THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Bob Ryan

One great effort by Miami’s 3

By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / May 10, 2011

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Bill Fitch used to call these “gut-check’’ games. At least, he’s the first one I ever heard use that term.

These are games in which a team finds out what it’s made of. And the Miami Heat really didn’t know. This group is involved in a new collective experience, attempting to take out a veteran team that has itself won many of these games.

Losers to the Celtics in Game 3 Saturday night, the Heat could have been taking the, well, heat back home had they come limping back tied at 2-2. But that didn’t happen. The Heat — their Big Three, at least — hung tough, took a few good shots from the Celtics, escaped into an overtime, and then completely dominated the extra five minutes, walking out of TD Garden last night with a well-deserved 98-90 victory that gives them a 3-1 series lead heading into Game 5 tomorrow night in Miami.

In case anyone had any doubts, all games are not created equal, and that includes playoff games. For the 2010-11 Miami Heat, who are trying to create an instant legacy, this victory represents more than just a routine playoff W.

“It was a huge game,’’ said LeBron James. “I look at it as one of the biggest games of my career. We approached it this way. Me and [Dwyane Wade] had dinner last night, and we talked about it. We put a lot of pressure on ourselves. We wanted to help our team win the game — and we did that.’’

“Our goal was to come here, compete for two games, and to hopefully get one,’’ said Chris Bosh, the third member of the Big Three, and the one who was pounded by talk show callers all over this great land of ours for being honest enough to admit that his emotions had, as he put it, gotten the best of him in Game 3. “We accomplished that short-term goal. Now we have to worry about the long-term goal, and we will if we keep the defensive mind-set we had for the last three quarters.’’

Bosh answered his critics with a 20-point, 12-rebound game that was highlighted by a vital tip-in of a James miss with 24.2 seconds remaining in OT and the Heat leading, 93-90. “I kinda saw it before it happened,’’ he said. “I just wanted to be in a position to, if not get the rebound, get a hand on it. It came off perfectly, and I tipped it in.’’

This one was about the Big Three and the Miami team defense, which limited the Celtics to 37 points in the final 29 minutes. Will people ever get it in their heads that, whatever Miami’s offensive foibles may be, it has been a very good defensive team almost since the beginning of the season?

But that offense is fairly amazin’. The Big Three of James, Bosh, and Wade had, are you ready:

■ 83 of the team’s 98 points.

■ all 29 points of the fourth quarter and OT.

■ the final 31 Miami points.

■ 61 of the final 65 Miami points.

From the point at which a James Jones turnaround jumper made it 42-35, Boston, with 7:31 remaining in the half, until a Bosh free throw with 9.1 seconds left that created the final score, the only Miami points not scored by the Big Three were two third-quarter power layups by Joel Anthony, almost 11 minutes apart, both on feeds from James.

I guess this is kinda what Pat Riley had in mind.

Forget about shooters such as Mario Chalmers, Mike Miller, Eddie House, and Jones spreading the floor and tormenting foes with threes. The Big Three don’t seem to need any offensive help. Well, yeah, there was Game 1, when Jones was left unguarded often enough to score 25 points. Since that game he has had three field goals in 75 minutes of playing time.

After that desultory James performance in Game 3, logic dictated that he would bring his A-game to this one. Wrong. It was his A-plus game. The numbers are good enough — 35 points, 14 rebounds, 3 assists — but numbers do not do justice to his shotmaking. The degree of difficulty in some cases was off the charts.

A few examples: A cold-blooded, face-up three to tie the game at 84 with exactly two minutes left after Ray Allen had put Boston ahead with a left-side three. A tough lefthanded drive in traffic to give Miami a lead at 86-84 with 48 seconds left. An outrageous sky-swishing left-corner fallaway to open up the scoring in the OT. And those are just the ones at the end of the game.

He also got himself to the line (9 for 9), as did Wade, who was 12 for 14 on free throws in the midst of his 28-point, 9-rebound, 4-assist game.

The Heat played from behind for most of regulation, trailing at the end of one (31-28), at the half (53-50), and after three (73-69). They trailed by 11 (42-31) in the second quarter and by 8 (73-65) with 1:14 left in the third. Entering the OT the only leads they had in the entire game were 46-45, 77-76, 79-78, 81-78, and 86-84. Any team winning a game under these circumstances does so with a feeling of enormous satisfaction.

“That,’’ said Miami coach Erik Spoelstra, “was the definition of a grind.’’

The OT was a flat-out rout. The Celtics turned it over four times and wound up scoring a mere 4 points. Miami made all the plays that mattered.

It’s 3-1, but Spoelstra would rather his team think it’s the other way around.

“It will be the toughest thing we have to do up to this point, put away a champion,’’ he said.

Dallas was probably thinking the same thing before Sunday’s game. Can we not assume the Celtics will put up a better fight than the Lakers did?

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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