The excuses began late in the fourth quarter. "It's gonna take time," TNT's Steve Kerr said as the Celtics put the finishing touches on an 88-80 victory over the Heat.
Miami, with all its firepower, looked disjointed in the season opener. LeBron James provided plenty of individual brilliance, but not enough to pull his team out of a 19-point hole. The Heat, as Kerr pointed out, haven't had much experience playing together.
The Celtics have. That's what makes them -- for now -- a better team than the Heat. That's what I took from the season opener. Boston is already running smoothly, Miami isn't. It may be temporary, but it's a relief nonetheless.
"It's a feel-out process," James told reporters afterward. "I'm not accustomed to having that many threats out on the court at the same time. It kind of reminded me at times, of the USA practices. Coach [Mike Krzyzewski] really had to get on us one day because we were being too unselfish because we had so many options."
The Celtics also have plenty of "threats" and "options." But theirs are of an older vintage. There are no kinks to work out, no excuses to be made. Hell, even Shaquille O'Neal looked to be in midseason form. The big man had nine points, seven rebounds and a plus-seven rating in 18 minutes. Watching him throw down an alley-oop from Rajon Rondo, who finished with 17 assists, shocked me. Shaq actually looked like he got off the ground (the basket also appeared to be in peril when he dunked the ball). I think 18 minutes is a bit much for him to be playing on a regular basis, but hey, he was effective.
"I just wanted to come out here and play. I had some early-game jitters and I missed a couple of chippies,'' Shaq told reporters. "But Rondo threw me a lob there and when I was running the court, he gave it back to me. We're all going to get better and better and it's going to be a great year.''
Then there was this scene, captured by The Globe's Michael Vega, which surely will be repeated over and over and over until the Heat are 25 games above .500.
Question: "In your best estimation, how long do you think it will take the Miami Heat to get up to the level of cohesion you guys play at?''
O'Neal pursed his lips and went into his stone-faced statue mode.
Question: "A few weeks? A month? Half the season?''
O'Neal then broke his silence. "Next question,'' he said.
Not to gloat, but I don't remember the new-look Celtics getting those kind of questions three seasons ago. Anyway, that doesn't matter now. What's important is that Boston is already playing lethal defense. The Celtics held the Heat to 36.5 percent shooting. James (31 points) was his explosive self at times, but Chris Bosh (3-of-11, eight points) and Dwyane Wade (4-of-16, 13 points) were out of sync, settling for jumpers instead of being aggressive.
On the other hand, the Celtics were refreshingly balanced. Ray Allen (20 points), Paul Pierce (19 points), and Glen Davis (13 points) -- Big Baby played 29 minutes -- lit up the Heat. Allen's three with 49 seconds left helped seal the victory.
In the end, the result doesn't mean all that much. It was the season opener. Boston did exert an awful lot of effort to win a regular season game. Pierce (41 minutes), Allen (39 minutes) and Kevin Garnett (35 minutes) probably played too much, but this was the Heat. The players' pride was at stake. The Globe's Julian Benbow was aware of that:
Dressed in their finest suits, Pierce and Kevin Garnett made the same walk, talking among themselves about the atmosphere.
Garnett asked Pierce, "Are we in the Finals already?''
As for Miami, well, it should listen to Don Johnson's advice in LeBron's new Nike commercial: "You just gotta deal with the heat man. Be patient. After a while the temperature drops, and everything is free and easy."