The lead was six with 22.3 seconds left when Paul Pierce stepped to the free throw line and made his first of two attempts. That was when Kevin Garnett positively knew, his right arm whipping back and forth as if he were thumping the bass drum in a marching band, his mouth, unsurprisingly, having little difficulty in keeping pace.
The Celtics are very much alive, it seems. And we now cannot help but wonder if those old dogs have one more run left in them after all?
A seven-game series is something altogether different, of course, but let's judge the Celtics on the here and now, on last night, on a game that should have, could have and would have been a blowout win for the Miami Heat if it were played, say, three months ago. The Celtics were reeling then. They looked old and worn. Boston was stuck in the chasm between the NBA's good and bad, the worst place to be for a team with too much talent and pride to stink, too many minutes and miles to shine.
But last night? The Celtics were 115-107 winners in a game that indisputably meant something, to them and the Heat both. Miami took note following a 91-72 pasting at the hands of the Celtics on April 1, but that game was played in Boston, at the TD Garden. The Heat were comatose that day. Everyone from Miami coach Erik Spoelstra to star Dwyane Wade seemed to make Tuesday night's game against the Celtics a resulting priority, Miami then racing to a 9-3 start as if intent on realigning the basketball universe.
The Celtics did then what battle-tested war horses do. They kept their cool. They hit back. And they kept right on hitting throughout the night, the final result an unconscious 60.6 team field goal percentage in the kind of win that shakes the foundation of an entire conference."They just kept throwing punches at us," Celtics coach Doc Rivers told reporters after the game. "We withstood them and kept moving forward. I thought that was important for our team."
A championship? Banner 18? Let's not go there quite yet, because the same questions exist for the Celtics now that existed two years ago, when the C's made an improbable, unlikely run to Game 7 of the finals. In fact, there are even more questions. The Celtics are still old, still undersized, and the playoffs are a grind unlike any other, no matter the scheduled days off. Last week, after dropping a one-point decision to the San Antonio Spurs on the Garden floor, the Celtics went to Chicago and were utterly listless the very next night, dropping a 93-86 decision to the Bulls in a game they should have won.
Come playoff time, rest assured there will be more nights like that night in Chicago. The Celtics will have to pick their spots. If and when the Celtics lead a series, they may have to sacrifice a game here or there, knowingly or unknowingly, because to do otherwise would lead to an early and unceremonious exit. Four series is still way too much to ask of this group, just as it was in May and June of 2010.
Nonetheless, let's give the Celtics their due for one very simple and indisputable fact: they are suggesting to us that it is at least possible again. They at least have a puncher's chance. Garnett is playing his best basketball in three years at least, confidence and attitude oozing from his game. Garnett was 5-for-5 last night in the fourth quarter alone, unhesitatingly knocking down four jumpers on four consecutive possessions during the middle of the fourth quarter when it appeared Miami was prepared to assume control.
As for Rajon Rondo, let last night serve as a lesson to anyone who has ever debated his real value to the Celtics. If Rondo could consistently shoot from the outside as he did last night, the Celtics never would have even considered a deal for Chris Paul. They would be downright unstoppable. Of Rondo's 11 shots last night, seven were jump shots from 16 feet or more. He made five of them, including a 3-pointer.
Whether Rondo can continue that is certainly debatable (he was just 5 of 8 from the line) but that is hardly the point. With the cast of shooters the Celtics have around him - LeBron James himself called the Celtics "the best jump-shooting team in the league" - Rondo doesn't need to. Skeptics would note that Rondo went 0-for-2 from the field and a mere 2-for-4 from the line in the fourth quarter, but he also had three assists and zero turnovers during a quarter his teammates went a combined 10 of 13 from the field and 3 of 3 from the line.
The point? Rondo doesn't have to make them all. He just has to be a threat to make enough.
On much grander level, we all know what last night's game meant because we all know how the NBA works. Entering last night, the Heat were a sterling 24-3 at home, the best mark in the NBA. Miami had beaten the Celtics five straight times in South Florida. Precisely one year ago to the day - April 10, 2011 - the Heat obliterated the Celtics by a 100-77 score at American Airlines Arena to secure Miami's only victory against the Celtics last season. Buoyed by that effort, the Heat then wiped out the Celtics in five games of an Eastern Conference semifinal series.
Until last night, the Celtics had not won again in Miami. They had really not beaten a true title contender on the road. Now, in the span of just 10 days, the Celtics have beaten Miami both at home and on the road, bookend victories of a six-game stretch during which the Celtics went 4-2 against Miami (twice), San Antonio, Chicago and Philadelphia - and the truth is that they very easily could have gone 6-0.
"It took a while but as long as we’re peaking at the right time," Rondo told reporters. "Our chemistry is growing each game, our confidence level each game."
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