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Behind Garnett and James, Celtics and Heat are digging in

Posted by Matt Pepin, Boston.com Staff  June 4, 2012 10:59 AM

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The Miami Heat, like the Celtics before them, boarded their plane home in a state of utter disbelief, appalled with the officiating, distraught with the reality. In Miami last week, Doc Rivers lamented the free-throw totals. In Boston last night, Pat Riley chalked it all up to a "typical night" in the TD Garden. And in the end, what we have here in the NBA Eastern Conference finals now is a certified barnburner.

The Celtics, it seems, are once again intent on going out in one final blaze of glory.

Seemingly defeated and demoralized last week following as Game 2 loss at the American Airlines Arena, the Celtics completed a weekend sweep of the Miami Heat on Sunday night with a 93-91 overtime victory splattered with big plays and controversial calls as much as sharpening intensity and high drama. And so the Eastern Conference finals are now tied at two games apiece with three to play, the Celtics and Heat now demonstrating an obvious distaste for one another that has been simmering beneath the surface for some time.

And so, as ESPN reporter Doris Burke asked, what was key to the Celtics' offense in the first half on Sunday night?

"Them complaining and crying to the referees in transition," answered a rather blunt Rajon Rondo, the Celtics point guard.

So there you have it. The Celtics regard these Heat as whiners, moaners, criers and kvetchers. And lest anyone think otherwise, the Miami Heat think the same about the Celtics.

And for the most part, both teams are right.

Cry about the officiating, if you must, but give them men in stripes credit for at least this much on Sunday night: no one was off limits. There were no sacred cows. Of the 10 starters who played in Game 4, seven of them collected at least four fouls, a group that includes LeBron James, Joel Anthony, Dwyane Wade, Mario Chalmers, Paul Pierce, Brandon Bass and Rondo. The other three starters all had three fouls. Pierce and James both fouled out -- Pierce just 38 seconds into overtime, James roughly three minutes later -- stripping each club of its high scorer during intense minutes with a season at stake.

Know what that is? A test of mental toughness. A test of wills and character and grit. A fight between the old guard of the Eastern Conference and the new, either the Celtics or James fighting to be in the Finals for a sixth straight year.

Think about it: James was there with the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2007, with the Heat in 2011. The Celtics were there in 2008 and 2010. In 2009, with Kevin Garnett injured, James and Cleveland lost in these Conference Finals to the Orlando Magic.

Of course, the Celtics are precisely why James chose Miami, why he chose Wade, why Chris Bosh also was invited to conspire with Riley to form the NBA's latest dream team. The Heat were formed to dethrone the Celtics, against whom James failed during his final years in Cleveland.

For Garnett and the Celtics, maybe that is part of what is driving them now, individually and collectively. Over the weekend, NBA.com writer Steve Aschburner (who formerly covered Garnett for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune) cited a league source close to Garnett as hinting that Garnett may retire. That only seems to fuel the competitive distaste that Garnett and James seem to have for one other, the two stars tangling up at one point on Sunday night with each giving the other a shove beneath the Celtics' hoop.

But then, in the NBA, a team takes on the personality of its star player. And as much as Pierce is matched up with James on the floor, James and Garnett remain at the center of this struggle, the former guarding the latter at the final stages of each of the last two games in the absence of Miami big man Bosh.

Before James, after all, Garnett was perhaps the original high school phenom who made his way straight to the NBA, even if he was just the No. 5 overall selection of the 1995 draft.

Where this series now goes from here remains anybody's guess, though there are some things we can discern with relatively certainty. Both teams are intent on fighting. Neither is going away. The officiating will remain an enormous factor and the object of much subjectivity, and the team that best handles such a distraction might very well be the club that plays Oklahoma City or San Antonio for the championship.

If you are a Celtics fan intent on believing in conspiracies, you should resign yourself to the fact now that the Celtics are not going to get the calls in Miami on Tuesday night that they got in Boston over the weekend. That is just how the NBA works. As much as NBA critics like to lament the fact that the NBA is a star-driven league, they often overlook the fact that the NBA favors home teams, too. The Celtics knew that when they put this group together five years ago, and the Celtics made it a priority that year to get home court throughout the playoffs, at one point setting their sights on an undefeated home season.

In this series, the Miami Heat obviously have home court advantage, something Miami earned while going 46-20 during a season in which the Celtics started 15-17. Had the Celtics played something even close to representative basketball in the first half of the year, maybe Games 5 and 7 of this series would have been played in Boston. Alas, they will not. And so if the Celtics are indeed to beat the Heat during what feels like a final stand, they will have to win at least once in Miami this week, validating an NBA adage as old as the league itself.

The series doesn't start until someone wins a road game.

But if Games 1-4 of this affair were nothing more than preliminaries, then we are in for one heck of a finish.

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Updated: Mar 1, 07:24 AM

About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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