Last night's victory over the Miami Heat was the perfect way for the Celtics to start this extensive road stretch that will take them through the next month of the season. It was a gutty, tension-filled, edge-of-your-seat, down-right thrilling roller coaster ride that tested the team's poise, offensive and defensive execution, trust in one another and overall patience - as well as my blood pressure. The Celtics deserved to win that game last night and this could very well be the start of something considerable for this unit.
Between fighting their way to a 59-48 lead with 9:52 left in the third, to watching it wilt away as Dwyane Wade started burying difficult buckets that made you believe he was about to have one of his nights, to not being overtaken by the surging Heat and reclaiming a two-point lead heading into the final period. And that's when this fight went from a 10 on the "This is Getting Awfully Intense" scale to a 12.
Michael Beasley threw the Heat on his back with an impressive collection of athletic moves inside the paint, only to have it all countered by a slashing Rajon Rondo, who scored on double-take flip shots and dished the ball underneath to a cutting Kendrick Perkins who threw down contested dunk after contested dunk. Then out of nowhere we were on an 11-1 run highlighted by Ray Allen's clutch three-point bucket from the top of the key, which made it 89-83 Boston. And it was all capped off by Kevin Garnett, who, in a play reminiscent of the game-winner over New York, took a Paul Pierce pass and sank the 18-foot jumper.
The Celtics swung at the Heat early, took an upper cut in retaliation, but held their poise and delivered the knockout punch when they needed it most. And that's the beauty of winning tough games on the road.
11 out of 15 games on the road might seem like a daunting task, but for this group of Celtics who has seen its collective heart put under some heavy scrutiny of late, this stretch provides them with a substantial opportunity to bring it all together and silence the critics and the doubters who believe this thing is already over before it's even really begun. Of the first 16 games of the season, 10 of them were played at the TD Garden, in the comfort of the Celtics' own home. Home games provide that extra measure of comfort, but latched on to that measure of comfort is often a sinister sense of complacency, resembling a parasite that slowly sucks the life out of a team.
But therein lies the beauty of the road games. For the vast majority of the next month, the Celtics will have nothing and no one to fall back on but themselves. There will be no thunderous Garden crowd standing behind them as they try to put that needed run in place to bury an opponent, or as they try to claw their way back into the third quarter after a sluggish first half. The cheers and exuberance will turn to jeers and taunting as the atmospheres of opposing arenas become menacing traps that will force the Celtics to find a way to win.
When at home, there seems to be this preconceived notion that everything will just work out the way we want it to. We completely forget the static play of the team at the slightest hint of a run, believing it will be the decisive point where the Celtics make their move and assume control of the game. But so far, that has not been the case this season, and when the Celtics haven't made the necessary comebacks, we've been left scratching our heads and questioning their heart.
Well on the road, nothing magically falls into place. If the Celtics want to win, they are going to have to do it by themselves. They will have to look inward and rely on one another, because there will be no crowd to fall back on in San Antonio or in Charlotte or in Chicago. There will only be 15,000+ fans of the other team willing their squad to victory. And if the Celtics have any hope of counteracting their opponents and their crowds, they are going to have to play inspired, heartfelt basketball that proves to all of us that they still want a championship at the end of the season.
If this team wants progression and results and evolution, it is all going to have to come on the road when their backs are up against the wall in a tight game in a hostile environment, when everything should be going the home team's way. That's when these "old timers" need to regain their poise, fight back, PLAY DEFENSE and execute their sets. They cannot succumb to the pressures and hostilities of the road. The road is where a team finds its identity, forms a cohesive bond, learns to trust one another and stops taking things lying down.
Doc Rivers talks a lot about this team not living up to it's defensive reputation, but he still expects results and this next stretch is the perfect time for this team to please its coach. When Miami or Oklahoma City or Orlando is surging and threatening to take control of the game, these Celtics need to lock in defensively and wipe out any whiff of the other team's momentum. That killer instinct these Celtics are supposedly lacking will be born on this road trip because it has to be. The Celtics will face too many quality teams to sit idly by and be walked all over for four quarters of basketball. They need to come together and rely on one another, which is exactly what they did when they knocked off Miami.
The Heat shot 54.5 percent in the first quarter, but by the end of the game, that number had dropped drastically to just 41.8 percent. The Heat had 65 points entering the fourth quarter, but finished with just 85. Dwyane Wade entered the fourth with 23 points, but finished the night with 27. The Celtics did this. The Heat did not implode. The Celtics forced their will on Miami and in the midst of that happening we saw a cutthroat group of guys who wanted to win that game and they were not going to let Miami walk into the South Beach sunset without having their say first.
And it all came full circle when Kevin Garnett buried that jump shot with 38.3 ticks left. What I loved even more than the shot was the emotion that followed. The chest pound, the yelling and the head slapping. That's the Kevin Garnett we know and love. And while he may or may not still be hindered by his recovery from that knee injury, his heart and emotion fuels this team's defensive mindset. And with not many of those KG moments to speak of this season, that enthusiastic example was a welcome sign that he, like this team in general, is on his way back. And you know what? It happened on the road. KG didn't have the crowd behind him. He had himself, his coaches and his teammates. And that was enough. And it will continue to be enough as this opportunistic road trip rolls along.