MIAMI -- Playing out the fifth season of a three-year window, the Celtics fell one game short of the NBA Finals in an unlikely championship run, losing to the Miami Heat, 101-88, in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals.
LeBron James took over in the fourth quarter for the Heat, scoring 11 of his 31 points as Miami took a 73-73 tie after three quarters and turned it into a 13-point win. For one of the few times this series, James had the help of a superstar on his level as Dwyane Wade scored nine points in the final frame to help put the game away.
Seeking its first title since the arrival of James two seasons ago, Miami now advances to the Finals for the second straight year. The Celtics are left to sort out the impending free agencies of Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, and to contemplate a run that started with a championship in 2008 and continued with a Game-7 NBA Finals loss to the Lakers in 2010 and this run to the final game of the Eastern Conference playoffs.
"I don't know if I've ever had a group like this," said Celtics coach Doc Rivers. "They did everything I asked them to do. They came up short."
The Celtics got off to a much stronger start in Game 7 than they did in Game 6, taking a 23-14 lead before Garnett went to the bench with 3:46 remaining in the first quarter. As they've done all postseason without Garnett, the Celtics struggled, and they found themselves with a four-point lead after one. James was 1 of 3 from the floor in the first quarter but made all six free throws he attempted.
When Garnett picked up his third foul on an illegal screen with 7:08 left in the second quarter, the Celtics found themselves without their emotional leader again. This time, however, they pieced together a 14-3 run, increasing the lead with a super-small lineup led by Brandon Bass. Bass scored 10 points in the quarter and also took turns guarding James. It was a welcome surprise and unexpected boost for Boston, who took a 53-46 lead into halftime. Rondo, who had 5 turnovers and 5 assists in the first half of Game 6, had 10 assists and no turnovers in the first half of Game 7.
The third quarter was a bumpy ride for the Celtics. They committed five turnovers. Pierce picked up his fourth foul. And they struggled to put the ball in the basket, hitting 41 percent of their shots in the period. But just as they've done over and over again this season, the Celtics found a way to hang around through the rough patch, entering the fourth quarter tied at 73.
"You can never relax at any time on the court against them," said James. "You can never feel comfortable. You're always on edge against them."
Maybe it was a representation of the end of this whole darn thing, but the Celtics ran out of steam in the final quarter of Game 7. After being held in check for much of the game, James was an unstoppable superstar. Boston, a team built on defense, couldn't get any stops. When James hit a 3-pointer from the NBA logo about five feet past the 3-point line with 5:42 left in the game, it was a sign of superior individual talent. The Celtics' hopes in the game, and their hopes to continue their season, were gone.
"It's tough," said Paul Pierce. "Everything's going too fast right now. I don't want to think about it. I'm more disappointed in the loss. You feel like you let your teammates down, especially when you want to accomplish a goal, win a championship. It's a lot of emotions right now."
Final: Heat 101, Celtics 88
1:58 4th quarter, Heat 98-86: Boston's hopes are fading fast.
3:23 4th quarter, Heat 95-86: Big trouble now. Wade and James are taking over.
4:14 4th quarter, Heat 91-86: Bass is guarding James exclusively. LeBron pulled up and hit one from the Eastern Conference Finals logo, and he's continuing to take jump shots over Bass. The Celtics need stops here and to score themselves. This is it.
7:06 4th quarter, Heat 86-82: Bosh has three 3-pointers in the game. They're giving him that shot, and he's making it. Totally new wrinkle in the series.
7:34 4th quarter, Heat 83-82: James with a thunderous dunk down the lane. He's got 25 points.
8:20 4th quarter, Celtics 82-81: Ray Allen hits a big 3-pointer. LeBron comes down on the other end and misses one. It's big shot time from here on out.
10:31 4th quarter, Celtics 77-76: Bosh hits a 3-pointer. Garnett gets great position on James down low and hooks one in for two.
End 3d quarter, Tied at 73: Maybe that Pierce foul works out. Wade missed 1 of 2, and we're now tied at 73. Pierce is also 5 of 16 from the floor, so this little break gives the Celtics a chance to try some different offense,
2:17 3d quarter, Heat 68-66: Don't know why Pierce continues to give fouls. He's got four now. Just led Wade have the layup.
3:50 3d quarter, Celtics 66-65: Celtics are bogged down in bad offense. They're settling for jump shots, and when they're not doing that they're making bad passes. They've turned it over four times since halftime.
7:12 3d quarter, tied at 59: Well you knew this was coming. Miami is all the way back. Now let's see if the Celtics can respond.
8:05 3d quarter, Celtics 59-57: Pierce picks up his third foul. Battier hits another 3-pointer. The Celtics are looking rattled.
9:59 3d quarter, Celtics 55-51: Shane Battier gets open for a 3-pointer. Celtics showing some early lapses on defense.
Halftime, Celtics 53-46: Good half, but a turnover by Pietrus shows just how quickly the Heat can strike. James took the ball the other way for a furious dunk. He hung on the rim, too, which Rajon Rondo didn't like too much.
We're getting the great Rondo tonight: 10 assists and 0 turnovers.
1:06 2d quarter, Celtics 51-44: LeBron's been to the line 10 times already. Double-technicals called on Wade and Rondo.
3:06 2d quarter, Celtics 49-38: Bass with a steal and a dunk over Wade. This is a 14-4 run with Garnett off the floor. Celtics go super small with Bass at the five, and it's working. Bass has one fewer point than James and Wade combined.
4:25 2d quarter, Celtics 45-38: No one talks about Brandon Bass, but he's got 12 points.
5:25 2d quarter, Celtics 41-35: Rondo passes up a wide open layup to Ray Allen, who was being covered by two guys. Allen still manages to float it in. Both teams shooting right around 50 percent right now. That's the magic number for the Celtics. Turnovers (eight) are killing the Heat.
7:08 2d quarter, Celtics 35-34: Kevin Garnett gets called for an offensive foul, his third, on a screen. Pretty shocking call in that situation. Looked like Garnett was pivoting to make a pass when he got whistled.
8:57 2d quarter, Celtics 35-30: Pierce has found his stroke, and it's from long range. He's hit two 3-pointers this quarter.
End 1st quarter, Celtics 27-23: Look at that footwork by Pierce on that last possession. He had Chris Bosh going five different ways and bricked the jumper. Pierce is 2 for 6. The Celtics got the last shot of the quarter because James tracked down Rondo on the break and sent his layup attempt into the stands. James is 1 of 3 from the floor but has made all six free throws.
The Celtics led 23-14 when Garnett went out of the game.
1:38 1st quarter, Celtics 25-23: The Celtics are trying to hang on without Garnett, and, as has been the case all season, it hasn't worked out so well. Greg Stiemsma is coming to the bench in favor of Ryan Hollins.
2:44 1st quarter, Celtics 23-17: Shots aren't falling for Pierce, but he's making much better decisions tonight. Passed up a 3-pointer and got Shane Battier in the air, but he couldn't finish the jumper. Rondo missed a layup on the break, which is sometimes a problem. The Heat have five turnovers already, and a lot of that's due to better defensive energy from the Celtics.
4:21 1st quarter, Celtics 21-14: So much energy from the Celtics right now. Chris Bosh is in the game for Miami. They need some kind of spark.
5:52 1st quarter, Celtics 15-12: Ray Allen looks great. The Celtics freed him up for a shot in the corner, but it wasn't just the screen. Allen caught the ball and hopped back into the corner with some spring in his step. Another good sign? Kevin Garnett has gotten two easy looks down low.
8:09 1st quarter, Heat 10-8: Hasn't been pretty so far, but the Celtics are hanging right with Miami.
11:06 1st quarter, Heat 2-0: Paul Pierce is already 0 for 2. Just not a good shooting series for the captain.
Pregame: Chris Bosh will come off the bench again for Miami as Udonis Haslem starts at center for the Heat. Celtics coach Doc Rivers would like to challenge LeBron James a little more tonight than he did Thursday.
"Just get in his airspace a little bit more," said Rivers. "That would be nice."
One game, winner-take-all. Let's get it.