Even the most despondent of Celtics fans, having long ago given up hope of a sneaky backdoor playoff push this spring, at the very least had tonight circled on their calendars in anticipation. Oh well, they thought - if nothing else, we'll still get to see LeBron James in person before season's end.
Yeah, or not.
The story going into tonight's game was that Dwyane Wade (resting sore knees) was a game-time decision and was unlikely to play, while LeBron was A-OK. Shortly before 7:30 tonight, the two Miami Heat stars flip-flopped, and suddenly Wade was a go, while James was sitting out due to a sudden bout of back spasms.
With James sitting and Chris Bosh largely ineffective, one All-Star wasn't enough to beat the Celtics singlehandedly. Boston snapped a five-game losing streak with a hard-earned 101-96 win over the defending champs.
Brad Stevens said postgame that he didn't mind playing a LeBron-less game on short notice.
"If it's a choice of playing against LeBron or not, then I'll plan for it whenever," the Celtics' coach quipped. "If it happens right before the game, so be it. You just move on to what's next.
"We walked through this morning diligently, and we had a plan for defending him, but it was not going to change when [Michael] Beasley went out there. It did change when they went small with three guards, but that happens every game. LeBron's not going to play all 48."
The Celtics won this game with a dazzlingly efficient effort offensively. Brandon Bass made 8 out of his 12 shot attempts, Avery Bradley made 8 of 13, and the C's collectively shot 39-for-77 for 50.6 percent, only their sixth time all season putting up better than 50-50 shooting.
They were especially impressive from beyond the 3-point arc, where Bradley was 6-for-9 and the team overall finished 13-for-28.
"[Rajon] Rondo and my teammates were able to find me, and I was able to knock down shots," Bradley said. "I just have that confidence in my shot, and like I said, my teammates were just finding me."
"Guys made shots," Stevens added. "We were 9-for-27 at the end of the first quarter, and we were down 12. We hit 60 percent of our shots the rest of the way, and that's why we won the game."
Impressively, this is the Celtics' second win over the almighty Heat in three games, making Miami one of only two teams (along with lowly Orlando) the Celtics have beaten in this year's season series. You can tack on all the "yeah, but..."s you want, and in this case there are plenty - the LeBron absence, the fluky shooting, the bizarre Bosh no-show. But the win counts nonetheless, and for a Celtics team that's been through a lot of adversity the last four months, every victory is meaningful.
"We've been down some this season, but I guess the good side is we've shown that we're able to come back," Stevens said. "Guys are playing fairly hard through all of that, and tonight, we beat the two-time defending champions because of it. They were missing a fairly good player, just to qualify that. But we play until the horn sounds, there's no question about it."
Any win is a good one for the Celtics' morale at this point, especially one over the Heat, LeBron or no. Despite the won-lost record (now 23-46, tied with the Lakers for the sixth-worst mark in the NBA), there are plenty of guys in this team who still care.
"Every day we've been preparing to get better," said Brandon Bass. "Nobody's comfortable with losing. That's why a night like tonight feels good - it's a great win against a great team. Hopefully, we'll continue to do it."