Celtics run out of gas, Miami finishes in five
MIAMI — The Celtics who dominated the Eastern Conference for the last four years were at AmericanAirlines Arena for nearly 44 minutes last night. They led the Heat by 6 points, appearing just a couple of possessions from sending this series back to Boston.
Unlike the vintage years, however, when the Celtics’ Big Three closed out games with big shots, precise offensive execution, and stellar defense, the current core had nothing left to offer. Boston’s reign of supremacy was snuffed out by a younger, fresher, and hungrier Miami team that sensed vulnerability in its former nemesis.
Unable to complete a pass on a fast break, get a key stop, or even hit a layup, the Celtics were outscored, 16-0, in the final 4:15 and banished from the playoffs with a 97-87 defeat. Miami won the best-of-seven series, four games to one.
LeBron James was brilliant in the final four-plus minutes, canning two 3-pointers that gave the Heat a 93-87 lead with 40.4 seconds left. In a display that should erase any doubts about his ability to perform in the clutch, James scored the game’s final 10 points, then celebrated with an unusual display of emotion.
He had finally exorcised his biggest demon. But shortly after the game, the Celtics sent a clear message to the rest of the league that they don’t plan on breaking up their Big Three just yet. Celtics coach Doc Rivers announced that he plans to return for at least one more season. And Ray Allen said he will exercise his $10 million option for next season.
“I’m a Celtic and I love our guys,’’ Rivers said. “I want to win again here and I’m competitive as hell. Listen, there’s been a contract for basically three months there. It gave us a long time to talk about it as a family. I haven’t signed anything or done anything, but it’s there and I probably will sign it.’’
But Rivers realizes the Celtics need major changes around the Big Three because once again they failed to finish a game they led nearly the entire way.
A Nenad Krstic jumper with 4:29 remaining for an 87-81 lead provided Boston’s final points. The Celtics had played a terrific game to that point, but missed shots by Kevin Garnett, turnovers by Jeff Green, and Paul Pierce being unable to get his offense going led to a collapse.
Many pundits warned that Miami would never be able to compete among elite teams with just three top players, but the Heat are proving them wrong.
James finished with 33 points, going 5 for 7 on 3-pointers. Dwyane Wade led all scorers with 34 points, and Chris Bosh added 14 points and 11 rebounds. The rest of the Heat were just 4 for 21 for 16 points.
Allen scored 18 points, but the Celtics’ Big Three combined for just 45. Garnett, coming off one of the worst games of his career, scored 12 first-quarter points, but went 1 for 6 for 3 points in the final three quarters and appeared fatigued. The Celtics went repeatedly to their best post scorer down the stretch, but he had nothing left.
Pierce picked up three first-half fouls and never got untracked. While James and Wade combined for 24 free throw attempts, Pierce and Allen attempted just two.
“The one thing that we didn’t do is limiting fouls and keeping them out of the paint,’’ Allen said. “They lived in our paint and scored a load of points inside. They have great shooters on the floor. If I had to sum up the series, they scored too much on the interior and got a lot of fast-break points.’’
Although the Celtics led by as many as 10 points and controlled play through three quarters, in the end it was apparent they didn’t have enough healthy or young bodies to compete. Rajon Rondo was never close to his All-Star form after dislocating his left elbow in Game 3, and had 6 points and three assists in 30 minutes in the finale.
Rivers resorted to playing Krstic down the stretch after Jermaine O’Neal’s back flared up. Shaquille O’Neal didn’t dress because of his troublesome right Achilles’ and calf. Adding old pieces to an old core burned the Celtics.
“I haven’t had much time to think about it, but it’s not like we couldn’t get stops. We couldn’t put the ball in the basket in the fourth quarter again tonight,’’ Rondo said. “They gave us problems as far as getting to the paint. Give them credit, they made the shots at the end, as well. I think as far as the series, we were in it pretty much every game, it was just the fourth quarter they did a better job of running their stuff and making shots and we didn’t.’’
The Celtics were outscored, 43-27, in the fourth quarters of the last two games.
The Heat began to gain momentum when James Jones hit a running 3-pointer to cut the deficit to 87-85 with 3:43 left. After a 20-second timeout, Allen missed a 3-pointer, and then Bosh drove around an exhausted Garnett for a two-handed dunk.
Pierce then missed a layup, and screamed for a foul, and James continued the rally with consecutive 3-pointers. The Celtics’ run was done.
“I know we gave a lot in Game 3 and I never felt like that we could get that effort back from all our guys,’’ Rivers said. “I don’t know the answer [to whether we’re too old]. I will say this, I don’t believe this team is done. And after listening to the Lakers being broken up after they lose, I’m sure [people will say] what the hell, we’re all done. We have to add some people but other than that, I love the guys in the locker room.’’
Gary Washburn can be reached at email@example.com.