It feels a lot like 2008.
Heat guard Dwyane Wade missed a 3-pointer at the buzzer Sunday night that would have won Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals for Miami in overtime. The shot hit the back rim, then the front, before bouncing off. The miss provided the final margin of victory for the Celtics, 93-91.
“Red [Auerbach] wasn’t going to let that go in,” said Celtics coach Doc Rivers. “You know that. Not in the Boston Garden.”
It was in this building on May 18, 2008, that Paul Pierce got similar help from the legendary Celtics patriarch. It was Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, and the Celtics were up, 95-92, on the Cleveland Cavaliers with seven seconds remaining in the fourth quarter. Pierce stepped to the line, huffed, and threw up a free throw that hit the back of the rim, bounced impossibly high, and then fell through the net. Pierce credited divine intervention.
“The ghost of Red just looking over us,” Pierce said afterward. “I think he kind of tapped it in the right direction. It sort of put a smile on my face.”
Celtics fans have plenty to smile about Monday morning. Their team is even with the favored Heat, and they’ve outplayed Miami in three straight games. After being down, 2-0, it now seems like Rivers and his ever-changing adjustments have gotten to Miami. The Celtics have been counted out all season, and once again, they’re proving to their doubters that they’re not done yet.
There are similarities and differences — both eery — to that 2008 game. The Auerbach quotes are fitting because that Game 7 hinged on Pierce and LeBron James as well. Pierce scored 41 points in that game to 45 for James, bringing back memories of another famous shootout in the Eastern Conference semifinals: Larry Bird vs. Dominique Wilkins.
Pierce (23 points) and James (29 points) were less spectacular Sunday night, but they were once again the game’s biggest story. Both players fouled out in overtime, leaving each of their teams without its best offensive player for the final, crucial minutes. In that sense, the final minutes of Game 4 didn’t hold much resemblance to that Game 7 five years ago.
“We were really unorganized,” said Rivers. “In the overtime all we kept saying was, we’re in overtime. One bucket at a time.”
And keep the other team from making buckets. The Heat made just one of eight shots in overtime, including Wade’s miss on the potential game-winner. That’s where Auerbach may, or may not have, come into play. James also fouled out for the first time in his playoff career. If you’re looking for evidence of divine intervention, you should probably start there.
But the Celtics didn’t rely solely on magic. At the 9:46 mark of the third quarter, Pierce ended up in the first row of the crowd after attempting to block a layup by Mario Chalmers. With the play now going down to the other end, Kevin Garnett turned around and got Pierce, pulling him out of the stands with one hand. It was a gesture of “Ubuntu” similar to what the Celtics showed during their entire 2008 playoff run.
“Words can’t even describe the type of game it is,” said Pierce. “I mean it’s a funny game, you know, the way the ball bounces, the way things go.”
Once again, Marquis Daniels (14 minutes) and Keyon Dooling (10 points in 16 minutes) gave the Celtics big minutes in a playoff game. After getting nothing out of Daniels and very little out of Dooling for the playoffs until this point, Rivers seems to have found the magic touch.
“It’s kind of similar to ’08,” said Rajon Rondo, who had 15 points and 15 assists. “It’s not the superstars that get all the praise. Well, they do get all the praise, but the guys like the P.J. Brown’s, the [James] Posey’s. It’s similar to what we’re doing this year.”
And who would have thought that?