BOSTON — The Boston Celtics can wait a day or two before developing anxiety attacks over LeBron James and his Cleveland Cavaliers, who will be their next opponent in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
In the meantime, they should take a minute to send a thank you note to Quentin Richardson of the Miami Heat. "Q," as Celtics forward Kevin Garnett calls him, might have awakened a proud old team.
The Celts were listless, lackadaisical and going nowhere with a late regular season slide. However, when Richardson baited Garnett into an altercation in Game 1 of their first round series and KG was suspended for Game 2, the Celts seemed to regain some of the competitive edge and fire that had been their trademark when they won the NBA title two years ago.
Granted, Boston isn't seen as The Team To Beat in this year's playoffs, but the Celts did take move on to the second round last night with a 96-86 thumping of the Miami Heat before 18,624 fans at the TD Garden.
This was a very strange game. You might even call it a "disturbing" because the Celts gave away a 21-point lead in the third quarter, letting the Heat get to within three on some sizzling shooting by Mario Chalmers (20) and the redoubtable Dwayne Wade (31).
But Ray Allen (24 points, including 5-for-6 from three point land), Paul Pierce (21 points) and the always pesky Rajon Rondo (16 points, 12 assists, 8 rebounds) were primarily responsible for putting the Heat away.
If you're looking for a silver lining to the Celts' shaky season, you have it with this series.
Two years ago, when the Celtics were clearly the favorite to win it, it took them seven games to get rid of the Atlanta Hawks in the opening round. Last year, when they were banged up and without Garnett, it again took them the maximum number of games to shake the Chicago Bulls in the first round.
This time it took them only five games to send the Heat home for the summer. And they've regained some confidence as they look ahead.
"If we get locked in on defense, listen to the things that (assistant coach) Tom Thibodeau (the former Salem State coach) talks about and execute on offense the way Doc Rivers draws it up, we have a chance (in the next round)," said Tony Allen, who scored just four points last night but played an important defensive role against Wade in this series.
"Why wouldn't we have a chance? We have a veteran group, but we can't take anything for granted. We have to be alert and alive on defense. That's where it starts. We've just had to deal with Wade, who is one of the best scorers in the league, and now we're going to get LeBron, who is probably the MVP.
"This series was good preparation for the next one. It always gets harder."
Ray Allen was the biggest factor in getting the Celts over the hump last night. He had the gargantuan task of guarding the incredibly athletic Wade, and Allen expended an enormous amount of energy chasing him around (picking up five fouls in the process).
But Rivers made the smart and inevitable move of putting Pierce on Wade down the stretch. Rivers simply couldn't take Allen (40 minutes of playing time) off the floor because he was Boston's best offensive player, especially down the stretch.
Although he said before the game that "rest is overrated" in the playoffs, Allen was relieved to clinch the series in five games.
"It's definitely good to get it over with (so quickly)," said Allen. "The last two years we've gone to game seven in the first round and it can wear on you. It will only be a struggle from here on out."
The Cavaliers, who will be heavily favored to beat the Celts, didn't exactly put on stellar performance in turning away the mediocre Chicago Bulls, 96-94, last night. James was just 5 for 12 from the floor and finished with 19 points. You should count on James playing 10 times better than that against the Celts, who will have the home court disadvantage in the next round.
"Cleveland is going to be similar to Miami, but with a better cast," said Garnett. "They're playing great as a unit. Shaq (O'Neal) seems to be thinner and fit. We were just watching him and he looks sharp."
• • •
Mike Grenier is a staff writer at The Salem News. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.