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At end, they had nothing left in tank

By Gary Washburn
June 10, 2012
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MIAMI - A season’s worth of burdens, injuries, mishaps, poor conditioning, and roster shuffles were too much to bear in the fourth quarter. Those factors combined to become a 2,000-pound anvil and planted itself in the back of each Celtics’ jersey Saturday night at AmericanAirlines Arena.

The Celtics had nothing left after three valiant quarters, losing, 101-88, in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals as they were once again dominated in the fourth quarter of a critical playoff game, just as they lost the fourth quarter two years ago in Los Angeles when the Lakers’ Ron Artest turned into Reggie Miller in a Game 7 defeat in the NBA Finals.

Saturday night against the Miami Heat, Chris Bosh provided the backbreaking shot and then LeBron James pushed aside his passive approach and took over in the final eight minutes. The Celtics were exhausted and were forced to succumb to a deeper and more athletic opponent.

The Celtics have been working on borrowed time all season, and their passion almost resulted in another trip to the NBA Finals. But beyond the start lineup, this was hardly a championship-caliber team.

When the lockout ended Thanksgiving weekend, president of basketball operations Danny Ainge worked feverishly to formulate a capable roster to build around the team’s core, and his reinforcements eventually chipped away like old paint on a scorching day.

Jeff Green never made it to the starting gate because of surgery to repair an aortic valve; Chris Wilcox left in February for surgery to repair an enlarged aorta; Jermaine O’Neal was done by March because of a myriad of injuries, and finally Avery Bradley needed left shoulder surgery and wasn’t available for the Miami series.

That’s four key contributors who weren’t available for a series against the conference’s most athletic team. No Bradley to curtail Dwyane Wade, no Green as a big body to limit James, no Wilcox to run the floor with Rajon Rondo for dunks, and no O’Neal to provide a capable backup to Kevin Garnett.

It was no secret, the Celtics have been a six-cylinder cruiser running on three cylinders for the past six months. And all the energy they used to fight off the Atlanta Hawks, dismiss the Philadelphia 76ers, and take a 3-2 series lead over the Heat was gone, empty by the fourth quarter. Paul Pierce had no lift, Ray Allen was rushing his 3-pointers, and Garnett couldn’t hit from the perimeter.

Don’t ask about the post, because a Celtics’ post presence didn’t exist all year. They nearly reached the NBA Finals as a jump-shooting team.

“Honestly, I just thought we had nothing left,’’ Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. “That’s how it felt as a coach. I was trying to push every button we possibly had. Everything was front rim. We started throwing the ball away. They started beating us off the dribble.

“I wanted this group somehow [to win] - when you think about this group, no Jeff Green, no Chris Wilcox, no Avery Bradley, no JO. If he would have got this group to the Finals, it would have been fantastic for us.’’

The Heat had the luxury of bringing All-Star Bosh off the bench and he tallied 19 critical points while the only bench points of the night for Boston came on a tip dunk from Ryan Hollins. The Celtics were banking that Pierce, Garnett, and Allen could reach back to their past glories for one more run.

But it was apparent that those that former all-star trio needed reinforcements. Pierce was 11-for-36 shooting in the final two games of the series, his decline becoming more evident; Garnett couldn’t get his shots off, unable to maneuver with the bumping of Udonis Haslem, and Allen played commendably on one leg for the past month.

When you compare those three with the combination of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden, it’s would have perhaps been a hideous sight to watch the well-rested Thunder attack the Celtics’ defense. The Celtics have been a front-running team the past few years because their aging bodies are fresher and more productive in the early going.

But when the fourth quarter arrived, the 27-year-old James, 28-year-old Bosh, and 30-year-old Wade had plenty left. The Celtics’ Big Three, playing in the team’s 86th game in 169 days, were exhausted, unable to finish the fight.

“It’s definitely been a trying year for us,’’ Pierce said. “We dealt with a lot of adversity. We dealt with injuries. A lot of things didn’t go our way over the course of the season. It’s been a tremendous year, even though we fell short of our goals. We were one game away from playing for a championship.’’

So while the Celtics fell short, unable to short-circuit the hated Heat’s run to another NBA Finals, Rivers still pulled off his best coaching job in the Big Three era, using NBADL product Greg Stiemsma and Cleveland castoff Ryan Hollins as backup centers in critical playoff games.

He patchworked his lineup after the All-Star break, won another Atlantic Division title, and two playoff series. It ended here because it likely should have ended here. Similar to 2010, the Celtics brought nothing to Game 6 and then played valiantly in Game 7 only to slip in the final quarter.

That time it was Rasheed Wallace gasping for breath and fouling out. This Celtics’ crew didn’t have such capable complements.

What a difficult way to end an overachieving season.

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