Tuesday May 29, 2012

MIAMI -- A big early Miami lead was wasted. Once the Heat took control again, they simply ran away from the Boston Celtics.

And the NBA finals are now three wins away for LeBron James and the Heat.

James scored 32 points and grabbed 13 rebounds, Dwyane Wade scored 10 of his 22 points in the fourth quarter and the Heat beat the Celtics 93-79 on Monday night in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals.

Shane Battier, playing in the conference finals for the first time, scored 10 points and had 10 rebounds for the Heat, who wasted an early 11-point first-half lead before running away to break a halftime tie. Miami outrebounded the Celtics 48-33, and blocked 11 Boston shots.

Kevin Garnett scored 23 points and grabbed 10 rebounds for Boston, which got 16 points, nine rebounds and seven assists from Rajon Rondo and 12 points from Paul Pierce.

Game 2 is Wednesday night in Miami.

It’s the third straight year the Heat and Celtics have met in the playoffs, the third straight year James has seen his postseason path go through Boston as well -- the first of those matchups coming in 2010, his final run with Cleveland.

Each of those came in the first or second rounds, never one round away from the NBA finals.

And while both sides would say there’s a long way to go in this series, Game 1 winners have a decided edge in any best-of-seven, the conference final being no exception.


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In the most recent 10 postseasons, teams with 1-0 leads in conference finals have advanced 15 out of 20 times. One of the five instances of a team rallying from a one-game deficit was last year, when Miami ousted Chicago in five games.

Last season’s Miami-Boston series ended with James scoring the final 10 points of Game 5, and the start of this year’s matchup had him putting on another offensive display.

He had 13 points in the first quarter -- two more than the entire Celtics roster -- and Miami ran out to a 21-11 lead after the opening period. Garnett made three of his four shots in the quarter, while everyone else in Boston green was 2 for 16 from the floor.

The 11 points matched the lowest output by any team in the opening quarter this postseason. The other team to manage that few was San Antonio, which then dropped 32 on the Los Angeles Clippers in the second quarter of their game on May 19.

The Celtics’ response was even better.

Boston scored 35 in the second quarter, erasing what was an 11-point deficit early in the period by scoring 27 points in the final 8:46 of the half to pull into a 46-all tie. Rondo, Garnett and Pierce combined to score 23 points in the quarter, looking absolutely vintage, near-perfect offensive execution getting to Miami time and time again. And the Celtics’ comeback happened even while they got hit with three technical fouls in the second quarter, plus Allen missing four first-half free throws -- matching his career-worst for an entire game.

In the end, it went down as merely a one-quarter lapse for Miami.

Another technical foul, this one on Rondo, came in the third quarter, likely born from frustration as the Heat started to roll again.

With the game tied at 50, Rondo missed three shots in a 31-second span early in the third, the last of those getting blocked by Battier -- who hit a 3-pointer 11 seconds later. It started a 9-2 Miami burst, including a touchdown pass from Wade to James -- Wade grabbed the rebound of a miss by Pierce, spun and delivered a 90-foot pass to the reigning MVP -- for an easy score.

Miami led by as many as 13 late in the third, before taking a 72-61 lead into the fourth. James scored 10 more in the third, Boston went cold again shooting just 27 percent in the period, and Wade’s left-handed bullet pass into the lane set up Joel Anthony for a dunk that pushed the Heat lead to 15 with 10:13 remaining.

Spurs 101, Thunder 98

SAN ANTONIO -- Manu Ginobili scored 26 points and the San Antonio Spurs won their 19th in a row to tie the NBA record for longest winning streak kept alive in the playoffs, beating the Oklahoma City Thunder 101-98 to open the Western Conference finals on Sunday night. 

Obeying orders snarled by coach Gregg Popovich in a fourth-quarter timeout to play "nasty," the Spurs erased a nine-point deficit that stunned the Thunder, who had looked on their way to finally kicking the perception that they’re the underdog.

Kevin Durant led the Thunder with 27 points. Russell Westbrook had 17.

The 2001 Lakers are the only other team to carry a winning streak this long in the playoffs -- and they did so on their way to a championship.

Game 2 is Tuesday night.

The Spurs matched the fourth-longest streak in NBA history, and with one more will become just the fourth team to surpass 20.

Tim Duncan had 16 points and 11 rebounds, and Tony Parker shook off a dismal start to finish with 18 points. But it was Ginobili who steered the Spurs to strike first in a highly anticipated matchup of the West’s top two teams for practically the entire regular season.

"They got us on our heels. We were not aggressive," Ginobili said. "And in the second half, we did have it."

On the other end, Oklahoma City’s own Big Three struggled to find its shot early before awakening in the second half. Yet Westbrook still finished just 6 of 15 and took a nasty, face-first spill late in the fourth that had the entire Thunder bench crossing the court to check on their All-Star point guard underneath the opposite basket.

Westbrook appeared to favor his left leg when he got up, but he never left the game.

It was a tantalizingly close near-upset for the young Thunder, who were ousted in the Western Conference finals a year ago and were in position for home-court advantage throughout the playoffs until being overtaken by the Spurs in the final month of the season.

But it was a fittingly close opener for two franchises with so many similarities.

That includes Thunder general manager Sam Presti -- the architect of the Thunder’s rapid turnaround from a 23-win season to consecutive Western Conference finals in just four years -- getting his big break in the NBA as intern in San Antonio.

And the Thunder didn’t even need their own Big Three to keep things close.

Durant, Westbrook and Harden at one point through the second quarter were 5 of 21 -- a typically ominous stat line for a trio that had been responsible for nearly 70 percent of Oklahoma City’s points through the playoffs so far. But for all the talk about San Antonio’s superior bench, it was the Thunder’s reserves who picked up the slack.

None more so than Derek Fisher, whose famous game-winner for the Lakers on this same court in the 2004 playoffs has made "0.4 seconds" a phrase that needs no further explanation to the Spurs. Eight years later, and the oldest player in this series at 37, Fisher already met his playoff average at halftime and finished with 13 points.

Gary Neal added 12 points and was the only other Spurs player in double figures.