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Bob Ryan

Captain responded with authority

By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / April 24, 2010

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MIAMI — It is, said Doc Rivers, a “Make-Miss League.’’

And so it came to this, with the score tied at 98: Dwyane Wade missed a straightaway 3-pointer with 13.9 seconds left and Paul Pierce swished a long two that was in the air when the buzzer went off. Boston 100, Miami 98.

The Celtics are now up in this series, three games to none. Simple as that.

Well, not really. This came perilously close to being a catastrophic loss that would have had the Celtics hating themselves this morning. They wouldn’t have been the first NBA team to squander a 9-point lead (85-76) with 9:57 remaining. That stuff happens all the time in this league. The offensive talent is so good and, well, things happen.

But they would have known how spectacularly self-destructive they had been, committing six turnovers and being hit with a defensive three-second violation in a span of 5:41 after a second-chance Pierce inside-out 3-pointer provided by the ever-exciting Rajon Rondo had given them that nice 9-point lead. They would have wasted an otherwise superb, professional effort with that one horrible stretch of non-thinking, non-executing basketball.

But it’s all seashells and balloons this morning, thanks to the Captain. That Pierce basket capped a very big second-half performance, giving him 32 points for the evening while serving as a reminder that, while the Heat may well have the single best player in this series, the Celtics have a few guys with glowing résumés, too.

The final play was elementary. “Just get out of the way and give Paul the ball,’’ explained Rondo.

There were people moving around elsewhere, but it was all for show.

“All fake movement,’’ acknowledged Rivers. “I had Michael Finley on the floor, so I knew they wouldn’t leave him. Rondo was down there, so they wouldn’t leave him.’’

And, of course, there was the menacing presence of the great Ray Allen on an evening when he already had 25 points, and whose four 3-pointers, including a couple of those amazing quick-release jobs that separate him from all those garden variety open shooters. Only the brain dead would leave him.

It so happens that Pierce was in his rhythm, having already scored 20 second-half points and having ended the third period with a long three.

“Coach said not to leave time on the clock,’’ Pierce explained. “When I looked up and saw two seconds, I decided to make my move. I got my little sweet spot on the right elbow.’’

The victimized defender was Dorell Wright, who was in line for a Best Supporting nomination (15 points, 4 rebounds, 5 assists) had Miami won. Wade might have been on Pierce had he not been helped off with a severe leg cramp after missing his game-winning attempt. Wright and the Heat had a foul to give, but with Pierce’s dexterity it was difficult to know when and how to give it.

Rivers had opined in the morning that in many cases the stimulus for a home team victory in a Game 3 is a so-called role player. He reasoned that stars are stars, and they will perform well anywhere. It’s the other guys who need the comforts of home, and the home crowd, in particular, to play their best. And the longer the game went, the more he looked like a prophet, what with Wright’s aforementioned contribution, plus the play of such peripheral Heat players Udonis Haslem and Mario Chalmers.

The Heat bench was tremendous, putting up 39 points, 14 rebounds and 8 assists, as opposed to Boston’s modest bench line of 10-4-1.

The collective Celtics’ game ball, therefore, goes to the marquee players. You start with 57 points from Pierce and Allen. Kevin Garnett was solid with 16 points and six rebounds. Kendrick Perkins, though scoreless, had 12 rebounds while again imposing his defensive will on Jermaine O’Neal, whose 1-for-7 showing makes him 5 for 31 in this series.

Finally, there was Rondo, whose 17 points, 5 rebounds, and 8 assists do not remotely convey the scope of his impact. It has come to the point where his spectacular passes, acrobatic drives, and absolutely incomprehensible offensive rebounds in traffic seem routine.

Rivers is ordinarily very good with words, but he had to fall back on an old reliable to sum up Rondo’s performance.

“Rondo was Rondo,’’ he said, and we certainly know exactly what he means.

About that gruesome 5:41 in the fourth period, which began with Rondo losing it in the open floor, leading to a Wade sneakaway dunk, and which ended with a sloppy Rondo entry pass to Garnett, Rivers had this to say: “I was thinking we were letting it slip away, but I did like the team’s effort. I thought we got a little ‘fast’ offensively, and I told them to slow down.’’

They did stop messing up and they did settle into a lead swap mode and they did prevail in the end, and nothing else matters now. It’s way too soon to start fantasizing about hoisting an 18th flag, but it is safe to say we can declare the final three-plus months of the season as a regrettable aberration, and that what we are looking at is the true version of the 2010 Boston Celtics, now certifiably a tough out in the tournament.

The sense of purpose and the needed focus is there.

“In the regular season, if something happened the way it did tonight in the fourth quarter, it would have been, ‘Man, you’ve gotta do this, you’ve gotta do that,’ ’’ said Allen. “Now we’re all helping each other.’’

Winning Game 3 when you’re up, 2-0, is huge, and it’s something the Celtics haven’t done since defeating Indiana in a best-of-five in 1992.

“I’ve got to tell you,’’ Rivers said. “In the first quarter, I said, ‘I don’t know if we’re going to win or lose, but we’re here.’ ’’

Welcome back, boys.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist and host of Globe 10.0 on Boston.com. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.

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