boston had extended its lead past 20 points, Miami reserves had just 11 combined points. Meanwhile, Boston reserves had 19 points through three quarters, led by 9 points from Marquis Daniels of all people. That bench scoring figure was more than their output in Game 1 or Game 2. This from a group, Celtics coach Doc Rivers said, couldn't be counted on to muster anything offensively.
"Our defense from the second unit has to be great," Rivers explained during his pre-game remarks. "The offense is whatever happens. Our second unit is a defensive unit. We don't have a guy that's going to come off the bench and give us 30."
Of course, both the Spurs and Thunder do have guys coming off the bench capable of scoring thirty: Manu Ginobili and James Harden. Both teams, and especially the Spurs, have additional auxiliary reserves capable of scoring, too. The point here is that sustained droughts like the one Miami suffered through on Friday are not sustainable, not against the Celtics, who have a below-average offense, and certainly not against the Spurs and Thunder, the NBA's two best scoring machines. The Spurs get 10 players involved, whipping the ball to create quality looks from high-efficiency locations? The Thunder -- who over-rely on the Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden trio and lack a true fourth scorer -- don't find themselves that hard up for production.
Boston's Game 3 win was a classic "back against the wall, season on the line, backed by a great crowd at home" victory. It shouldn't be a surprise that the Celtics bench showed up and the Heat's didn't given those circumstances. It shouldn't be a surprise that Boston's stars, especially Garnett, shined in the amped up atmosphere.
"Desperation basketball," Garnett said. "I feel like these games at home have to be nothing less than that.
"The jungle was rockin' tonight," he continued. "I want to thank all the fans who came out. [Expletive] jungle was rockin' tonight. I loved it. [Expletive] loved it. [Expletive] it."
To this point, Miami's ace in the hole has been homecourt advantage. If the road gets bumpy and the subs get fritzy, at least there's always the comforts of the goofy, forced pandemonium of AmericanAirlines Arena to fall back upon. Indeed, Miami is 7-1 at home and 3-3 on the road during the playoffs.
But both the Spurs and the Thunder would hold homecourt advantage in the Finals, and both own spectacular home records. San Antonio was 28-5 at home during the regular season and is 6-0 in the playoffs. Oklahoma City was 26-7 at home during the regular season and is 5-0 in the playoffs entering Game 4 on Saturday night.
At their best right now, Miami essentially goes five quality players deep: James, Wade, Mario Chalmers, Shane Battier and Haslem. At their worst, it's a James one-man show. Chris Bosh would help address a lot of the problems mentioned above, but the clock is ticking and his status is still "indefinite" due to an abdominal strain. A one-man band, even James', will be playing the Blues against the West's elite. Same thing if the five-man ensemble doesn't show much way more often than not, especially in the Finals' two games.
For now, up 2-1 with homecourt, the Heat hold firm control of their series with the Celtics. But their play on Friday was a blueprint of how their championship aspirations might slip away down the road.