Celtics

Celtics-Heat Game 2 reflections: This one hurts

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Celtics-Heat Game 2 reflections: This one hurts

Well, this one hurts.

Despite every other emotion thats currently running through your veins the anger, frustration, hatred, depression, helplessness, resentment its all born out of the same simultaneously simple yet complex sensation: Pain.

This hurts. This is painful. And it will be for a while.

It hurts because of how it happened. It hurts because of when it happened. It hurts because of where it happened and whom it happened against.

It hurts because for the second time in three insanely important games, the Celtics were needlessly without their captain the man weve come to recognize as one of the greatest Celtics of all time when it mattered most.

It hurts because they wasted a legendary performance by their future captain. Wasted it. Rajon Rondos 53-minute, 44-point, 10-assist, eight-rebound, three-steal and three-turnover masterpiece may be the gutsiest thing youve seen on a basketball court in years. It may serve as another absolute and undeniable mark of his greatness. Does it make you feel a little better about the future? Yup. Does it leave a satisfying egg on the face of every over-dramatic moral compass who questioned Rondo's commitment after Game 1 against Atlanta? Yup. But right now, its also a meaningless footnote. Its irrelevant.

Last night hurts because it masked another textbook LeBron James breakdown. For all his predictable screaming and taunting at the end Game 1 and despite his impressive stat line in Game 2 Bron was shaky and scared down the stretch. He made only one basket in the fourth quarter and overtime, and missed four key foul shots along the way. When the game was on the line, he was a different person that other person lacking the confidence of Stacey King never mind the King. On the last play of regulation, with the score tied at 99-99, James cleared out for an isolation against Rondo a defender who was giving up seven inches, at least 100 pounds and running on whatever comes after fumes. Had he taken it to the hoop, James was guaranteed one of three outcomes:

1) The defense collapses leaving multiple teammates wide open along the perimeter.

2) A game-winning dunk or lay-up.

3) Two foul shots, with the Heat needing only one for a win.

He pulled up for a 21-foot fade away.

Had the Celtics come out on top, James latest display of kindergarten toughness would be in the spotlight; another example of the undisputed best player in the NBA being overwhelmed by the moment. After his antics in Game 1, that spotlight and criticism were never more deserved, and couldn't have been anymore satisfying.

It hurts because the referees were a factor. No, Im not blaming them for the loss. Im just saying that the image of Rondo getting raked across the face with 1:35 left in overtime of a tie game with the season essentially on the line makes everything worse. Not only because it was clearly a foul. Not only because at that time, there wasnt a player on the court who deserved the call more than Rondo. Not only because we have to use words like deserved to analyze a part of the game that should be completely objective. Not only because, on the other end, James was sent to the line 24 TIMES. But because once, just once, youd love to grieve over a heartbreaking loss without a referee-fueled what if.

I know. I know. Theyre human. But arent we all? And what happens when normal humans repeatedly fail so miserably at their jobs? Do they not get disciplined, even fired? And what do you think happened to James Capers after last night, after a blatant blown call at the most crucial moment on the game's biggest stage? A pat on the ass and a "Gettem next time, champ"?

Last night hurts because you dont know how many 43-minute outings Ray Allen has left in the tank; because after a game like that, you don't know how much any of them have left. It hurts because Doc Rivers has clearly, and even worse, justifiably given up on his bench. It hurts because you were forced to withstand the sight of Wally Szczerbiaks enormous teeth tweeting cheap shots at KG.

It hurts because 94 percent of teams that go down 0-2 in the NBA playoffs go on to lose. And while you'd never put it past these Celtics to fall into that six percent, you can't escape the nearly insurmountable hill they're now forced to climb. It hurts because not only did they blow a chance, but likely their best chance to steal a game in Miami. It hurts because you believed that they could win. Not just that game, but also the series. Before Game 1, the chances were slim. After Game 1, they were non-existent. But Game 2 brought you back. Somewhere along the line you stopped protecting yourself from reality, completely let your guard down and unconditionally believed. That makes this morning that much worse.

Like always, the pain will eventually fade. At 8:30 tomorrow night, the Celtics will take the court again and start chipping away at the aftermath of Game 2. Of course, the memories will never completely disappear, but the emotions will be replaced. They'll give us more reasons to believe, find different ways to make us hurt. By halftime of Game 3, this will all be a distant memory.

But for now, these feelings aren't going anywhere.

A great game. A horrible loss. A missed opportunity.

So much pain.

Rich can be reached at rlevine@comcastsportsnet.com. Follow Rich on Twitter at http:twitter.comrich_levine

WATCH: Celtics vs. Mavericks

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WATCH: Celtics vs. Mavericks

Tune into NBC Sports Boston to watch the Celtics play the Mavericks in Dallas. You can also click here to watch the Celtics livestream presented by Nissan on the NBC Sports App. Coverage begins at 7:30 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live Presented by ACE Ticket.

- Game preview: C's need to play Smart in Dallas

- Channel Finder: Make sure you know where to watch

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Celtics-Mavericks preview: C's need to play Smart vs. Dallas

Celtics-Mavericks preview: C's need to play Smart vs. Dallas

Get it done. No excuses.
 
That has been how the Boston Celtics have played most of this season.
 
And if there’s one Celtics player who embodies that on this team, it’s Marcus Smart.
 
The fourth-year guard has struggled all season with his shot-making, but when the game is on the line in the fourth quarter you can count on Smart to be on the floor.

THE WINNING STREAK

He has been among the many reasons Boston has won 15 in a row, which is the fifth-longest winning streak in franchise history.
 
And Smart will be among the Celtics looking to keep it going tonight against the Dallas Mavericks.
 
Most likely, Smart will make an impact with his defense, which is among the best in the NBA.

How good?
 
Smart has a defensive rating of 93.4 (points allowed per 100 possessions) which is tops among all guards in the NBA, and ranks third among all players who have played in at least 10 games this season.
 
But in the 110-99 win over the Hawks, Smart knocked down a couple of 3-pointers which was a big deal considering how mightily he has struggled shooting the ball this season.
 
Smart is shooting 27.3 percent from the field as well as from 3-point range – both career lows.
 
However, he’s also averaging career highs in assists (4.5) and rebounds (5.1) this season.
 
And while he certainly doesn’t appear to be affected by the shooting struggles, he acknowledges that it is something that he can’t help but think about from time to time.
 
“It does affect you, especially if you’ve been working (on shooting) all summer,” Smart said. “At the same time, I don’t take as many shots. But like I said, we got other guys who are playing well. My job is to get them the ball and do whatever I can, go back down the floor, play defense and get the ball again.”

In Boston’s win over Atlanta, Smart spent a good amount of time defending Marco Belinelli who had four points on 2-for-10 shooting compared to 19 points on 6-for-10 shooting when these two teams met earlier this month.
 
Coach Brad Stevens pointed to the job Smart did on Belinelli, in addition to the clutch offensive rebound he was able to snag and quickly put back up and in that gave Boston a 103-95 game with about two minutes to play.
 
“He was really good,” Stevens said.
 
The same could be said for most of the Celtics of late.
 
Kyrie Irving is coming off his most efficient game of the season, tallying 30 points on 10-for-12 shooting from the field. Jayson Tatum had a rough start, but he came on strong as well with 14 points – all coming in the second half.
 
But the backbone of Boston’s success lies in what they’re able to get done defensively.
 
So far, Boston’s defense has been as strong as we’ve seen this early, in quite some time.
 
Boston, which has a league-best defensive rating of 95.9, has length, savvy and an overall total buy-in by the players on what Brad Stevens is looking for, from them.
 
Meanwhile, the Mavericks (3-14) are coming off their most impressive victory this season, a 111-79 win over Milwaukee.  Dennis Smith Jr. has been among the more talented rookies this season. He’s averaging 14.5 points, 4.2 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game. Dallas is indeed in a transition period where longtime superstar Dirk Nowitzki (10.3 points, 5.5 rebounds per game) is gradually passing the torch to his younger teammates like Harrison Barnes (18.7 points, 7.1 rebounds) and Smith Jr.
 
Much like the Hawks game, the Celtics must approach this game with a focus on the opponent and not their record.
 
Because the Celtics are no longer just a good team on the schedule. They are a measuring stick for most to see how they stack up against the league’s best.
 
And the Celtics understand how their success has changed how teams see them.
 
“Now that we have a reputation, I think everyone is coming for us,” said Boston’s Jaylen Brown. “Now we have to come play even harder, and I think we can do that. I think we are more than capable.”

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE