It was fitting that Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett all did their post-game interviews in the same claustrophobic sliver of the Celtics locker room, a parcel of wood-paneled space between the door to the trainer's room and the post-game spread. They talked in the same manner that they had played -- with their backs against the wall.This was the last stand for the Core Four and everyone knew it. A loss to the NBA's South Beach nouveau riche and this Boston basketball revival was over. Nobody in the NBA comes back from down 3-0 and no team, no matter how gritty, is likely to accomplish it against a team with LeBron James and Dwyane Wade in its employ.
These Celtics have made a habit of beating the odds in spectacular fashion -- the 24-point comeback against the Lakers in Game 4 of the 2008 NBA Finals and the unexpected 2010 run to the NBA Finals the two best examples -- but they knew what they were up against this time.
A profound and profane Garnett called it "desperation basketball." Call it preservation basketball after the Celtics scored a 101-91 victory over Miami Friday night at TD Garden.
"We're a team that is very, very, very, very gritty," said Keyon Dooling. "We just continue to hang in there. We're confident. We came out and we treated this like it was a Game 7. We wanted to leave everything on the court."
The parquet panegyrics for this group were already being prepared. But as Pierce, Allen, Garnett and Rajon Rondo have done so many times over the last five years when pushed to the brink they dug in their heels.
Garnett had his 11th double-double of the postseason, finishing with 24 points, 11 rebounds and eight impressive knuckle push-ups after being fouled hard by Udonis Haslem. Pierce needed 21 shots to score 23 points, but was a perfect 7 for 7 from the free throw line. Rondo (21 points, 10 assists, 6 rebounds) continued his evolution into the Green's go-to guy, scoring 8 points in the fourth. Allen had another reassuring shooting night, going 4 for 8 for 10 points.
Sunday's Game 4 looms as another got-to-have-it game. Lose that one and it's likely that all is lost in the series. But the Celtics deserve at least a day to savor their triumph over the Heat, especially because there was the fear that Miami had already absorbed Boston's best shot in Game 2, an instant classic, highlighted by Rondo's 44-point tour de force and Miami's 47 free throw attempts.
Coach Doc Rivers tried to spin that deflating overtime defeat into a cause for confidence, pointing out what the Celtics could do better.
The first item on the checklist was getting the ball to Garnett, who shot just 6 of 18 in Game 2. KG was fed early and often. He scored three of the Celtics first six baskets and had 12 points on 5 of 6 shooting at the half.
Another area of home improvement for the Celtics was the bench. Dormant and dominated by Miami in the first two games, the Celtics' reserves answered the call of duty this time. Led by Dooling, who had five of his 7 points in the first quarter, the Boston reserves had eight points in the first quarter, or one more than they had in all of Game 2, when Miami's bench players outscored them, 25-7. More important was the defensive energy they displayed in helping to hold Miami to 27.8 percent shooting in the second quarter.
Rivers exhumed little-used forward Marquis Daniels with sublime results. The lithe Daniels sliced through the Miami defense with shrewd and opportunistic cuts and finished with 9 points. Daniels had played a total of seven minutes in the previous six games. He logged 7:24 in the first half Friday night, helping the Celtics build a 55-42 halftime lead.
"Marquis was phenomenal tonight. Keyon Dooling was phenomenal," said Rivers. "Every guy actually that came off the bench contributed for our basketball team. We needed it tonight."
The best news for Celtics fans was that scales of NBA justice seemed to tip in their favor. After two somewhat dubiously officiated games in Miami, the personal fouls in Game 3 were dead even at 24. James and Wade, who combined for 35 free throws in Game 2, took five in Game 3, all belonging to James (1-5). The duo had five fouls at halftime, one more than in all of Game 2.
Early on it looked like James was headed for an NBA Classics evening, dropping 16 in the first quarter. He finished with a mere 34. If it weren't for Bron-Bron's brilliance this game would have been a total blowout.
The Celtics led by 22 at the end of three quarters, but James made all manner of shots in the quarter to keep Miami from getting completely massacred. That proved important when the Heat used a 16-2 run to cut Boston's cushy lead to 91-82 with 5:41 to go. The Heat would creep as close as 95-87.
Many were wondering what Rondo would do for an encore after Game 2. It was not the stuff of Celtics lore, but rather a harmonious blending of facile facilitation and efficient offensive production. It was Rondo as maestro, instead of virtuoso.
Rondo is self-aware enough to realize now that he can no longer defer to the Big Three in the fourth quarter. It's his time and his team now.
"He's been timely in the scoring category all playoffs. He's had some big fourth quarters," Dooling said. "Obviously, we ask him to do a lot. He has to facilitate, make sure everybody gets off. We expect him to score his points. We expect him to rebound. We expect him to be a masterful play-caller. That's what happens when you pursue greatness."
The Celtics had heart. But they left TD Garden with something even more valuable.
"It's a series now. They have hope," said Miami forward Shane Battier.
...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.