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Celtics 97, Heat 81

Elbow room

Celtics level Heat to get back in series

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By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / May 8, 2011

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Somewhere in suburban Indianapolis, Larry Bird watched Game 3 of the Eastern Conference semifinal series last night and felt a kindred spirit with Rajon Rondo.

When Rondo dislocated his left elbow with 7:02 left in the third quarter, a hush came over a sold-out TD Garden crowd, most of the people in the building assuming that Rondo was lost for the postseason.

But a mere 15 minutes later, with his left elbow popped back into place, Rondo made a stirring return to action, conjuring memories of Bird from May 5, 1991.

Playing in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals against Indiana, Bird banged his head against the parquet of the old Boston Garden diving for a loose ball and appeared done. But he made a similar return, scoring 32 points, as the Celtics prevailed in the deciding game, 124-121.

Such was the case again last night, in one of the more memorable playoff games in recent Celtics history. Rondo, using mostly his right arm, helped the Celtics get back into the series with a 97-81 win over the Heat.

Miami leads the series two games to one with Game 4 set for tomorrow night.

Rondo’s comeback invigorated a crowd that was near delirium from tipoff. Rondo, with the arm heavily padded, used his left side only to dribble — but he also completed a fast-break dunk, attempted to take a charge, and made a steal.

The Heat appeared to melt as the Celtics appeared unwilling to hand over their Eastern Conference champion’s crown so quickly.

The Celtics used a dominant third quarter from Kevin Garnett to build a 10-point lead and then extended it to as many as 18 in the fourth quarter. Rondo finished with 6 points — 4 after the injury — and 11 assists — one after the injury.

“It was stiff, but the main thing tonight was obviously what makes it feel better is we got the win,’’ said Rondo, who was hitting his hip with his un-iced left arm as he spoke on the podium. “The main thing is we got this game, that’s what I was focused on. My adrenaline was too high [to think he was done for the game]. I fed off the crowd energy, my teammates out there playing well. I just wanted to be part of it.

“It was still numb, still painful. They did a great job of getting me back out there. I just wanted to play. If I am on the court, you may see me hold my arm, but I’m not going to use that as an excuse.

“We’ll show up Monday night. Don’t ask me how I feel. I’m going to play, regardless. I’m not going to use that as an excuse. We’re a no-excuse team.’’

Said Celtics coach Doc Rivers: “The first report was dislocated, out basically for good. Literally 30 seconds later I was in the huddle and saw Rondo walk by me and it looked like he was going to play.’’

Rondo played all 12 minutes of the fourth quarter as the Celtics kept their lead at double digits. Garnett led Boston with 28 points and 18 rebounds and Paul Pierce had 27 points. Dwyane Wade led Miami with 23 and LeBron James scored just 15 points on 6-for-16 shooting.

The Rondo injury occurred on a freak play when he was tangled up with Wade on a loose ball near the free throw line. Both players lost their balance, but it appeared Wade shoved Rondo as both fell, causing Rondo to place weight on his left arm, which grotesquely bent back. Rondo remained on the floor for several moments, writhing in pain.

The stunned Celtics had to continue without their point guard while holding a 60-50 lead, Delonte West remaining their lone true point guard.

In Rondo’s absence, the Celtics held serve, leading, 72-61, after a monster quarter by Garnett, who carried Boston with 14 points and five rebounds.

Garnett made 13 of 20 shots, most of those near the basket. He dominated his matchup with Chris Bosh, who was battling a tweaked ankle and pinched nerve and finished with just 6 points and 5 rebounds.

In a raucous TD Garden that included the late-arriving David Ortiz, the Celtics came out with the passion that had been inconsistent in the first two games.

Defensively, the Celtics were far more aggressive than in the first two games. In the first quarter, they forced Wade into being more of a ballhandler with three players swarming him into passing off. James had a rejuvenated Pierce to deal with and his first four shots were all jumpers.

The Celtics led, 23-13, after a Ray Allen 3-pointer, but the X factor in the series made his presence felt again. Joel Anthony entered and immediately gathered two rebounds and turned them into 4 points.

That prompted a big response from Rivers — literally.

With 2:41 left in the period, he plucked Shaquille O’Neal from the end of the bench and the mammoth man made just his second appearance since Feb. 1.

The man known for the dramatic on the big stage, took Anthony into the post, drove around him and flipped in a reverse layup for a 27-21 lead.

The crowd went into a frenzy, but O’Neal was far from nimble and looked at times as if he hadn’t played in more than three months.

O’Neal finished the first quarter and played 2:10 into the second, scoring that lone bucket. His presence made a defensive difference as Miami point guard Mario Chalmers twice drove near the paint, only to see O’Neal lurking and then backed off.

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

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