Celtics players knew the score: Boston was propped up as an opening-night afterthought.
Before their perpetual nemesis, the world champion Los Angeles Lakers, stole headlines on the West Coast with a pregame ring ceremony emceed by commissioner David Stern, the Boston Celtics landed in the spotlight merely as a (not-so) gracious host of the second coming of their own Big Three brand, a trio of superstars from Miami who brought their talents to South Beach to replicate what Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce conjured up in their first season together.
You know, a championship.
The inauguration of the LeBron James-Dwyane Wade-Chris Bosh dynasty was, in a word, underwhelming. The Miami Heat shot 36 percent from the floor, LeBron and D-Wade combined for 14 of their team's 17 turnovers and, for extended portions of the third quarter, when James barreled down the floor past lumbering center Zydrunas Ilgauskas and hoisted shots for himself as his teammates gathered around the perimeter to watch, it almost felt as though the King had never left Cleveland.
LeBron had twice as many turnovers (eight) as rebounds (four). The man who proclaimed he was looking forward to being a facilitator dished out just three assists in a game-high 42 minutes. Bosh scored a forgettable eight points with eight rebounds in 37 minutes, while Wade, who missed most of preseason with hamstring troubles and a custody battle, was a woeful 4-of-16 from the floor.
But we digress. The Heat need time to establish an offensive rhythm, and yes, they missed a slew of easy shots in this game, and they will undoubtedly finish the season as a dangerous team, but there's another reason they shot 23.5 percent in the first half: The Celtics played championship-caliber defense.
Remember the Celtics' defense? It's their lifeline, the epicenter of their culture, the glue that keeps them in the conversation among the league's elite.
Last season, the chink in that defensive fortress was rebounding. The Celtics were among the worst teams in the league off the glass, so they went out and imported size: Shaquille O'Neal, Jermaine O'Neal, Semih Erden. Tuesday night, the big boys cleared the boards, clogged the middle and, in the case of Shaq, established a low-post presence that was fleeting at best in 2009-10.
"Adding those big guys has made a big difference,'' offered former Celtic (and current Heat sharpshooter) Eddie House. "They help them bang, they help them rebound, and they use up fouls. They're just a lot deeper than they were, and when they get Delonte [West] back, they'll be deep across the board.''
The disclaimer was the same in both locker rooms: It's pure folly to make grand pronouncements after just one game. Even so, Paul Pierce was right when he declared Big Baby Davis was the surprise of the preseason because of his improved conditioning, footwork and agility. Davis (a tidy 13 points on 6-of-7 shooting) was so effective he was allowed to stay on the court with the starters down the stretch, when the game was on the line.
"I was just trying to do my thing,'' Davis said. "We talked a lot about not letting ourselves get out of control. Sometimes we try to do too much.''
It should not be overlooked that the Celtics nearly blew a 19-point lead when they slipped into one of those third-quarter morasses that so often bogged down their offense last season. Doc Rivers yanked his players into the huddle and warned them not to resort to "hero ball,'' the 1-on-1 nonsense that plagues their scorers from time to time.
They were fortunate to have a true facilitator to help combat those urges. Rajon Rondo dished out 17 assists by penetrating, then kicking it back out to his perimeter targets, as well as coaxing Big Baby into some textbook pick-and-roll sets.
Naturally, the basketball world will overreact to Miami's uneven play. The Heat's inconsistency will be the topic of the day, overshadowing a Celtics win that demonstrated they are a team to be taken seriously.
Maybe Marquis Daniels really can be a reliable energy player, both in transition and on the defensive end, like he was in this game. Maybe Shaq can submit nine points and seven boards every night. Maybe Nate Robinson has really grown up -- after all, he did conservatively drop in a fast-break opportunity instead of attempting a 360-degree circus jam.
It was a big night for the Robinsons. Six-year old Nahmier was celebrating a birthday on the eve his daddy logged 10 meaningful minutes.
"He won't care,'' Nate Robinson said. "His favorite players are LeBron and D-Wade. It's all he talks about.''
Figures. An afterthought even in his own house.
Jackie MacMullan, who spent nearly 20 years as a beat writer and columnist in Boston, is a columnist for ESPNBoston.com.