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Celtics know they need to improve to beat Heat

By Michael Whitmer
Globe Staff / June 3, 2012
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WALTHAM - With the din of the TD Garden crowd still ringing from a Game 3 victory Friday night, Doc Rivers gathered his Celtics in the locker room and delivered a brief message: Nice win. It’s not nearly enough.

“I still think we can play better, and that’s the first thing I told them after the game,’’ Rivers said. “I said it was a great win, but that’s still not our best. We have to play better, and we can play better.

“We’re still down one game in this series, so we’ve only done one thing, we’ve won one game. No reason to pat ourselves on the back for it. We did what we were supposed to do, and what we expected to do, and now we have to do it again.’’

If Friday’s Game 3 was a must-win that the Celtics won, Sunday night’s Game 4 could be viewed the same way. The Heat lead the Eastern Conference finals, 2-1, and taking a 3-1 lead back home to the beach would force the Celtics to win three consecutive games, two in Miami. No easy task.

Even if the Celtics win on Sunday and square the series, they’ll have to win at least once in the Heat’s house if they want to advance to the NBA Finals for the third time in five seasons.

But Friday was a necessary start. Whether it has any kind of positive carryover for the Celtics in Game 4 will be known shortly.

“It’s a must. You don’t want to dig too deep of a hole, going down, 3-1, going to Miami,’’ said Paul Pierce, who scored 23 points in Friday’s win. “Got to take care of business at home, [then] get a win in Miami so it turns into a home-court advantage for us.’’

The Celtics didn’t practice Saturday, but players were ordered to report to the facility anyway. All watched film. Some shot a few baskets. Some visited the trainer’s room for medical treatment. Some met with the media.

Hitting the floor, at this point of a shortened season, didn’t make much sense to Rivers.

“We’re tired and old and banged up. If I have a choice between the legs and the brains, I’m going to take the legs every single time, we need those,’’ Rivers said. “I don’t know what I could accomplish, honestly. We have to do whatever we need to do. It’s not by choice, it’s by need.’’

Saturday’s film session was sure to bring mixed reviews.

Thumbs up: Executing a game plan of getting Kevin Garnett the ball closer to the basket, where he could use his height advantage (no Chris Bosh, the 6-foot-11-inch Heat star missing his seventh straight game with an abdominal strain) to score a team-high 24 points; outrebounding the younger and more athletic Heat, 44-32; getting strong bench play, especially in the second quarter, when the Celtics outscored Miami, 25-14; attacking the rim more aggressively; and - to the sarcastic exasperation of Celtics fans - being awarded more free throws than the Heat.

Thumbs down: Allowing Miami to trim a 22-point deficit after three quarters to 8. Other than that, not much.

“In the first quarter I thought we were poor defensively, and in the fourth quarter we were poor defensively,’’ Rivers said. “That’s the point I’m making: We played well, but there’s a better game in us, and we know it. We’ll see it on film, and we have to do it.’’

Staying aggressive figures to be first on the Celtics’ wish list.

“You have to,’’ Rajon Rondo said. “The team that shoots the most free throws pretty much wins the game, also the team that wins the rebounding war.’’

A notch below might be how the Celtics utilize Garnett on offense.

With Bosh in street clothes again for Game 3 and the Garden crowd roaring its approval whenever Garnett let out his patented primal scream on the video screen, the Celtics wanted to feed the beast, especially in places on the floor where he stood a solid chance of doing something with it.

“We have the size advantage with Kevin, especially when they go small, so we’ll try to get the ball in the paint as much as possible, and if they collapse then find our shooters,’’ Pierce said. “We want to play inside to out, for the most part.’’

Taking Game 3 was vital, since no NBA team has ever won a playoff series after losing the first three games. But the outlook is only slightly better when a team falls behind, 3-1. Only eight teams have erased 3-1 deficits; the Celtics have done it twice (1968, 1981), both times against Philadelphia. The last team to advance from a 3-1 hole was Phoenix in 2006, when the Suns came back to knock out the Lakers.

Which brings us back to the postgame message from Friday. Rivers knew his team had to win Game 3. They’re taking the same approach with Game 4.

“Game 3 was more of a desperation game, and we have to play like that,’’ Garnett said. “We have to get these two at home, by any means necessary, and then deal with whatever after that.’’

Michael Whitmer can be reached at mwhitmer@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeWhitmer.

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