The collective groans could be heard around TD Garden during the third quarter. The team announced that Rajon Rondo was out for the season with a torn right anterior cruciate ligament, and fans were learning of the disturbing news through their Twitter pages or as an ABC reporter announced it to a nationally televised audience.
As those fans contemplated the end of the Big Three Era, a potential first-round playoff elimination, and life without one of the league’s more versatile players, the Celtics were dueling with the Miami Heat, unaware of the demoralizing news awaiting them after the game.
With Rondo dressed in street clothes and in a seat near the tunnel, the Celtics staved off the Eastern Conference’s top team with a valiant double-overtime effort. They scored the final 5 points in an emotional and spirited 100-98 win.
As his teammates walked down the tunnel, Rondo waited for them and finally broke the news to those who knew something serious had occurred as they celebrated the victory in the locker room.
Snapping a six-game losing streak, beating the Heat, and playing their best game of the season in Ray Allen’s return to Boston was overshadowed by the loss of their All-Star point guard.
“It was a blow, I ain’t gonna front, it was a blow,’’ center Kevin Garnett said. “The staff came in and told us and the [locker] room went quiet. There’s a special attachment with he and [Paul Pierce], just because of our duration and where we’ve been. We’re family, we consider ourselves brothers, try to take care of each other, try to support each other.’’
Without Rondo, the Celtics had to rely on different sources to distribute the ball. They actually had 24 assists to Miami’s 19, and Pierce played his most complete game of the season with 17 points, 13 rebounds, and 10 assists.
Jason Terry sank two free throws to give the Celtics a 95-93 lead to open the second OT, but Chris Bosh responded with a streaking dunk and LeBron James then followed by using brute strength for a layup and a conventional 3-point play with 1:02 left for a 98-95 lead.
Terry responded with a driving layup, and the Celtics’ defense tightened, forcing Dwyane Wade into a rushed jumper. Pierce, who has been struggling offensively of late, took on James, faked a 3-pointer, and hit a step-back jumper with 30.4 seconds left for a 99-98 lead.
Miami again looked confused offensively, and James took a fadeaway jumper with 6.9 seconds left that Pierce rebounded. He hit one of two free throws, setting up one final chance for the Heat. Wade received the inbounds pass, was pressured, and flipped the ball to Shane Battier, who missed a desperation 3-point heave at the buzzer.
The Celtics earned a rewarding win, especially considering they battled a fully healthy Miami club without their floor leader, Rondo. James again was brilliant, with 34 points, 16 rebounds, 7 assists, and 3 steals, but the rest of the Miami roster combined for 25-for-65 shooting and 18 turnovers.
After a disheartening double-overtime loss to Atlanta Friday night, the Celtics responded with an improved defensive effort as Miami missed 15 of 20 shots in the overtimes.
“This game was won with our grit,’’ said Pierce, who had his first triple-double in more than two years. “When you look at it, we played two overtimes and didn’t allow Miami to score 100 points. We found a way to get this job done. [By] no means was it pretty but we found a way, grinded it out.’’
Allen finished with 21 points (2 short of his season high) and 5 rebounds in 38 minutes, attempting a season-high 17 shots. He helped bring the Heat back in regulation with a contested corner 3-pointer that sliced the Miami deficit to 85-84 with 25.1 seconds left.
Following two Terry free throws, James evened the score with a clutch 3-pointer from 26 feet with 7 seconds left. It wasn’t good enough, however.
Allen said he tried treating Sunday as a normal game, but after five years with the Celtics and his unceremonious departure, he couldn’t.
“It was very weird,’’ he said. “And then going to the other locker room. It’s been a long time since I’ve been on that side of the hallway, and again, it was an adjustment. The whole year’s been an adjustment being in Miami after being in Boston for so long.’’
Rondo was scratched just minutes before tip-off, and headed to New England Baptist Hospital for an MRI that showed a torn right ACL, meaning he is out for the season and perhaps part of the 2013-14 campaign.
As word spread throughout the arena about Rondo’s condition, the atmosphere in the Garden became surreal. Meanwhile, the Celtics were busy trying to unseat the No. 1 team in the Eastern Conference with one of their more spirited efforts in weeks.
“You know what I loved about the game, was I think in the first overtime and second overtime we were down, we got down, and had to come back. And that was nice,’’ Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. “And then we had a lead and gave it away. But I just loved that our guys stayed in there.’’