BOSTON — The Boston fans needed just 45 minutes to pronounce their verdict on the NBA’s alleged new superteam: “Over-rated!”
Mocking Miami in the closing minutes of the much-hyped but lackluster debut of its new superstar trio, the boisterous crowd at the TD Garden serenaded two-time NBA MVP LeBron James and sent him away with another loss on Tuesday night as the Celtics beat the Heat 88-80.
James scored 21 of his 31 points in the second half and helped cut a 19-point deficit to three points in the final 70 seconds. But Ray Allen hit a 3-pointer, and Paul Pierce made a pair of free throws to seal it for the defending Eastern Conference champions.
“I actually felt like I was in the playoffs,” said Allen, who scored 20 points. “It had the same feeling, that same energy.”
That was bad news for James, who lost to the Celtics in the playoffs twice in the last three years and finally gave up trying to win a championship in Cleveland. After a heavily publicized courtship, he joined Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh with the Heat and created a team that was favored to win a championship — and hated everywhere but Miami.
But the Heat fizzled in the debut of their superstar threesome on Tuesday night, scoring just nine points in the first quarter and falling behind by 15 at halftime. That’s when James took over — the way he was forced to so many times in Cleveland.
“It’s going to take time, and we understand that,” James said. “I think right now it’s a feel-out process. It almost felt like we were being too unselfish, trying to get each other into the game.”
Pierce scored 19 points, Rajon Rondo had 17 assists and Kevin Garnett had 10 points and 10 rebounds for Boston. Shaquille O’Neal had nine points and seven rebounds in 18 minutes in his Boston debut, and backup Glen “Big Baby” Davis had 13 points and five rebounds.
“We’re still a work in progress,” O’Neal said. “We’re still learning each other. We played well. … If we keep playing like that, we’ll be fine.”
James scored 15 points in the third quarter, making 2 of 3 from 3-point range as an outside threat and 5 of 6 from the line after picking up fouls on drives to the basket. He took seven of the team’s 13 shots in the quarter, and Miami cut a 19-point deficit to 63-57.
“We knew we wouldn’t necessarily hit on all cylinders right away,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “When we got close and started grinding, that was more of his competitive nature the second half.”
But James missed three 3-point tries in the fourth as the Heat failed to claw their way back. He also finished with eight turnovers. Wade scored 13 points on 4-for-16 shooting, and Bosh had eight points, making 3 of 11 shots.
“This is one of 82,” Wade said. “I’m sorry if everybody thought we were going to go 82-0. It just ain’t happening.”
True, it’s only one game.
But it’s an early reminder that paper talent doesn’t always translate into a winning team, especially when superstars and their egos are involved. Garnett, Pierce and Allen were able to do it in Boston from the start, winning their first eight games in 2007-08 and 29 of their first 32 en route to the franchise’s 17th NBA title.
“We know it isn’t going to be easy. The first half was an indication of that,” Spoelstra said. “It’s not a reason to panic right now. … I already imagine we’ll be much better tomorrow.”
Celtics coach Doc Rivers fears that Spoelstra is right.
“They’re going to be great,” he said. “They’ll be much better. Hopefully, we will, too.”
The sold-out crowd — a single ticket in the luxury suites was listed at $18,824 a few hours before the game — booed James virtually every time he touched the ball and delighted in Miami’s early struggles.
But that was no different from when he with the Cavaliers.
Returning to the building where his Cleveland career ended, James avoided questions about the tumultuous summer in which he became the NBA’s biggest villain except to say, “It was pretty long.”
“I’m at a point where I’m looking forward to playing the games,” he said before tip-off. “I’m excited about this new start. I’m excited about this season. I’m excited about this team and this franchise. I’m excited to get it going in a city where (I’ve) struggled.”
Since signing with the Heat, James has become beloved in Miami.
And he remains a respected rival in Boston.
But he’s still hated back in Ohio.
A radio host in Cleveland hired a witch doctor to try to jinx James and his attempt to win a title elsewhere. WMMS-FM broadcast the ceremony on Tuesday morning, claiming to use bones, blood and a James jersey to cast a curse on the two-time MVP.
Spoelstra said that the attention — neither good nor bad — wouldn’t affect his team.
“We’re not running away from the attention, the expectations or the pressure,” he said. “We feel like we’re getting attacked on all sides, but once you step on the court, it all just goes away.”