The Eastern Conference title is not technically at stake yet, but it felt as if it was on a raucous afternoon at Arena, where tempers and nostrils flared and the Celtics came undone, surrendering a to the Heat in the opener of this conference semifinal series.
Paul Pierce tangled with James Jones, jawed at Dwyane Wade and was ejected long before the final buzzer. Rajon Rondo put in a full bear hug on the break. put Jones on his back.
Wade glided through and above it all, scoring 38 points, and knocking out Pierce along the way.
With seven minutes left, Wade plowed through Pierce’s screen on the baseline, angering Pierce, who responded angrily.
The referee Ed Malloy called a double technical foul, which meant an automatic ejection for Pierce, who got a technical minutes earlier for going after Jones after Jones collared him. Pierce nearly head-butted Jones, sticking his nose into Jones’s cheek while berating him.
The final tally for the afternoon: five technicals, one flagrant foul and one costly meltdown by the usually composed Celtics. Coach indirectly blamed the officials for the loss, saying that Wade and Jones should have been called for flagrant fouls.
“And I don’t think we should react to either one,” Rivers added. “I thought James Jones was a clear flagrant, went right for the head and he grabbed. I thought Dwyane Wade’s was an absolute flagrant. He had no intentions of trying to — he was trying to run through Paul.”
Wade admitted as much, saying: “I was just trying to get through a screen. Paul was there. So I ran through it.”
Asked what Pierce said that got him ejected, Wade said, “It was a bunch of gibberish.”
Pierce, having apparently said enough for one day, left without speaking to reporters. It had not been a great day for him in any case — 19 points, 4 turnovers and a 6-for-14 line from the field.
The Celtics were behind by 87-74 when Pierce left for the locker room; they never did recover. Rondo committed five turnovers in the last 6 minutes 27 seconds, completing a mostly dismal afternoon in which he missed 7 of 10 shots and finished with 8 points and 7 assists.
In a clash of two elite defensive teams, Miami held firmer, leading for the final 27:36, and by double digits for most of the second half. The Celtics shot 42.7 percent, but Ray Allen’s 3-point shooting kept them in the game. He finished with 25 points, including five 3-pointers. had only 6 points.
Rivers said his team was overeager from the start, and he bemoaned the 26 points the Heat scored off Celtics turnovers.
Miami also had the better bench, with Jones scoring a career playoff-high 25 points, including five 3-pointers.
In a game crowded with seven current All-Stars, Wade was by far the brightest, going 14 for 21 from the field and 8 for 9 from the foul line in making a mockery of the Celtics’ vaunted defense. Wade averaged just 12.8 points and 28 percent shooting against Boston this season but found the gaps Sunday.
“He’s proven so many times in the playoffs that when the defense is at its best, he figures it out and finds a way to crack the code,” Coach Erik Spoelstra said.
Wade dominated the first half with 23 points, going 9 for 11 from the field, including a fadeaway jumper with 0.8 of a second left. When the halftime buzzer sounded, Wade was greeted at the bench by a bellowing, gesticulating James, who slapped him on the chest in appreciation.
James started slowly, patiently picked his spots, and finished with 22 points, 6 rebounds, 5 assists, 2 blocks and 2 steals — “one of the most intelligent games he’s had all year long,” in Spoelstra’s view.
With Wade leading the way, James earned his first playoff victory over the Celtics in his last four tries. Last spring, Boston bulldozed the James-led out of the playoffs, starting James on his path toward Miami. He came here to find higher-quality help, and seemed quite happy to have it against the Celtics.
“I don’t have to average the 35 points, or the 30 points against Boston like I’ve done in the past,” James said. “Good stats for me individually, but it didn’t get me anywhere.”
He added, with a candor that will make Cleveland cringe: “It was nights like this that I thought about when I made the choice.”
could make his playoff debut by the end of the week, according to Doc Rivers. O’Neal has barely played in the last three months because of a series of leg injuries. “He’s getting very close,” Rivers said. “We actually had to make a decision” on whether to play O’Neal on Sunday, “so that’s better than what we’ve had to do in the past.” O’Neal could return for Game 2 on Tuesday, or “for sure in Game 3” on Saturday, Rivers said. … Mike Miller returned to Miami’s rotation after missing most of the first round because of a thumb injury. Udonis Haslem, who has been out because of a foot injury, remains a question mark.