Celtics put scare into Heat

BOSTON -- Look, no one wants to play the Miami Heat in the postseason. They've got the game's best player. They have become comfortable in their own skin as, easily, the most scrutinized team in NBA history. They are deserving champions playing like they have every intention of defending their title. They've won 23 in a row and may not lose again until April.

This being Bracket Time, the subject of Heat Avoidance starts to become a topic of discussion as we head into the NBA playoffs. Eastern Conference teams will bob and weave to stay out of the Miami bracket, hoping something bad happens or someone beats them.

After Monday night's stirring performance by the crypto-Celtics against the Heat, a game Boston should have won but ended up losing, we can only hope the two teams find a way to meet again in the playoffs. That may not be a good thing for the Celtics. But I don't think it's a great thing for Miami, either.

The Heat respect the Celtics. They can get spooked by the Celtics. I don't care what the standings say: If there's one team in the East the Miami Heat do not want to see in the playoffs, it's the Celtics. Boston is the only team in the East that can put any semblance of fear into Miami.

I thought this way last year -- and everyone else thought I was nuts (and after the first two games, I thought I might be too.) I picked the Celtics to beat the Heat and they came pretty close to doing so. And even though the Celtics have a slew of new faces, one constant remains from last season: They will not be afraid to play Miami if and when the time comes in the playoffs.

Boston isn't the least bit intimidated by the Heat. That much has to be clear after Monday night, the latest of so many close games over the years. The Heat hate to play in Boston -- that is an article of faith -- and team president Pat Riley breaks into hives when he enters the building. Dwyane Wade morphs into Landry Fields against the Celtics.

Doc Rivers pretty much nailed the Celtics' play Monday night. He said he thought they deserved to win and woulda/coulda/shoulda done so save for a few defensive lapses and a missed goaltending call. This was a test, Rivers thought, to see how this new group of Celtics would respond to a playoff-like game, which, given the atmosphere, timing and opponent, this clearly was.

"Overall, besides not winning the game, we passed the test,'' Rivers said. "But losing the game is what you'll remember."

The non-Miami playoff teams in the East are all bunched together, with only 4½ games separating No. 2 Indiana from No. 7 Boston. In 2010, the Celtics were in a similar position -- a little better record, though -- and all the talk at the time was how they had to avoid Cleveland (and LeBron, duh) in the playoffs.

They didn't. They ended up playing Cleveland in the second round. They lost Game 1. They lost Game 3 in what was the worst home playoff loss in the history of the franchise. They looked like dead men walking. They didn't lose another game in the series.

And, after finishing off LeBron's Cleveland career, Paul Pierce said, "We're not content to beat the Cleveland Cavaliers. We have bigger things in mind."

So, yes, it might make sense to stay out of Miami's way until a potential matchup in the conference finals. That also would necessitate, obviously, a first-round victory, probably without home-court advantage, and a second-round victory, also perhaps without home-court advantage.

But outside of Miami, is there any team in the East that gives a Celtics fan pause? There can't be. The Pacers are a nice team, but would you pick them against the Celtics? I wouldn't. The Knicks are hurting. The Nets and Hawks are easily beatable. The Bulls with a healthy Derrick Rose would be more than worrisome, but when is that going to happen? And even if Rose returns, how good will he be out of the box?

A lot of other teams in that group might be thinking the same thing. It's the ABM playoffs -- Anyone But Miami. But you can be sure that Miami is thinking of only one team it doesn't want to see as it plots its course toward another Finals appearance. It's the last Eastern Conference team to have beaten them in the postseason.

"No one in the league tests your mental capabilities like the Celtics,'' Shane Battier said.

The Celtics would be severe underdogs against Miami. James will be James. As we saw in Game 6 of the conference finals last year (45 points in 45 minutes), there are times when he is just plain unstoppable. He was pretty good Monday night.

But who else scares you? Wade should, by any reasonable calculation. He's a terrific player. But as the ESPN Stats and Information folks pointed out, Wade saves his absolute worst for the Celtics. He had a decent game Monday -- 16 points, 7 rebounds, 6 assists -- but he also threw up a 5-foot airball in the final minute.

Against the Celtics, Wade's scoring average of around 21 points a game (it was 21.3 before Monday) and his field goal percentage (43.3 before Monday) are the lowest against any opponent in his career.

Chris Bosh will have his moments, but he had a quiet 13 and 5 on Monday and got away with a goaltending call. (If the referees can take away a three-pointer on replay/review, they should be able to reverse an obvious goaltending call.) Ray Allen was the Invisible Man on Monday. Battier made some big plays.

Even though the Heat have eliminated Boston the last two postseasons, the Celtics will not enter any playoff series against the Heat in any kind of state of shock and awe. Miami knows that. The Heat indisputably are the beast of the East right now. But I'm thinking if they had their druthers, they'd just as soon have someone else do them the favor of eliminating the Celtics.

I hope that doesn't happen. Isn't everyone ready for Miami-Boston, Part 3?