BOSTON -- To watch Miami in a game like this is to wonder about destiny. You think about all of the great players that preceded LeBron James, and of how you somehow knew that Larry Bird or Magic Johnson or Michael Jordan or Tim Duncan were going to have their way in the end. As the tension grows you find yourself expecting James to force his way into their world, and to have his way as the great ones inevitably do.
And then he fouls out, leaving the floor to Rajon Rondo.
This entire game was the equivalent of one long, excruciating 53-minute Rondo ball-fake on his way to the basket. It began with a burst, followed by an extended lull of misdirection that surely gave James the impression that this evening was his to take; and then he watched from the bench as Rondo pulled back control at the very end for a 93-91 win in overtime that evened the Eastern Conference finals at 2-2 and assured the Celtics' overwrought fans that they'll see their beloved four stars together for at least one more night in Boston. And maybe for much more than that.
The injured and enervated Celtics have been the superior team for a majority of this series. They have shown far more resilience and grit than the favored Heat, who might have hoped that the Celtics were mortally discouraged after their Game 2 loss in OT that dropped them to 0-2. Now, two dramatic nights later, it is Miami that has to show it possesses the heart that Pat Riley demands of them after this loss that could have and should have left them one win away from a return to the NBA Finals.
The beginning of this game said as much about these two teams as the ending. "We weren't as committed as we can be," said Heat coach Erik Spoelstra of Boston's 21-6 start. In print his words read much more sarcastically than they sounded from his lips. All of Boston's starters had scored before either James or Wade had put a point on the scoreboard. The Heat went to a small lineup that pumped oil into their broken-down offense, but they couldn't stop the Celtics from their advantage up to 61-43 toward the end of the half. "Our execution in the first half was flawless," said Boston coach Doc Rivers.
The Heat helped them look good. When ESPN's Doris Burke asked Rondo at halftime what the Celtics were exploiting defensively, the Celtics' point guard answered with plain honesty: "Them complaining and crying to the referees in transition."
The favorites who ought to be running away with this series were whining, and the underdogs who have had every reason to surrender were running them off the floor.
But the lead was never big enough, because it was built on Rondo (15 points and 15 assists overall) in transition and a 6-for-8 start from the three-point line. The Celtics would keep hoisting threes and make no more than three of their remaining 19. They wouldn't establish Kevin Garnett (17 points, 14 rebounds) in the paint until overtime. Throughout the length of the third and fourth periods the Heat played as if they had fallen behind in order to create a more celebrated ending for themselves. In those quarters and overtime they would limit Boston to fewer points (32) than the Celtics had posted in the opening quarter (34). "Miami just got into us," said Rivers of the Heat's defense after halftime. "I thought they physically got into our airspace and took us out of everything."
Rondo, who had been flowing in transition, was no longer running. The Celtics' half-court offense consisted of Rondo post-ups until, with 3:35 remaining in the third, he was called for his fourth foul while trying to establish position against Heat rookie Norris Cole. As Rondo walked off the floor, the fans were too worried to boo the call. Who would help Boston protect its 69-60 lead?
It disappeared slowly and naturally as if by evaporation. Wade was overcoming another horrible start to convert a trio of jumpers that brought Miami within 73-68 entering the fourth. When Rondo returned he was no longer seeking to attack the basket, attempting only 3 shots in the fourth and OT.
Wade (20 points on 22 shots) stole a Garnett pass out of a double-team and James finished the fast break with a game-tying layup. When Cole drove in from the three-point line for another layup, Miami had its first lead at 76-74 in the 40th minute. The Celtics were looking exhausted, threatened by foul trouble and in debt despite all of their early gains.
In the opening minute of overtime, Paul Pierce (23 points) ran without the ball straight into the backside of Shane Battier, who hesitated in order to draw a sixth foul from the Celtics' captain. It was Pierce's third disqualification in the last five playoff games; Boston has won two of them, amazingly. In the first quarter, Pierce had been accidentally tackled and squashed under the full weight of 235-pound Udonis Haslem during a rebound under the basket, and later he would knock his sore left knee against Miami center Joel Anthony. On his way to the bench at the end of the first quarter, Pierce was limping stiffly enough for teammate Greg Stiemsma to ask about his condition. Pierce nodded that he was OK, but he would go on to shoot 4-of-11 the rest of the way.
When Pierce fouled out, Rondo turned to Garnett, point guard to center. "I told Kevin, 'It's time. We have to take the game over,'" said Rondo. "When your leading scorer goes out, you have to step up and make plays, and that's what we did as a team."
James was having problems of his own. He scored 29 points, but he needed 25 shots, he missed 4-of-8 free throws and he committed seven turnovers. His fouls were accumulating like water in a leaky boat. But he hit an uncontested three for an 89-89 tie with 37.5 seconds remaining in regulation, and then when Boston was seeking to reclaim the lead, James would hook his left arm under Garnett's right armpit and pull Garnett down on top of him. If a footballer for Liverpool (the team James owns in a minority role) had done such a thing the press in England would have decried it as a "cynical" foul, but in our country it goes down as ingenuity.
But then James was unable to create a game-winning shot for himself against a double-team before making a bad pass that left Haslem (12 points and 17 rebounds) with a near-impossible shot at the buzzer. The Heat were trailing 92-91 with 1:51 left in OT when James anxiously tried to back his way into post position without the ball and ran over Mickael Pietrus. It was James' sixth foul and he, like Pierce, was gone.
Wade would miss a game-winning three at the buzzer, which he needed after Rondo had revived himself to knock down a hesitant floater a few minutes earlier. He followed that by earning two free throws and sinking one of them with 21.4 seconds to go.
"We, in my opinion, have yet to play a good 48 minute game yet," said Rivers. "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 we can play better for sure."
It makes you wonder: who is meant to prevail? James can no longer be as confident as he was a few nights ago. Rondo is two wins away from shocking him yet again.