Celtics putting it together at right time

If Celtics president Danny Ainge and coach Doc Rivers had submitted themselves to interrogations prior to the start of the playoffs, they would have had more explaining to do than the Goldman Sachs fellows on Capitol Hill.

What about the rebounding? What about the turnovers? What about the pathetic home record? What about the iffy health of Kevin Garnett? What about the uninspiring finish to a rather uninspiring regular season? Where has the defense been?

And, finally, what reason can either of you give us to think that, based upon what we've all seen, the Celtics will make it out of the first round, let alone make any kind of respectable run?

Well, we got the answer -- and it sure wasn't based on anything we've seen in months. The Celtics were a .500 team over the final 54 games of the exhibition, er, regular season, and it was fair to wonder which team was going to show up when the playoffs started. Would we get the one that lost to the Nets, Wizards, Grizzlies and Sixers at home? Or would we get the one that the players promised was certain to arrive, a committed, driven, experienced group understanding what was at stake and playing with the appropriate sense of urgency?

Ainge and Rivers let the players do the talking. They talked the talk, for sure. Just ask Heat guard Quentin Richardson. But they also walked the walk.

And the Miami Heat, who some thought had a decent shot to win this series, are going home following the Celtics' series-clinching 96-86 victory in Game 5 on Tuesday night. That gives everyone a chance to exhale before the arrival of D-Wade 2.0, otherwise known as LeBron James.

Not only did the Celtics defend, they outrebounded the Heat, they forced more turnovers, they went 3-0 in TD Garden and they move on to the conference semifinals as healthy as they're going to be. So, basically, yeah, the regular season was a big yawn. The overall goal was health, not victories or playoff positioning. They knew they'd get there. The how and where was inconsequential.

(One problem from the Miami series. Rasheed Wallace must still think it's the regular season based on his series output: 19 points and 10 rebounds in nearly 66 mostly underwater minutes. At the conclusion of Game 5, he and Jermaine O'Neal, former Portland teammates, had an embrace that was sanctioned by the American Kennel Club. O'Neal finished the series with 21 points, or one per every million he earned this season.)

There will be plenty of time to ponder what lies ahead. What we saw in the Miami series was a Celtics team we had not seen since Christmas, one that played what Rivers called "old Celtics defense" for most of the three games in Boston (but, he lamented, not for most of the two games in Miami).

"That is who we are,'' the Celtics' coach said.

He's right, of course. Ray Allen will get deserving encomiums for another solid shooting night, all the while harassing Dwyane Wade and getting called for some ticky-tack fouls. Glen "Big Baby" Davis has allowed us to, mercifully, forget about the underwhelming Wallace. Rajon Rondo was a dervish again, despite feeling lousy, and came close to a triple-double. "I don't know why they don't call them the Big Four,'' saluted Miami coach Erik Spoelstra. "He's a big part of their puzzle." Rondo played almost 210 out of a possible 240 minutes in the series.

But for the Celtics to engender any hope or optimism going into the playoffs, they had to channel their inner Bill Russell and start defending again. They did so in spurts during the regular season, enough so that their overall numbers were serviceable. But the lockdown defense of two years ago was rare, maybe because the key guy, Kevin Garnett, was busy spending the season trying to get healthy.

The numbers from the Heat series are hard to refute. Miami averaged 87.6 points a game in the series -- 79.7 in the three games in Boston. The Heat shot 43.5 percent in the series, but shot less than 40 percent in each of the three games in Boston. The Celtics committed 20 fewer fouls over the course of the series.

"They do a good job of mixing it up defensively and doing a lot of different things,'' said Miami's Udonis Haslem. "Sometimes we got a little confused."

Music to Rivers' ears. "We're getting there,'' he said of the defense. "That's what we have to be."

Paul Pierce singled out Kendrick Perkins for the defensive job he did on O'Neal, who shot 9-of-44 for the series. Garnett turned Michael Beasley into an utter cipher; in Game 5, the Heat forward had no baskets and three turnovers and played less than 14 minutes. ("I think I played terribly in the series,'' said Beasley. He's right.)

And the team defense was, in the words of Rivers, "absolutely wonderful to see" for all but a couple of the 12 quarters in Boston.

"They're committed to their defense,'' Spoelstra said. "They've been one of the best defensive teams in the league the last three years. They move well. They do a good job of getting in the gaps. They're well-prepared."

They'll have to be Boy Scout-prepared for the Cavaliers. It's a challenge they feel they're ready to accept. They still may not have more than a puncher's chance against LeBron and the Fellas, but you have to like their chances a lot more after seeing them dismantle the Heat.

Miami is no Cleveland. But the Boston we saw against Miami is not the same Boston we saw for virtually all of 2010. And as they say in Celtics Nation, vive la difference!

Longtime Celtics reporter Peter May is a contributor to ESPNBoston.com.