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It wasn’t the meltdown one might think

By Gary Washburn
April 26, 2010

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MIAMI — The Celtics didn’t begin or end Game 4 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals against the Heat as if they had any intention of sweeping the series. They should be encouraged by their play in the middle of the game, however, because they didn’t collapse under the intense pressure applied by the brilliant Dwyane Wade.

The Heat didn’t complete their 101-92 win at AmericanAirlines Arena with a flourish as much as they muddled their way to the victory. Wade scored 19 points in an incredible fourth-quarter display, but only 2 after the 6:12 mark. Miami scored 8 points in that span, seemingly almost anticipating a furious Celtics run.

And the Celtics nearly obliged. In a regular season known for its collapses and meltdowns, the Celtics lost yesterday not because they failed to defend Wade — he is perhaps the best one-on-one player in the game and 46-point outings are not abnormal — they lost because they ignored fundamentals down the stretch.

Wade, a 30 percent 3-point shooter, erupted early in the fourth quarter with four straight treys, but the Celtics withstood his flurry, made those in-game defensive adjustments so prevalent in 2008, and lunged at the Heat’s heart, looking for the decisive strike.

They fell short because Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett combined to miss five free throws, Rajon Rondo missed a runner he usually makes with either hand, and Paul Pierce’s run of clutch shots ended abruptly.

A club that had feared Wade was capable of carrying the Heat with these barrages left yesterday’s game realizing it endured his best game since the 2006 Finals and still nearly ended the series. The blame goes squarely on oddities and aberrations such as Allen’s three missed free throws. The Celtics proved even more that they are at playoff caliber — even in defeat.

The Celtics easily could have warmed up the Winnebago after falling behind, 31-14, late in the first quarter. Miami was motivated. Wade did not want Game 4 to potentially be his final game in a Heat uniform, and a late-arriving crowd dressed in black finally warmed to the occasion.

The Celtics gathered themselves and rallied with a 34-point third quarter to seize a 77-71 lead. Wade’s greatness and sudden 3-point shooting stunned the Celtics and changed the game.

“One thing we know is the close-out game is already the hardest game,’’ Pierce said. “We were hesitant at the beginning, turned the ball over, and that’s why they got out to a big lead. But you’ve got to understand, that’s the way series are. You’ve got your emotional highs and emotional lows and the key is how you bounce back.

“We all got in the locker room and got our heads up and said we let this one slip away. We can’t let Dwyane Wade just come down here and shoot threes and do what he wants. It’s difficult, but a team like us is going to bounce back.’’

Ending the series tomorrow night is critical. As much as the Celtics enjoyed the perfect weather in South Florida, they don’t want to return for a pressure-packed Game 6 and the potential that Wade could heat up again and send it back to Boston.

The pressure does slightly shift back to the Celtics because they are home and will be expected to win. But the Heat aren’t a confident bunch. They were a one-man team yesterday, the primary reason Wade is considering bolting paradise for a more balanced team in free agency.

Miami coach Erik Spoelstra even went so far as to play four reserves with Wade most of the fourth quarter. They were simply stand-ins, setting screens, grabbing rebounds, and giving the ball to Wade in his sweet spots, and his offensive mastery created a big enough distance from the Celtics.

“I can’t argue with anything that happened for us offensively,’’ Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. “We missed two point-blank layups and five free throws in a row. I will take all those shots. We have to be better in Game 5. We were thinking of ending the series instead of thinking about playing basketball first. I thought we took our eyes off the process to start the game.’’

Sweeps are nearly impossible in the NBA playoffs. Both No. 1 seeds have dropped games to eight seeds, and the Lakers are surprisingly tied, 2-2, with Oklahoma City. The Celtics dropped a close-out game to one of the league’s premier players and his understudies, nothing more.

The Heat yesterday displayed how large the gulf between Wade and the rest of them is, and that can’t serve as encouragement for the rest of the series. Jermaine O’Neal has gone 6 for 34 in the series and seems rattled. Michael Beasley scored 4 points in the second half. Nobody besides Wade will travel to Boston today with any confidence boost.

Meanwhile, the Celtics played their worst game of the series and had the crowd sweating through its black T-shirts in the final minutes. Mission not quite accomplished but point made. The Celtics remain in Miami’s heads, and are in perfect position to finish off the series — with better execution down the stretch.

Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com.

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