MIAMI -- With 5:44 remaining in the fourth quarter of Game 7 Saturday night, LeBron James stepped back and drilled a 3-pointer from the Eastern Conference Finals logo between the 3-point line and halfcourt. James had a foot on the logo and Brandon Bass in his face, but that didn't stop him from hitting what the scorers ruled as a 30-footer with the shot clock winding down. The shot gave the Heat a 91-84 lead, their largest of the game to that point. Miami would use the momentum -- and the points -- from that shot to run away from the Celtics late.
James' shot was a singular, athletic achievement that the Celtics couldn't match. They don't have a player like James, or even one like Dwyane Wade, who combined with James for 20 points in the fourth quarter. All they had was Bass, playing out of position and with a serious deficit in foot speed compared to James, doing all he could to defend the Miami superstar.
While James' shot was a turning point in the game, Boston's response on Miami's next possession could be seen as a kind of counterpoint, representative of the adversity the Celtics have faced all season. After a James miss, a loose ball was poked toward midcourt, near the spot where James had just hit his 30-footer. In a race for the ball, James found himself in a foot-race with Rajon Rondo, and James -- arguably the fastest player in the series on either side -- lost. Rondo beat James to the ball and raced the other way for a layup, a last, defiant act for a team that is unlikely to return in its current form next season.
"You can never relax at any time on the court against them," said James. "You can never feel comfortable. You're always on edge."
That edge, provided by Rondo, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, and Kevin Garnett, has defined this group since 2007, when Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge brought the four players together. Together, they've given the Celtics a toughness that has defined their five-year run. You can call it grit, guts, or whatever you'd like, but for a star-driven team, they're scrappy. Despite their talent, they rarely do things the easy way, preferring instead to grind out games with their brand of clutching, grabbing defense. They've got three of the top 25 scorers in NBA history, but they rarely sit back and let one guy take over. That was evident in Game 7, where all five Celtics starters scored 14 points or more.
"I hear people at times talk about the NBA as an individual league," said Celtics coach Doc Rivers. " I think that theory is gone. This is a team. We had a terrific team effort by everybody."
As a team, the Celtics have become a model for how to meld together the personalities of superstars. This Heat team is a direct result of the theory that bringing three All-Star players together in an instant can produce results. That theory failed for Miami in year one, but they've got another chance in the Finals, which begin Tuesday.
The theory didn't fail in year one for the Celtics, who won an NBA championship in 2008. Garnett was injured in 2009, but they returned to the NBA Finals in 2010, taking the Lakers to a Game 7 before bowing out. Last year's team lost to Miami in five games, and this year's team took the favored Heat to seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals. Teamwork has replaced youth and talent as the glue that has bonded the last couple variations of these Celtics.
"This is their chemistry that they built over the years," said James. "It's like no other team that I've ever faced in the postseason. They're great."
After a great five years, the future of these Celtics is uncertain. Garnett and Allen are unrestricted free agents and can go wherever they please. Of the players that played roles in Game 7, only Pierce and Rondo are under contract next season. It's possible Garnett and or Allen returns, but they would be 36 and 37 years old, respectively. After the game, neither player would commit to next season, while Rivers preferred to look back.
"Kevin, Ray, and Paul, I'm never going to look at them individually," said Rivers. "I'm going to look at them as a group collective. They all gave up plus‑seven shots each. They gave up minutes. I asked them to play defense and move the ball, and they all did it, and they're willing to do it for the better of the team. So I think that's what we should focus on, how much they gave up to try to win. That's what I'll remember most about them."
Said Pierce, "Everything's going too fast right now. I don't want to think about it."
For the first time in five years, Celtics fans may be forced to think about a team largely composed of different parts. If this is the last act for the Celtics as we know them, let Rondo's act of defiance stand out as a final coup, a final gesture of hustle over talent. If this is the last act, they went down fighting. If this is the last act, they went down, as Rivers said, as a team in an individual league. With that approach, there's no reason they can't rise, as a team, again.