Their heads sank as they left the court, where they feel they left a win that so many felt they had no real shot at taking. The Celtics were close, so close Monday night, to a win so improbable that it would have been hard to gauge, much less believe was possible.
But this wasn’t horseshoes or hand grenades. It was basketball, in which the final tally only favors one. And for some time now, the favored team at the end is Miami, which entered TD Garden having won 22 straight, many by a comfortable margin.
However, the Heat’s seat atop the NBA’s throne was threatened for nearly 48 minutes, as Jeff Green and the Celtics put forth an effort that won’t soon be forgotten, one that surely will stick with the Heat if these teams meet in the playoffs.
Playing without Kevin Garnett, the Celtics played a defending champion powerhouse to the brink of a stunning loss.
It wasn’t to be, though, for as well as the Celtics played the role of David because they had no Garnett and no Rajon Rondo, the Heat still had Goliath in LeBron James, whose heroics offset a career-high 43 points by Green in a 105-103 win.
“We had to earn that one,’’ Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said. “No question about it.’’
The win extended Miami’s winning streak to 23 games, which is now the second-longest streak in NBA history, trailing only the 33 in a row won by the 1971-72 Lakers. It also snapped an 11-game home winning streak for the Celtics.
The player who cut the Celtics’ heart out was, of course James, who finished with 37 points, 12 assists, 7 rebounds and the shot to seal his team’s come-from-behind win.
With the score tied at 103 with 10.5 seconds left, James buried a 21-foot jumper from the right wing and a dagger into the Celtics, who led the game by as many as 17 points overall and by 13 in the fourth quarter.
“Like I said before the game, when we play Boston, it’s going to be close at the end,’’ said Dwyane Wade, who had 16 points, 7 rebounds, and 6 assists. “Somebody’s going to make a play at the end, either way, to win the game.’’
The Celtics had a chance on the other end with seven seconds left. Off an inbounds play, Paul Pierce rolled around a pick set by Jason Terry, caught a pass, and fired from the right corner.
Pierce has made so many of those late shots, but this was not one of them. The Heat were able to hang on, snapping a 10-game regular-season losing streak in Boston while also giving James his first regular-season win in Boston since he joined Miami.
“Credit them, they’ve won however many in a row,’’ Terry said. “I hope they lose the rest.’’
That sentiment was shared by the majority of the Celtics, who struggled to see past the fact that they lost, no matter that it was close and against Miami and without Rondo and Garnett, who sat out because of an illness and a left adductor strain.
“I believed that we were going to win the game before the game,’’ coach Doc Rivers said. “I thought we were going to win the game during the game. And I thought we should of won the game.’’
As Pierce and others have pointed out so often before, the Celtics’ margin for error is razor-thin. And against the Heat, the Celtics had far too many errors, specifically 21 turnovers that the Heat turned into 24 points.
“It’s always gonna come down to the little things,’’ said Pierce, who had 7 turnovers to go along with 17 points, 8 assists, and 8 rebounds, “and those things really add up at the end of the day when you have a 2-point loss.’’
Without Garnett patrolling the middle, Miami also scored 50 points in the paint.
But anything the Heat did was practically offset by one man: Green.
The forward was simply remarkable, making 14 of 21 shots, including 5 of 7 from 3-point range, in 40 minutes. By the third quarter, he had beaten his career high of 37 points, set in 2010 at New Jersey.
“Jeff was terrific,’’ Rivers said. “I thought he played well the entire night. He attacked. You know what I loved about Jeff, I thought the first two minutes of the game, three minutes of the game, he was struggling.
“He missed a free throw, missed a couple of shots. And you know the old Jeff may have gone away. He actually just kept going and kept going, and that’s all we talked about. And once he realized he had an advantage, he took advantage.’’
Green scored 26 points in the first half alone, including 11 in a row at one point. And he scored 8 consecutive points in the third quarter to give his team a 78-72 lead.
“You know, you can’t rely on a jump shot,’’ said Green, who also had seven rebounds and four blocks. “I know I missed a couple at the beginning of the game. That’s when I try to get to the free throw line, to try to get a rhythm, and I did.’’
Said Pierce: “When you have a guy that has it going like he did today, you wonder what he ate that morning or whatever he did that day, he needs to keep doing it, because it worked, obviously, tonight. It’s fun to watch, to be a part of that.’’
Though the loss stings, Rivers said he told his team before the game that this was its first “playoff’’ game, an important test with so many new players.
“And I was really looking forward to the game because I didn’t how a lot of guys were going to react,’’ he said. “Overall, besides not winning the game, we passed the test. But losing the game is what you’ll remember.’’
The Celtics played their best basketball of the season in stretches, then fell into lulls, losing their pace or, on too many occasions, possession of the ball. Their running style did seem to catch the Heat offguard.
“They brought a lot of speed to the game,’’ James said. “They’ve got a lot of it now, so we had to adjust to that, and once we adjusted to it for the most part, we were able to contain them a little bit.’’
Even without Garnett, whom Rivers expects to play Wednesday in New Orleans, the Celtics were still in it at the end, still within reach of snapping a 22-game winning streak on the five-year anniversary of when they snapped another, against Houston.
“It was a fantastic game,’’ Rivers said. “I just don’t like losing.’’