BOSTON -- It is not enough for the Heat to take down the Celtics in this series, if that's possible. In the process, they must also take something from the Celtics, again, if that's possible.
Eliminating a team with two conference titles in three years is hard enough. Learning from that same team, the lessons of how to rule the East, and how to keep focused for 48 minutes, and how never to quiver in tough times and also ignoring pain? That might be harder.
The Celtics don't make it look simple, either way. From the pride of Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, the persistence of Ray Allen and most vividly the grimace of Rajon Rondo, these Celtics will not die or give away their secrets easily. For a team slapped together over a summer, that considers Boston a "big brother" and is still trying to figure out this championship business, this is an experience the Heat should and must soak up while they can.
"We're trying to take down a champion," said Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, "and it'll be the toughest thing we ever do."
The Celtics are an example of what the Heat should strive to be. In almost every way, Boston serves as a role model for any would-be dynasty in the making. As an example: The Celtics don't always bring their best game but you must really think hard to recall when they didn't bring their best effort. It's simply not in their makeup to have mental lapses or otherwise go through generous stretches when they appear to be chilling. That was evident in the second half of Game 3 when the Celtics saw an opening and seized it to close the gap in this series to one game.
The Heat? This is a good team, yet still raw in some ways, a team in playoff training wheels. This is a team that constantly spotted Philadelphia a lead in the first round, and once again is guilty of starting games on cruise control here in the second round. That was enough to slip past the inexperienced Sixers, not enough from being exposed by a wise team like the Celtics.
"We can learn from the effort they put forth," said Dwyane Wade. "Just learn from our mistakes and letting them outplay us. We can't let that happen. If they're going to beat us, then they beat us. They should not out-work us. That's inexcusable."
The Celtics are not weak mentally. You don't see Pierce, for instance, letting himself fall in a funk over a poor performance. He rallies, as he did Saturday when he grabbed the game and the Heat by the throat and never let go, scoring 27 points. You do, however, see LeBron James continue to struggle in playoff games in Boston. Last year, with the Cavs, LeBron's woes were epic. And Game 3 with the Heat was almost as sad a sequel, with LeBron matching baskets with Joel Anthony.
"Without question, we defended LeBron," said Pierce. "Anything under 25 points for LeBron, you defended him well."
And then there is Rondo, who gave his left arm for a win. After his uncomfortable landing, very Joe Theismann-like, helped in part by a tug from Wade, did anyone expect Rondo to play again in this series, much less return to the very same game? Well. Rondo ordered Celtics team doctor Brian McKeon to pop his dislocated elbow back in place so he could resume playing, according to a source. The source added that Rondo was warned the repositioning of the elbow would almost be as painful as the injury itself, and that Rondo didn't care.
Rondo returning and playing with one arm will now become playoff lore, right along with Willis Reed playing with one leg and Larry Bird, after a nasty fall to the floor, playing with one cheek.
Rondo: "My adrenalin was too high and I fed off the crowd. I wanted to be a part of it. And if you see me Monday, don't ask me how I feel. I'm gonna play."
Garnett: "Typical Rondo. Shorty's a real tough dude."
Doc Rivers: "We've got a lot of guys like that. They just play. They find a way and that's what he did."
Contrast Rondo with Chris Bosh. Many folks will do that today. He complained of a crook in his neck. He played, too. Not very well; six points and five rebounds and may have reinjured his neck from whiplash, watching KG woosh by him all night for 28 points and 18 rebounds. One player fell on the court the wrong way, his arm mangled in the process. Another player slept on his pillow the wrong way.
"It is what it is and nobody cares about it," Bosh said.
It's not just Rondo, but Pierce dealing with a sore Achilles, and Delonte West with a throbbing shoulder, and Ray Allen having his leg massaged during Game 3.
"We're all in," said Garnett.
"That's how we play," said Rondo. "That's our mentality."
That should ultimately be the Heat's mentality. Feel free to poke the Celtics for their age (how old did Shaquille O'Neal look in his eight minutes?) and bodies that are prone to injury. At the same time, you must marvel at and respect everything else they bring. The necessary tools of a champion. The type of team all others should copy if they can't re-create.
"They have a champions' DNA," said Wade. "They're not an easy team to play and certainly not an easy team to beat. There's a reason they've been on top or near the top as long as they have. They know what it takes. We can learn a lot from them."
written by Shaun Powell