With 7:02 remaining in the third quarter of tonight's game, the Celtics saw their season flash before their eyes.
The Celtics started the second half on a 14-6 run and looked to build on their lead when Rajon Rondo aggressively went after a rebound. Sensing a potential Boston fast break, Heat guard Dwyane Wade pulled Rondo to the ground by his arm, dislocating Rondo's left elbow in the process. As Rondo writhed in pain on the floor, a previously jubilant TD Garden crowd went silent.
Seven minutes and two seconds later, Rondo was back on the court, his improbable return highlighting a 97-81 Celtics win at TD Garden in Game 3 Saturday night. With the win, the Celtics avoid an insurmountable hole and have a chance to tie the series Monday night.
Rondo's return was pure, unscripted drama. Replays showed his left arm bending underneath him in a way no human arm should. Non-medical observers had to question whether his entire season was in jeopardy, nevermind his return in Game 3. But Rondo dragged his left arm next to him during the fourth quarter, catching and throwing passes with the right arm. When he fell to the floor a few times, the home fans gasped. When he finished off a fast-break dunk, he likely surprised everyone but himself.
If Rondo's return (and feared loss) was Story 1A, the Celtics' defense on LeBron James and the Heat in the second half was Story 1B. The Celtics trailed 46-44 at halftime but completely shut down the Heat after the break, holding Miami to 35-percent shooting in the second half. James had seven points before halftime and finished with just 15 points on 6-of-16 shooting thanks to harassing defense from Paul Pierce. Pierce (27 points) and Kevin Garnett (28 points) paced the Celtics on offense.
In what is now a sidenote, Shaquille O'Neal returned to the floor for the Celtics in Game 3. Playing in his first game since April 3, O'Neal entered tonight's game at the 2:41 mark in the first quarter to a standing ovation from the crowd. O'Neal's impact on the game was largely emotional. He played 4:46 in the first half and had two points without recording a rebound. He finished with that same stat line.
Pierce played inspired basketball in the first quarter, scoring 12 of his 27 points on 4-of-6 shooting in the period as the Celtics led by as many as 10 points early. The Celtics shot 62.5 percent in the first.
On defense, the Celtics did mostly what they intended to do in the first half. They limited James to seven points and made it difficult for Wade to get his 14. But Joel Anthony came off the bench to score 10 huge points before halftime, going 5 of 5 from the field. Anthony out-hustled the Celtics' hustle guys, including Glen Davis, scoring his points on put-backs and easy chances at the rim.
There's no long break between games this time. The Celtics and Heat have the day off tomorrow and get right back at it for Game 4 at TD Garden Monday night at 7 p.m.
Final: Celtics 97-81 Think there will be anything to talk about after this one? Much more to come here.
1:44 4th quarter, Celtics 92-79 The Celtics are going to hang on to win here.
5:02 4th quarter, Celtics 85-72 The Heat are on a 7-2 run. Rondo's elbow probably feels terrible, but it's going to feel worse if the Celtics blow this lead. Miami has too much fire power to be out of this game.
7:36 4th quarter, Celtics 83-65 The Celtics are making life miserable for James and the Heat on offense. Miami's down to 40-percent shooting.
9:33 4th quarter, Celtics 79-63 Ray Allen nails a 3-pointer to give the Celtics their largest lead. Rajon Rondo is on the floor, but he can't lift his left arm up. Not sure what's more unbelievable, that he's playing or that the Celtics are virtually doing it without him.
10:38 4th quarter, Celtics 74-63 Rajon Rondo is back on the floor for the Celtics to start the fourth quarter. Holy cow.
End 3d quarter, Celtics 72-61 The Celtics hung onto the lead, and Rajon Rondo is back on the Celtics bench in uniform.
4:06 3d quarter, Celtics 64-54 The Celtics need to face the very real possibility that Rajon Rondo doesn't play again in this game. They're up 10, but how long can they keep that up without arguably their most important player.
The ironic thing is that the Celtics deactivated Carlos Arroyo for today's game to make room for Shaq.
7:02 3d quarter, Celtics 60-50 Dwyane Wade takes Rajon Rondo to the ground, and Rondo's arm goes in a direction no arm should ever go in. Rondo looks seriously injured. The crowd here is stunned.
7:50 3d quarter, Celtics 58-50 As always, Paul Pierce's 3-pointers are big momentum shots. Pierce's three forces a Miami timeout and gets this place rocking. Rajon Rondo is back to attacking the rim, and that's freeing up everything for the Celtics on offense.
10:38 3d quarter, Celtics 48-46 Two easy buckets from Garnett early. On the other end, Jermaine O'Neal doesn't allow LeBron an easy dunk, and he misses two freebies.
Anthony has 10 points and 7 rebounds, and his hustle on the offensive end is killing the Celtics. But he's been effective on defense in part because he's not getting any fouls called on him. That's one situation where is smaller size might actually help him. Still, the Celtics are doing a good job not letting foul calls get to them this game.
Pierce and Garnett each have 12 points, while Delonte West has 10 huge points off the bench.
2:30 2d quarter, Celtics 41-40 Good things happen when the Celtics go to the basket. Paul Pierce takes it to the hole and misses, but he gets his own rebound and finds Delonte West for a 3-pointer.
5:12 2d quarter, Heat 38-34 Bad offense by the Celtics is leading to easy offense for Miami. The Heat are up to 54 percent shooting now. Their last basket -- an open baby hook from Joel Anthony -- came too easily. The Celtics have made all six free throws they've attempted. They need to get there more.
6:48 2d quarter, Celtics 34-32 Ray Allen picks up his third foul, grazing Dwyane Wade on the elbow on a 3-point attempt. He's back on the bench, which is a blow for the Celtics.
9:56 2d quarter, Celtics 27-26 The Celtics give three fouls on one Miami possession, leading to an and-one for Mario Chalmers. The Heat have no scorers on the floor and they've erased the lead.
End 1st quarter, Celtics 27-21 From a defensive perspective, this is night and day from Games 1 and 2. The Celtics have made the Heat work. The Shaq experiment has been a wash so far: One good post move, and one shot clock violation. James Jones also got a wide-open 3-pointer because Shaq just couldn't get to the corner on the defensive rotation. Initial eye test: Shaq isn't going to figure much into tonight's outcome.
2:42 1st quarter, Celtics 23-17 Turnovers are bad. A couple of bad passes lead to easy buckets for Miami. Joel Anthony's also gotten to the offensive glass twice for put-backs.
Shaquille O'Neal is coming into the game now as Boston's first sub. Let's see what Shaq can give them.
6:53 1st quarter, Celtics 16-7: Great start by the Celtics. Everything is difficult for the Heat right now. On offense, the Celtics are executing to the tune of 71 percent from the floor. They're playing like the dominant team. They're playing "with force". Good start.
9:37 1st quarter, Celtics 7-3: The Celtics are playing great defense early on, forcing Miami into difficult shots. Paul Pierce just baited Mike Bibby into the air and drew a foul on a 3-point attempt.
Pregame: The Celtics just ran out onto the court to a standing ovation. The atmosphere here is ridiculous. It's the Miami crowd multiplied by 1,000,000,000.
Let's get it.