MIAMI -- Forget for a moment the timely 3-pointers by Mike James and Walter McCarty, the seemingly-impossible spinning layup by Paul Pierce, the tip shot by Mark Blount that teetered on the edge of the rim before falling, all of which occurred late in the fourth quarter. Focus first on the defense down the stretch because that was what Jim O'Brien demanded the Celtics improve, and that was where James, McCarty, Pierce, Blount and Ricky Davis delivered some of their best moments last night at American Airlines Arena.
In a game that came down to the final Miami possession, Boston erased a 9-point fourth-quarter deficit, with a strong defensive effort sparking the offense. Just the way O'Brien wants the cause-and-effect to work. With 48.3 seconds remaining, the Celtics took the lead for the first time in the fourth and held on for an 86-84 win over the Heat. The victory snapped a four-game losing streak; it also showed that the threat of reduced minutes for those who do not play defense was enough to prompt a more intense effort.
"Our defense was the key down the stretch," said O'Brien. "We scrapped it out. Hit the floor for loose balls. Shut them down in the last five minutes of the game.
"When we got down 9, we held our defensive composure and I really thought we did an outstanding job of gutting it out."
With 5:38 remaining, Rafer Alston hit a 3-pointer that pushed Miami ahead, 79-70, and prompted a 20-second timeout from Boston. McCarty and James came through with 3-pointers that brought Boston within 3 (79-76). Eddie Jones returned the favor from the arc, but that would be one of only two Miami field goals in the final five minutes. The Heat had more turnovers (3) than baskets in that time.
"With our defense, we just have to bring intensity, and we did step it up," said Blount (16 points, 7 rebounds). "We tried to get guys to make bad passes. With the high volume of deflections we had all night, it made the ball move around and skip all over the floor, and that gave us a few seconds off the shot clock."
As the Miami offense struggled, the visitors kept drawing closer. Although the Jones 3-pointer gave the Heat a 6-point cushion, the Celtics were quick to counter with a 20-footer from Pierce and a layup by Blount. As a result, Boston pulled within 2 (82-80) with 2:52 remaining.
A driving layup by Pierce that elicited oohs and ahhs -- along with a few calls of "traveling" -- from the crowd of 14,327 allowed the Celtics to close within 1 (84-83) with 1:12 to go. Blount tipped in a Pierce miss and Boston went ahead, 85-84.
The Heat had three shots at retaking the lead, but Lamar Odom (12 points, 14 rebounds, 9 assists) missed a 16-footer, Udonis Haslem missed a tip shot, and Jones rushed a 3-pointer from the right corner with 9.9 seconds to go. After James made only one of two free throws, a 3-pointer from Alston bounced off the rim.
"We took a couple of bad shots, made a couple of bad plays, and made a couple of turnovers," said Miami coach Stan Van Gundy of his team's final three possessions. "Their defense was intense. We were trying to drive the ball and get to the free throw line like [the Celtics] did, but we just couldn't get there."
The Boston defense did not show up just in the fourth quarter, as evidenced by three Heat shot-clock violations in the first half. But the offense struggled over the first quarter and early in the second. The Celtics shot 20 percent (4 for 20) in the first period. When Haslem (18 points, 17 rebounds) hit a 14-footer with 5:34 remaining before halftime, the Celtics found themselves down by 11. But the visitors closed the quarter with a 15-5 run and entered the break behind only 40-39.
"You kind of expected [the defensive performance] tonight, especially the way we've not been playing well and the way Coach has been riding us about our defense," said Pierce (29 points, 8 rebounds). "We knew the only guys that were going to play were the guys that were playing defense. We just had that great sense of urgency from start to finish."