No one minced words when predicting the most telling matchup of the Heat’s playoff series against the Boston Celtics.
It would be the wildly inconsistent Mario Chalmers vs. the wildly creative Rajon Rondo.
Game 1, Round 1 goes to Chalmers.
Rondo outscored Chalmers 16-9, handed out more assists, 7-4, and grabbed more rebounds, 9-5, yet it was Chalmers who elevated his performance in the duel of the point guards.
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It was Chalmers who collaborated with Shane Battier, Mike Miller and Joel Anthony to lighten the load for LeBron James and Dwyane Wade.
The Heat’s 93-79 victory in the opener of the Eastern Conference finals was the most balanced game the Heat has logged in the postseason so far.
Chalmers made Rondo work hard. James and Wade dug in to defend him, too. As a result, Rondo never really broke free for his improvisational forays. He often bent over, hands on knees, puzzling over how to generate more opportunities for his teammates and himself.
The Heat held home court advantage in front of a white-hot, white-clad capacity crowd at AmericanAirlines Arena. Boston crept back from an 11-point deficit, an 11-point first quarter and four technical fouls to tie the score at halftime. But the Heat dominated in the second half as James and Wade combined to nail 60 percent of their shots while the Celtics looked like they couldn’t hit Biscayne Bay.
The Heat won its fourth consecutive playoff game. The Big 2 had been scoring a combined average of 65.7 points in the three previous games against Indiana. Without Chris Bosh, sidelined indefinitely with a strained abdominal muscle, they accepted a heavier burden. Against the experienced Celtics and their wily floor captain, they knew they would need their reinforcements.
Chalmers came through. He played with aggression and control. He didn’t commit any of his usual head-scratching acts — strange fouls, passes and shots that often prompt his teammates to scold him.
“I love Rio like a little brother,” Wade said. “But he’s the reason I would never be a coach.”
Chalmers scored nine points, dished four assists and got five rebounds. On the positive side, he made only one turnover. On the negative, he missed all six of his three-pointers tries.
Rondo has been notching triple doubles the way Magic Johnson used to do. He’s got nine in the postseason; Johnson finished his career with 30. Rondo has been averaging 18.7 points, 13.7 assists and 7.7 rebounds. But he was not as effective on Monday, and missed 12 of his 20 shots.
One example of how the Heat’s role players stepped up: Battier forced Paul Pierce into a turnover and Chalmers grabbed the ball and took it all the way down the court for a layup.
How important was the supporting cast in setting the tone for this series? Six different Heat players blocked 11 shots. The Celtics had just one block, by Kevin Garnett.
“We get a lot of the press and headlines but our teammates do a lot of things to help us win ballgames,” James said.
Rondo limited Chalmers’ chances to three field goal attempts in the first half, but Chalmers helped harass Rondo into four turnovers.
“Rondo is a basketball maestro. Part of his greatness is his utter unpredictability. He knows the moment. We have to step up to the challenge,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said.
One win down. Three to go.