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Heat 98, Celtics 90

Tough fadeaway

Celtics falter in OT, fall into 3-1 series hole

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By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / May 10, 2011

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This one can’t be blamed on Rajon Rondo’s left elbow. It appears fatigue and age were the reason for the Celtics’ 98-90 Game 4 overtime loss to the Heat last night at TD Garden. The Celtics wilted against a more athletic team, their offense sputtering and their defense unable to contain a relentless opponent.

The Celtics fell into a 3-games-to-1 hole in the Eastern Conference semifinal series, but not because they didn’t give a valiant effort. They just couldn’t execute. Rondo missed a critical layup in regulation. Kevin Garnett couldn’t hit anything, regardless of whether there was a defender on him or not.

And the Miami defense made sure Ray Allen couldn’t cause any major damage.

The Celtics missed countless opportunities to win the game in regulation. Miami scored the first 6 points of OT, and the Celtics blew a few opportunities to get closer in the extra period.

Rondo, playing despite suffering a dislocated left elbow in Saturday’s Game 3 win, had 10 points, 5 assists, and 3 turnovers in 38 minutes but he was obviously affected by the injury.

Rondo missed a righthanded layup that would have given the Celtics a 2-point lead with 1:11 left. And the Celtics botched the final play of regulation after LeBron James lost the ball on a dribble with 19.5 seconds left.

Paul Pierce was left to fend for himself after a pick-and-roll never materialized, and his step-back 18-footer rimmed out, giving Miami a chance to steal the game in OT. Pierce finished with 27 points but he got little help down the stretch.

“We just didn’t execute the play,’’ a frustrated coach Doc Rivers said after the game. “I’ll just leave it at that. Ended up leaving Pierce on an island. It’s a play we’ve run several times and we just didn’t execute it. Was supposed to be a pick-and-roll with a flare and none of it happened, which was unusual for us.’’

Indeed, it was supposed to be the same pick-and-roll between Pierce and Garnett that Celtics fans have watched in the final moments of games for four years. Allen gathered the inbounds pass and fed Pierce, who appeared to wait too long to attack the basket while Garnett ran into Allen and never set the pick.

“We just messed the play up,’’ Rondo said. “That affected the outcome of the game. We just didn’t execute, barely got a shot off. There was a lot of talking during the huddle but not enough listening.’’

Rivers’s options were limited because only Pierce and Allen were offensive threats last night.

The Celtics shot 5 for 16 in the fourth quarter and just 1 for 6 in overtime. Garnett followed up his brilliant 28-point, 18-rebound Game 3 performance with 7 points and 10 rebounds on 1-for-10 shooting. The Celtics went to him on several occasions in the clutch and he had nothing to offer, missing his final nine shots.

“I really didn’t have the rhythm that I had the other night,’’ he said. “I expected [Miami] to make some adjustments. But defense is where this game is going to be won and we didn’t get the stops we needed to.’’

For the second time in the series, the Miami Big Three dwarfed their counterparts. James led Miami with 35 points and 14 rebounds, carrying the Heat in the fourth quarter. Dwyane Wade picked it up in OT with 5 of his 28 points, and Chris Bosh, a non-factor in Game 3, came through with 20 points and 12 rebounds, including the decisive tip-in with 24.2 seconds left in OT for a 95-90 lead.

The Celtics were outrebounded, 45-28, committed 18 turnovers, and produced no second-chance points.

“Well it’s frustrating because we had so many opportunities, the fast breaks, the missed layups, the open shots, you know?’’ Rivers said. “I tell you, down the stretch, when you count the layups and the point-blank looks we had and the turnovers . . . tough to win when that happens.’’

Jeff Green scored 4 straight points late in the third quarter for a 73-65 lead and the Celtics were a few plays from creating a comfortable distance, but then they couldn’t get out of their own way. They experienced another one of their offensive skids, scoring just 3 points in the first six minutes of the fourth quarter.

An 8-3 run gave the Heat a 77-76 lead and the final six minutes of regulation was an epic battle between an aging champion and a younger, talented contender. The teams traded haymakers, with Allen giving the Celtics an 84-81 lead with a 3-pointer from the corner with 2:28 left.

The Celtics needed a stop and James held the ball in front of the Boston bench as the 24-second clock ticked down. Defending 3-point threat Mario Chalmers, Allen couldn’t help Pierce. James fired a 3-pointer that swished for an 84-84 tie, and Pierce dropped his head in disgust.

“That play right there was a backbreaker,’’ Allen said. “Just thinking about how I just hit a three. If I have to think about it, which I probably will all night, I probably would have been more vocal to get up on him, make him drive.’’

It was just another of the many miscues that have the Celtics one loss from perhaps the end of an era. Only twice in club history have they rallied from a 3-1 deficit to win a series. The first step is winning tomorrow night in raucous Miami, with perhaps the NBA future of Rivers and several others at stake.

“I think we can win three games,’’ Rivers said. “But we have to play great basketball. For me and the staff and the players it’s more for tomorrow and the next day. Right now they’re hurting, I’m sure, and let them hurt. We’ll rebuild tomorrow.’’

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

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