It was by far their most devastating loss of the season, yet the Boston Celtics were every bit the champions they had been in winning the 2008 title. They were pesky and courageous and they desperately attempted to defy defeat. They were outmatched and on the road and down to one player with enough gas and skill to make a difference, and yes, they were a little inconsistent, yet they forced overtime against last year’s NBA runner-up. They had an opportunity to fold early in the fourth quarter, when a seven-point halftime lead had reversed into a seven-point deficit and the Heat looked ready to sprint away, but instead the Celtics reached deep into their hearts and pulled out everything they still had left.
Ray Allen is persevering through bone spurs, 36-year old Kevin Garnett has been playing 37 minutes per game, Paul Pierce needed enough Icy Hot to loosen up his joints before Game 2 that it made ESPN reporter Brian Windhorst’s eyes water and Boston’s bench finished with just seven points, but the Celtics — and Rajon Rondo — kept on marching. They are essentially by now a three-man offensive team — Pierce, Rondo and Garnett — with Brandon Bass and, when his body allows it, Allen, capable of providing help on an inconsistent basis. Yet the Celtics latch onto games with the jaws of life and do everything in their power not to let them go. They are just enough past their primes where even competing against the league’s elite teams takes every last drip of fuel, but they are too proud not to exhaust all of their resources.
They rallied back from seven down with 11 minutes left and again from four back with a minute left to force overtime. Allen, who had struggled all postseason with his shot, played 43 minutes one day after he and the training staff discussed whether he should temporarily shut his body down, and he drilled a triple with 34 seconds left in regulation to force the extra session. Rondo finished with all of Boston’s 12 overtime points on his way to a career-high 44 points, to go along with 10 assists and eight rebounds, a stat line never before replicated by anyone in the NBA playoffs. He played 53 minutes in a game where those minutes were the equivalent of dog years, and he committed just three turnovers. The Heat defense was designed specifically to stop Rondo — they tried LeBron James defending him, and Dwyane Wade, and Mario Chalmers, and Rondo hit 16 of his 24 shots. They forced Rondo to hit jumpers and he drilled them. They finally closed the gap so he couldn’t shoot anymore and he jetted straight to the basket. He was historically good, magnificently good, good enough for Magic Johnson to call it the best performance he’s ever seen from a guard.
“It’s irrelevant,” Rondo, ever the winner, described of his performance after the game. But that’s not true, it can’t be true, because I still glow when discussing the time he returned to the court last season with a dislocated elbow although it ended with a five-game Boston defeat, just as I’ll glow one day after the pain subsides about the time the old, offensively-inept Celtics fought and fought and fought, and Rondo refused to lose, except not even he could out-race inevitability in Game 2. The loss seemed predestined. How could the Celtics beat the Heat with Mario Chalmers and Udonis Haslem playing so well, and Garnett finally falling back to earth, and Pierce outmatched against James, and Wade coming alive in the second half, and Boston’s bench so woeful, at least on the offensive end? Predestined, maybe, but the Celtics did everything in their power to turn away the winds of fate. They just couldn’t be as close to perfect for 48 minutes — and 53 last night — as they require to beat the Heat.
It’s irrelevant, Rondo said, and that’s Boston’s collective mindset. Unless it comes in a win it doesn’t matter, and if it comes in a win that’s all that matters. But we know differently. There’s losing because you earned it and there’s losing because your desperate grip could only hold on for so long. The former encourages a lack of respect. The latter stings, but once the pain fades away and we stop fretting about the game that might have given Miami all it needs to reach the NBA Finals for the second straight year, the memories should only make our love for these Celtics grow.
Irrelevant, my ass.