BOSTON -- The Boston Celtics scored 17 straight points in the first quarter and shot 62 percent in the first half. Jeff Green had the game of his life, a 43-point performance so completely awesome that it ranks up there with anything James Harden or Kevin Durant has put together this season. The Celtics did all that on their home floor before a crowd that was rabid from the opening tip and dripping with venomous hatred.
It was the night the Heat were supposed to lose and didn't. It's unfair, but that's life in LeBron's Association right now.
The Heat's winning streak is now 23 games. That's one more than the 2008 Rockets and 10 away from the all-time record set by the Lakers more than 40 years ago. They reached that mark after surviving a 105-103 test of wills that was like every other game between these two teams, in that it was filled with unexpected performances and huge plays.
They won because Mario Chalmers knocked down a wide-open three that gave Miami the lead late in the fourth quarter and because Shane Battier blocked Green not once, but twice on a last-second drive after sitting out most of the fourth quarter. Mostly, of course, they won because LeBron turned in a 37-12-7 performance like it was nothing special and hit the game-winner on a 20-foot pull-up jumper.
"Save us," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said to LeBron. "And he did."
"I don't have any other words that you guys haven't used before," Battier said. "He's the best. You never take it for granted and shame on anybody who takes Number Six for granted because he's a special talent. Aside from his physical skills, he plays the right way. He plays to win. He's an unbelievable teammate, unselfish. That's what makes him special."
Here's the scary thing about the Heat: odd as it is to say, you can make an argument that they haven't played their best basketball yet. They've had games during this streak that were closer than they needed to be against the likes of the Cavs, Kings and Magic, and they've had a habit of playing down to the competition and then turning things on when they need to put teams away, like they did against the Raptors on Sunday.
This was something different. On another night, this could have been a blowout. The Celtics were, as Spoelstra said later, "Playing at a different speed."
The lead built to as many as 17 points, and the Heat came back. The lead grew back to double digits, and the Heat came back again. Say what you will about whether the Celtics actually have a chance at ever beating Miami in the playoffs, but you can't deny there is no greater theater than when these teams play.
"There's no one in the league that tests your mental capabilities like the Celtics -- in the Garden -- it's always heated," Battier said. "There always seems to be some controversy, and it's very easy to get out of whack with these guys. At times it didn't look like we had our emotions under control, but I'm proud of the way we responded, especially down the stretch, especially in a heated environment like this."
Before we go any farther, we must say a few words about Jeff Green, national punching bag and Twitter joke machine thanks to the $36 million contract the Celtics gave him after he sat out the season following heart surgery. On Monday night, he was everything that everyone ever wanted him to be on a basketball court.
Better, actually. He finally answered the question: what would happen if Jeff Green played aggressively for 40 minutes in a way that was more resounding than even his most ardent supporters -- and yes he has some in Boston -- would have ever dreamed?
"You know what I loved about Jeff," Doc Rivers said. "I thought the first two minutes of the game, three minutes of the game, he was struggling. He missed a free throw, missed a couple of shots. And you know the old Jeff may have gone away. He actually just kept going and kept going, and that's all we talked about. And once he realized he had an advantage, he took advantage."
So, here was Battier, minding his own business on the bench throughout most of the fourth quarter while this epic morality play was grinding away to its inevitable conclusion, when Spoelstra told him to guard Green.
"I'm like, ‘Great.'" Battier said. That's when the mental process began.
"I knew if he had an ISO up top he was probably going to go to his right because that's his power move, and I'm very fortunate I got my hand in there," Battier said. "You know, I can't jump anymore, so I wasn't going to meet him at the rim. He brought the ball in front of my face just enough to get a piece of it. It was an instinctual play. Not something I thought about -- ‘I'm going to make this play.' It happened so fast. It was a bang-bang play. Everything's so happening fast, you're not trying to process it. You go out there and maintain your principles and try to make him hit a tough shot. That's all you can do."
It was the play of the game and perhaps indicative of the larger forces at work within Miami as they prepare for the playoffs. The role players played their roles. That's all the Heat players talked about after it was over. The process, the process, the process. "The goal was not to win 20-something in a row," Ray Allen said. "The goal comes at the end of June."
For the Celtics, this was straight pain. Yeah, they didn't have Kevin Garnett. And yeah, they didn't have Rajon Rondo either. If you want to claim a moral victory, this was one to file away in the back of your mind. KG or not, this was also a game they wanted badly, and they did everything right up until the very end to pull it off.
And yet, through all that, they had Jeff Green playing his ass off on both ends of the floor for the 40 minutes he was in there, and aggressively -- there's that word again -- taking the ball to the basket with the game on the line. If they got nothing else out of this game, they got that.
So, Miami. The Heat are playing for history now but that's nothing new for them. They've been doing that ever since LeBron and Chris Bosh came to town. The difference is they seem at ease with it all now.
"We've been dealing with a media circus, some of these guys for three years now," Battier said. "This (the overflow media crowd) is Monday night. It's nothing crazy. At this point, our team has proper perspective about what we're trying to accomplish here. We're in the moment."
Like them or not, this is something to celebrate. It won't mean a thing if they don't win in June because those are the stakes they play for -- and will always play for -- but this is what they signed up for back in the summer of 2011. They didn't do this to be good. They did it to be historically great and leave a mark on the league.