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Celtics send series and pressure back to Miami

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff  June 4, 2012 03:59 PM

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It only counted as one game, but Game 4 felt like four different games crammed into one.

There was the one where the Celtics made Miami's defense look like it was being played by a bunch of parking cones and opened up an 18-point lead, the one where Miami mounted a steady comeback while the Celtics steadily missed shots, the one where the teams swapped big shots and the lead in the final eight minutes of the fourth quarter, and the one that served as the coda, with both Paul Pierce and LeBron James, who hadn't fouled out in his previous 106 playoff games, stunningly relegated to spectators after fouling out in overtime.

"Words can't even describe the type of game it is," said Paul Pierce, who had a team-high 23 points, despite fouling out 38 seconds into OT.

He's right, but we'll try. It was bizarre, schizophrenic, dramatic, engrossing, nerve-wracking, heart-stopping. That last adjective is courtesy of Dwayne Wade, who missed 10 his first 12 shots and, fitting for this game, nearly sank the game-winner in overtime. Wade (20 points) had the Parishioners of the Parquet checking their pulse after his potential game-winning 3-pointer had a brief dalliance with the basket.

It was the type of game the Celtics had to win, and they did, 93-91, to even the Eastern Conference finals at two games a piece. It could also be a turning point in the series. If you're a Celtics fan you can look at this series two ways: one is that the Celtics could easily be up 3-1 after outplaying Miami in all but Game 1, and the other is that they could be staring at a 3-1 deficit today if Wade had delivered.

However, there is only one way to look at the shifting of the pressure in the series heading into Game 5. The Celtics, who returned home down 2-0 and facing the end of their season and an era, have put the burden of proof back on the Heat and James.

This series is not only a contrast of styles; it's a contrast of personalities. The Celtics are a team that thrives on doing things the hard way. The Heat is at its best when it can hit the basketball version of the Staples easy button.

It's no surprise that Miami dropped to 0-5 this postseason when trailing after three quarters.

If this series is determined by mental toughness then the Celtics have a clear edge. The Celtics had ample opportunity to bemoan their fate in Game 4, especially after Pierce fouled out 38 seconds into OT, and instead bared down.

"We're built for adversity," said Keyon Dooling. "We've gone through so much that our personality has taken on being a resilient, grind-it-out-type of team."

It's a trait the Celtics have had since the union of Kevin Garnett, Pierce and Ray Allen.

No one would describe the Heat that way. They're viewed as South Florida frontrunners, the team that thought it was entitled to not one, not two, not three, not four... titles.

Miami has to prove, as it did against the Indiana Pacers, that it can stop griping and complaining and start competing. Rajon Rondo's halftime verbal shot at the Heat rang true after the game, when James was asked about fouling out for only the fourth time in 796 NBA games (playoffs and regular season).

"I don’t foul out," said James. "If I’m going to foul out, that sixth foul, I wish I would have earned it and it had actually been a foul on me.  Whatever."

James and the Heat have to demonstrate that they're not the rabbit-eared bunch that wilted and waned at times last year, including in the NBA Finals against the Dallas Mavericks.

There are already signs of cracks in Miami's mental armor. A team that shot 77.5 percent in the regular season from the free throw line is shooting 64.9 percent in this series. LeBron has missed 17 of 46 free throws in the series, including 14 in the last three games.

LeBron's baggage -- the accusations, some unfair, that's he lacks resiliency, fortitude and the indomitable will to win of Kobe or Jordan -- has become the Heat's basketball cross to bear. James is the most persecuted and picked apart great player in NBA history, and now that judgment is upon his entire team.

Like his headband, these criticisms press on James's head.

Today, few are recalling there would have been no overtime, no final act in the drama, if James hadn't sunk a clutch 3-pointer to tie the game at 89. The topic of discussion is that once again LeBron passed the ball and passed on an opportunity for a signature game-winning shot, skipping a pass to Udonis Haslem after he was double-teamed on the final possession of regulation.

The diffident label is one that LeBron can't escape. He won't be able to until he wraps his hands around the Larry O'Brien Trophy. He gets it from critics, fans and, in the most visceral display, opponents like Indiana reserve guard Lance Stephenson, who clasped his own neck following a missed James' free throw to express a sentiment that many have expressed about James -- he's not clutch.

That perception becoming reality was one of the Celtics' great hopes in this series. In order to get inside LeBron's brain, the Celtics had to give him and his team something to think about. Now, they have.

"We understand what it takes to win, but no one said it was easy," said James. "This is great. This is what the postseason is all about.  It's about adversity and ups and downs. Like I said, you never get too high, and you never get too low. We look forward to Game 5."

That would sound more believable if it came out of the mouth of KG, Pierce, or Rondo. James could be sincere, or it could be false bravado to mask mounting anxiety.

We're about to find out.

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The word

Christopher L. Gasper riffs on the news

Dearth

...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.

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