MIAMI -- With 7.9 seconds remaining, Paul Pierce hoisted a 3-pointer from the left wing over an extended Lamar Odom. Pierce went for the win without any apologies. The shot hit the back rim hard and bounced toward a pair of Heat players. Dwyane Wade ultimately gained control of the rebound. Pierce turned, gritted his teeth and headed to the other end of the court.
"I'd take that shot 10 times out of 10 times," said Pierce, who finished with 31 points. "On the road, down 2, with a clean look at a three, you take it every time. No question. No second-guessing."
The only person who came close to second-guessing decisions made last night at sold-out American Airlines Arena was interim coach John Carroll. He wondered aloud whether the Celtics suffered from fatigue late in the fourth quarter, considering Pierce, Jiri Welsch, Chucky Atkins, Ricky Davis, and Chris Mihm logged almost every minute in the second half. Fatigued or not, Boston did not make enough shots down the stretch to counteract the effects of a 15-2 Miami run. As a result, the Heat narrowly defeated the Celtics, 104-101.
The decision to go with the hottest players appeared a smart strategy when the Celtics carried momentum from a strong third quarter into the fourth and established a game-high 7-point (94-87) lead. It was a questionable decision when the Heat began to regain momentum and piece together its decisive run. During the Miami run, Boston missed six shots, turned the ball over four times, and committed five fouls.
"Paul was hard to guard and it opened up a couple of shots for Ricky and Jiri and Chucky, but they just couldn't seem to knock the shots down at critical times. It led to some fast-break opportunities at the other end. I'm sure we were a little fatigued. It was one of those games that I had to go with what was working at the time. I kept thinking, in the back of my mind, to use some of my timeouts and give some of those guys a rest. I think it caught up with us."
The Celtics spent a great deal of energy coming back from a 15-point, second-quarter deficit. The visitors entered halftime behind, 61-49, but they regrouped during the break knowing a win would move them one step closer to a playoff berth. With the loss, Boston (35-43) remained in eighth place, two games ahead of idle Philadelphia and three ahead of Cleveland. But a New York win made moving up to the No. 7 seed much less likely.
In any event, Boston played like a team trying to nail down a playoff spot from almost the start of the second half. By tightening its defense and holding Miami to 24 percent shooting from the floor in the third quarter, Boston climbed back from a 14-point, third-quarter deficit.
A 3-pointer and fast-break layup by Atkins tied the game with 35.2 seconds remaining in the quarter. Boston regained the lead, 80-78, for the first time since early in the second quarter when Welsch hit a pair of free throws with 20 seconds remaining. The foul shots capped a 29-13 Boston run that lasted most of the quarter. Wade twisted his body to hit a 7-foot fadeaway with 1.8 seconds remaining, tying the game at 80.
"We had the opportunity to win," said Atkins (16 points). "That is all you can ask for. We did a great job of coming back after the halftime deficit and got back into the game. It shows the type of team we have, or can have."
The first half provided an example of the kind of team Boston cannot afford to be. With a barrage of 3-pointers on one end and defense that contained everyone except Pierce and Davis (22 points) on the other, Miami held a double-digit halftime lead. The Heat established a sizable advantage in the second quarter largely because they shot 51 percent in the half, including 56 percent (5 for 9) from 3-point range. Three of the Heat's baskets from the arc took place during a 24-8 run.
"Coming into this game, I really didn't know what to think about how we would play after Cleveland lost," said Pierce. "I didn't know if we were going to come lackadaisical, say, `Hey, we [almost] have a playoff spot' and settle. But I didn't see that. We fought hard like it was a playoff game."