|Thank Rajon Rondo for the Celtics’ improved transition game. (Jim Davis/Globe Staff)|
‘Three’ finally coming up big
LOS ANGELES — For the first time all series, they were all on the same wavelength on the floor. A combination of frustrating foul issues and inexplicable shooting struggles had the Celtics starters — particularly Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett, and Paul Pierce — looking disjointed through the first four games of the Finals. But in the Celtics’ Game 5 win Sunday night, Allen, Garnett, and Pierce were all playmakers and they put the Celtics within one win of their second title in three seasons.
Pierce scored a team-high 27 points and late in the fourth quarter played the middle man between Garnett and Rajon Rondo on the game-sealing sequence. For the second straight game, he was the Celtics’ leading scorer. It was the first time all postseason he had led the team in scoring in back-to-back games.
“The thing about me, when I step on this court, NBA Finals, I don’t want to have no regrets at the end of the series,’’ Pierce said. “Whatever I do I want to be aggressive with the ball, go out and play as hard as I can 48 minutes. That’s what I’m trying to do to finish out this series.’’
After having just 6 points and four rebounds in 24 minutes in Game 2, Garnett heard the same murmurs about age and health that he heard throughout the regular season, when coach Doc Rivers limited his minutes. Garnett came out in Game 3 and put up his biggest scoring night of the postseason (25), albeit in a loss, and Sunday night, he seemed to play with a million arms, scoring 18 points, grabbing 10 rebounds, and coming up with 5 steals.
“I think a couple of guys maybe thought KG lost a step or something when he struggled in the first few games, but he’s caught his rhythm, doing intangibles on the court, scoring, rebounding, assisting, blocking shots, he’s changing the game,’’ Rondo said. “That’s what he’s been doing for us all year. He’s big for us. He may not score 27 points, 26 points, but he’s happy with his role, and he’s doing it well.’’
Rivers maintained that the success of the marquee players depended on defense and unselfishness. The Celtics held the Lakers to 39.7 percent shooting in Game 5 and they dished out 21 assists on 40 field goals, numbers that Lakers coach Phil Jackson said were crucial in a game in which Los Angeles tried to win on the strength of Kobe Bryant’s 38 points alone.
“I kept telling them it’s the defense, it’s the stops, it’s the transition,’’ Rivers said. “You’re getting Rondo out on the fast break, you’re getting Kevin early posts, you’re getting Ray out on the fast breaks and that’s why we were scoring. And then it was the unselfishness. At the start of the third quarter Ray had a shot and passed it back to Paul for a shot. That’s letting the ball find the open guy. That’s who we are when we’re good, and when we’re not, we’re not very good. It’s the way we should play.
Rivers, who as a member of the Knicks that year tore his ACL and missed the playoffs, said the memory of missed opportunities still lingers.
“I thought about that the other day when John Starks called me and reminded me,’’ Rivers said, his team in a similar situation.
“That’s a bitter memory obviously for me. I was injured sitting on the bench. It just felt like you couldn’t help individually. You know, as a team we had a lot of great opportunities in that series, in Game 6 and 7 if you remember. But it just didn’t happen. For me, [it was] obviously a learning experience, but I can’t use that experience for the players on this team. Half of them are too young to remember, and half of them probably don’t care.’’
Rivers said the pivotal game in 1994 was Game 3, which the Rockets won, 93-89, at Madison Square Garden to take a 2-1 lead. It turned every subsequent game into a must-win. The Celtics, Rivers said, switched into must-win mode after the Lakers won Game 3 in Boston.
“We’ve had the same [mentality], each game is Game 7,’’ Rivers said. “We said it in Game 4, we said it again today, and we’ll say it again. That’s how we have to approach the game. We lost our wiggle room by losing that home game. The Lakers played well enough to have home-court advantage all year, and so it’s to their advantage.’’
“I knew Paul had it going,’’ Rondo said. “And Luke Walton was trying really hard to deny him the ball, and I tried to look him off knowing that I was going to Paul, but it was just communication, and I just wanted to make a play.’’
The two talked it out at the break. Rondo had five of his eight assists in the second half.
“I told Rajon at halftime, I had a couple buckets going and I wanted the ball, and he wanted to do something different, and I was a little upset at that,’’ Pierce said. “Hey, he’s our point guard and I trust him. He’s made so many great plays for us throughout the year and throughout the playoffs. I went and told him at halftime that it was nothing.
“We’ve got spats with our team all the time. We always have spats. But the good thing about it, we always clean it right up. I was a little mad but I went in the locker room and told him don’t sweat it, we’re in this to get a win. It isn’t about who gets the last shot.’’
Julian Benbow can be reached at email@example.com.