The Boston Celtics had tried so many ways to take Game 4 — including a first-half offensive explosion, a late fourth-quarter stand, fierce overtime defense and a slew of offensive rebounds in the extra session — that perhaps it was fitting their final hope was prayer.
Marquis Daniels, who had played just two minutes before the series moved to Boston, found himself switched onto Dwyane Wade in an isolation at the top of the key. Wade, as dangerous as ever, crossed over from his right to his left and up faked, lifting Daniels off his feet. The ensuing three-point attempt carried the potential to shut the door — on the Celtics’ hopes in the series, on their season, maybe on the Big Three era. Once it left Wade’s hands, Daniels could do nothing but turn toward the basket and watch as Spaulding decided his team’s fate.
“We can’t ask for a better look,” said Mario Chalmers.
“It looked good,” added LeBron James. ”It was straight on.”
“It was on line,” insisted Wade. “It just decided it didn’t want to go in.”
Doc Rivers thought it looked good. But, he explained, “Red wasn’t going to let that go in. You know that. Not in the Boston Garden.”
And so the Celtics survived. They scored just 12 points in the third quarter, 28 in the second half and four in the overtime, but they evened the Eastern Conference Finals at 2-2. They were essentially reduced to playing three-on-five offensively in the overtime after Paul Pierce fouled out, and their offensive strategy at that time seemed to be: throw the ball at the hoop and then scamper after the rebound. Yet the Celtics prevailed.
“No one said this was going to be easy,” Erik Spoelstra was left to mutter in his postgame press conference. But two games ago, wasn’t everyone saying that it was?
The Celtics were led in Game 4 as they often are by the wonderful wizard Rajon Rondo. He scored 15 points to go with 15 assists, and his pace in the first half allowed the Celtics to hit seven of 16 three-pointers on their way to a surprising 61-point outburst. Ray Allen hit three triples before halftime, Paul Pierce added two and Keyon Dooling had two more. Not all of Rondo’s passes led to perimeter looks. On one occasion he didn’t so much find a crease to hit Pierce as he created one, throwing a bounce pass on a dot into Pierce’s shooting hand for an and-one. If Rondo had live in Salem in the late-1600s, he would have been sentenced to death for such magic.
But Rivers knew Boston’s early start contained a bit of fool’s gold.
“We’re scoring like crazy and we’re executing, but I don’t like our shots,” he told his coaching staff at the half. The assistant coaches didn’t agree. “They looked at me like I was a moron because the way we were shooting the ball. But there were a lot of jumpshots.”
The Celtics had the 25th most-efficient offense in the NBA during the regular season, so it’s no surprise they couldn’t maintain their pace in the second half. Scoring just 32 points in the 29 minutes after intermission was jarring, but a regression to the mean was likely. Some of the lucky makes on which they capitalized during the first two quarters (think: Allen’s contested bomb or Pierce’s long and-one while leaning four feet forward) stopped falling and the Heat made some adjustments, specifically by applying more attention to Rondo in an attempt to keep him out of the lane.
“We were really unorganized, guys. I thought we were unorganized the whole second half,” Rivers said. ”I thought it was us at the beginning of the third quarter. I thought we came out and tried to throw knockout punches with quick threes, transition, never ran stuff. Our execution in the first half was flawless. It was as good as maybe we’ve had, and we got completely away from it. We really did.”
As Erik Spoelstra described, “The way we came out in the first half, we weren’t as committed as we can be. That’s the way you have to be against this team. You have to collectively be willing to get into the pit and get your hands dirty for however many minutes it may be. Often times it won’t be necessarily pretty. Both teams defend, both teams get after it and you have to find different ways to come out ahead. In the second half we got into the grind, into the fight.”
They got into the grind, into the fight, and the Heat even had two chances to seize the game, the series, to all but seal a second consecutive trip to the NBA Finals. But Udonis Haslem missed in regulation and Wade, with another good look for the win, couldn’t get Spaulding to cooperate.
And so the Celtics survived.
“We have a chance of winning this series,” said Pierce.
Added Rivers, “We, in my opinion, have yet to play a good 48-minute game yet. We still have that in us. We’ve played a couple of good quarters here and there, great half tonight, great overtime, but we’ve yet to put a 48-minute game together. I really believe that. And I really believe we can play better for sure.”