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Celtics on decline? No evidence to believe such foolishness ... not yet

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MIAMI -- It had everything we've come to expect from a Heat-Celtics game except, you know, some sense of finality -- some proof of what we believed to be true. The second game of a lockout-shortened season, Paul Pierce sitting on the bench in a suit, and the playoffs still a few months away -- that was all you needed to know.

If you came here looking for a definitive opinion about whether the Celtics are finished, and whether the Heat will find them to be barely an annoyance on their way back to the Eastern Conference finals, there was none to be gleaned from what we saw Tuesday night. The Heat beat the depleted Celtics 115-107, and the best thing for Doc Rivers and the boys was that they won't have to do this again until at least April, when they'll know for sure what they are.

All we know right now is that reports of the Celtics' demise have been greatly exaggerated. Without Pierce, with the likes of Rajon Rondo, Marquis Daniels and Keyon Dooling trying to guard LeBron James, the Celtics still wouldn't die. Rivers broke the golden rule of being a Celtic -- he deployed a zone defense that utterly confused the Heat for most of the fourth quarter -- and would've emerged from American Airlines Arena with a victory if not for a rookie point guard named Norris Cole, who had 14 of his 20 points in the fourth quarter.

Bottom line, though: The Celtics never die.

"It didn't surprise us," James said after the game. "It never surprises us. We all kept harping on continuing to play, because they're not going to go away. It's the Celtics' DNA. They've got too many Hall of Famers, too many All Stars on their team to ever go down without a fight."

The simplest and most appropriate question in the Eastern Conference entering this lockout-shortened season was answered Tuesday night, at least for now: Are the Celtics still a threat?

"They'll be a threat as long as they've got those guys on the court together," Dwyane Wade said.

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Those guys were not on the court together on this night -- only Rondo, Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett. Rondo, maybe the only player in the league whose heart is bigger than Garnett's mouth, treated it the only way he knows how: like a playoff game. At one point in the second quarter, Rondo guarded James on three straight trips -- at one point denying him in the post and getting a defensive rebound that led to a 3-pointer by Allen.

But I feel dishonest even providing you with any of the details, because on the grand scale of the super teams that still rule the league after the lockout, this was a preseason game. It will be long forgotten come April, when the Heat and Celtics play three more times -- twice in Boston and once in Miami. It is going to get ugly at times for the Celtics between now and then, and it's going to be that way a lot in this awkward, rushed sprint through the regular season, all over the league.

"This season for all of us, we'll figure it out as it goes," Rivers said. "... I think the trap is worrying about the schedule and the season. We've got to worry about the Heat [Tuesday night] and then New Orleans [Wednesday night], and I think that's how the season has to be approached."

The Mavericks, Lakers and Celtics were all 0-2 as of this writing and in varying degrees of crisis mode. But more than any of them, the Celtics know who they are as well as they know who they've been.

"We need that extra shooter on the floor, you can see that," Rivers said. "And the times we don't, when we're big, that's when you do miss Paul. And he's huge for us. So I think when he gets back and when [Mickael] Pietrus comes, we're going to be OK. But we've got to win now. We can't wait for Paul. We can't wait for anybody. We've just got to play now."

And once they get Pierce and Pietrus, chances are they'll have to play with who they have.

Team president Danny Ainge tried, as he usually does, to hit a home run in this shortened offseason when he made what seemed like a realistic play for Chris Paul. But that didn't work, and when Paul's trade to the Lakers was voided by commissioner David Stern, it took down the Celtics' deal for David West with it.

Now, Ainge and Rivers have to decide whether Rondo and the Big Three have one more championship run in them, and if not, what price are they willing to pay to fix it? Only Pierce and Rondo will be on the books next season among the Celtics' core, and Ainge knows that he'll eat up 2012 cap space to salvage 2011 problems at his own peril.

Best just to ride it out, see how much gallop this horse has left.

Rivers' job with this Celtics team will be even more delicate. As masterful as Rivers has been at massaging egos since Ainge got him Garnett and Allen a few years ago, he'll have to be even better at managing minutes and salvaging old bones between now and June.

"Doc has always done a good job of resting those guys, knowing their bodies practice-wise and in certain games, letting this guy take off -- sort of like [Gregg] Popovich in San Antonio," Wade said. "I don't think they will have concern with that. Obviously, it's coming fast for everybody."

But not everybody will be able to withstand it -- the back-to-back-to-backs, the five games in six nights, the cramped charter seats making old bodies feel ancient.

"I think they're a little bit more prepared on how to deal with their bodies because he's coached an older team for a few years now," Wade said. "So he knows those guys, and he knows what it takes to rest them and get them going."

It's in Wade's best interests to be bullish on the Celtics' ability to hold up under these circumstances. You never show your rival the door, after all; you let them find it themselves. But I will say this: I will believe the Celtics are dead when their cold, lifeless bodies are piled up on the scorer's table at American Airlines Arena, right in front of that doofus public-address announcer futilely imploring them to, "STAAAAAAAAAND UP!"

I'll believe the Celtics are dead when they've fallen and they can't get up. And whatever happens to Garnett, Allen and Pierce under this barrage of games and physical challenges, I'll only believe it after Rondo gets both his arms bent backward and has to finish a playoff game against Miami dribbling the ball with his forehead and shooting jumpers with his nose like a dolphin.

In other words, I'll believe the Celtics are dead when I see it.

"I don't know why the outside is always counting them out," Wade said. "They've been counting them out for about three years. They're a very good team. When you have the history that they have, when you have the confidence that they have, and you have the championship DNA and you have the coach that they have, you give yourself a chance every year.

"As long as Boston's together -- whether this is their last year together or whether they've got three more, you never know with those guys -- they're going to be someone you have to worry about it," Wade said.

At some point, there will be a lot more concern within the Celtics than there is about them. And when it happens, I warn you, it will happen fast -- faster than a LeBron runout and tomahawk dunk.

The demise of the Celtics will be like the Supreme Court's definition of a certain genre of offensive material: We'll know it when we see it. And as of this moment, it's still nowhere in sight.


Before joining CBSSports.com, Ken Berger covered the NBA for Newsday. The Long Island, N.Y., native has also worked for the Associated Press and can be seen on SportsNet New York. Catch Ken every Saturday, when he hosts Eye on Basketball from 6-8 p.m. ET on cbssportsradio.com
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