Celtics ready for next challenge

BOSTON -- By any measure, the Boston Celtics looked pretty darn good if you sum up their five-game body of work against the Miami Heat.

Good, but not great.

And if they are going to put a scare into the Cleveland Cavaliers in the next round, the Celtics will need to perform at a sustained higher level -- a championship-caliber commodity that eluded them in the first round.

With Ray Allen keeping up his torrid outside shooting and the defense finding a way to limit Dwyane Wade, the Celtics finished off the Heat 96-86 Tuesday night to win their first-round series 4-1.

But did the Celtics discover enough positives about themselves that they can carry into the next round and capitalize on? Was this series a learning experience, or an exercise in shaking off the cobwebs that developed over their 27-27 finish to the regular season after their 23-5 start?

Kevin Garnett praised the team for its composure, but Doc Rivers wasn't all that thrilled with the repeated loss of focus. Paul Pierce and Rivers singled out Tony Allen for having a breakout performance that solidified his spot in the rotation, and Glen Davis was the recipient of some well-deserved kudos, too.

But there wasn't anyone saying anything complimentary regarding the three guys who were supposed to be the backbone of the second unit, Rasheed Wallace, Marquis Daniels and Nate Robinson, and the Celtics' own memories of their epic near collapse in the teams' infamous "chippy" Easter Sunday game remain fresh.

"They have so many guys that can make plays, and more important is that they're unselfish," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. "They're coming together at an opportune time, and they're probably the most mentally tough team that we've played against."

The finale of this series was not a thing of beauty but rather a somewhat mundane assertion of the Celtics' superiority.

Ray Allen went 5-for-6 from the 3-point line to raise his percentage from behind the arc to 54 percent for the series; Rajon Rondo was his usual prolific self on the stat sheet in putting up 16 points, 12 assists, 8 rebounds and 4 steals; Pierce dropped in an efficient 21 points; and Garnett was his all-around solid self on both ends of the floor.

From those guys, that's kind of what you've come to expect.

As Spoelstra put it: "People call them the Big Three, but I don't know why they wouldn't call them the Big Four. He [Rondo] is a big part of the puzzle."

Boston held Miami to 37 percent shooting in the series, won three games fairly handily and one at the buzzer, and didn't let the antics of the Heat's agitator -- that would be you, Quentin Richardson -- have a lasting impact on the way the series unfolded.

"For the most part, we were very solid and I was very happy with our composure," said Garnett, who was suspended for Game 2 after elbowing Richardson during a fracas at the end of Game 1. "Obviously, we started out kind of rocky with the whole situation with the incident and all that, but from then on, I thought composure-wise we were very solid."

But does that composure carry over?

What happens if LeBron James walks into their huddle and starts yapping at Tony Allen as he did the last time these two teams played. What happens if James channels his self-proclaimed hate of his upcoming opponent into a performance like the one Wade put on Sunday?

And, perhaps most importantly, what happens when foul trouble or an injury comes around and the Celtics' depth, or lack thereof, becomes an issue.

Do people outside of Celtics Nation realize that the backup point guard job has fallen by default to Tony Allen? Daniels has dropped out of the rotation completely; Robinson looks utterly lost; and Michael Finley appears capable of contributing five or six solid minutes, but not much more. A case actually can be made that the best pure point guard aside from Rondo is assistant coach Tyronn Lue.

"I'm happy for Tony, as far as handling the backup point guard job, because that's something I wasn't sure of going in," Rivers said. "The bench was up and down, and that's going to have to be better in the next series."

Cleveland and Boston split their season series 2-2, with the Celtics winning in Cleveland on opening night, the Cavs knocking off the Celtics by 20 in Boston in late February, then by 11 at home in mid-March, then losing 117-113 on Easter Sunday after the Cavs effortlessly wiped out a 17-point deficit in the fourth quarter before James proclaimed his dislike for the Celtics afterward: "We don't like them, and they don't like us."

The teams played an epic seven-game series two springs ago, a matchup that came down to a Game 7 shootout between Pierce and James that went Boston's way on the Celtics' road toward their 17th championship.

The rafters in the Q Arena are still without a championship banner, and the pressure in their upcoming series (Game 1 is Saturday in Cleveland) will weigh heavier on the Cavs than on the Celtics.

The talent advantage? That's where the debate can begin, once we establish (and nobody can argue this point) that the best player on the floor will be wearing No. 23 for Cleveland.

Among the key questions: Will Ray Allen keep up his 3-point proficiency, and will Mo Williams and Delonte West show any? Will Pierce he able to match James mano a mano if each team needs to lean on its best offensive player? Is the Shaquille O'Neal-Kendrick Perkins matchup a wash? Can Rondo continue to be a Mr. Everything when the Cavs try to bait him into trying to do too much? Do the forward tandems of Garnett and Davis versus Antawn Jamison and Anderson Varejao cancel each other out?

Or maybe it'll just come down to this: Who has the greater desire? The stronger killer instinct?

A case can be made that both the Celtics and the Cavs failed to show enough of one in finishing off the Heat and Bulls.

"We didn't step on them like we'd have liked to, but that's something we can learn from," Pierce said before looking ahead. "They're the team to beat right now, and if we're going to win, we're going to need to get one game, maybe two, in Cleveland."

Are the Celtics good enough?

Well, they're good. This series against Miami showed it.

But Cleveland is better than good, and Boston will need to be great -- something the Celtics haven't been on a long-term consistent basis since their championship season two years ago.

One thing's for sure: It'll be great to see them try.

The Celtics know they are the underdogs, and rightfully so, and the challenge will be to raise their collective level to a height good enough to beat the NBA's best team.

Two and a half weeks from now, we'll know whether they were up to the task.