How much longer can the elderly Celtics hold on against a younger and healthier opponent from Miami that so badly wants to punish them? If the Celtics win Game 4 on Monday, they'll push this second-round series to 2-2 and create doubt that the Heat are championship-ready in their first year together. On the other hand, a solid Heat victory can all but doom Boston and put Miami on course for the NBA Finals.
"They played harder and more efficiently than us," Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said after watching the Celtics outscore his team 53-35 in the second half of Game 3 on Saturday. "They've earned that pedigree of the battles and the wars that they've been in the last four years, where we are trying to get to. We're trying to take down a champion, and it will be one of the toughest things we have to do collectively."
The fourth-quarter play of Rondo has established a standard and issued a challenge to Miami. How hungry are LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh to win at this stage of the season? No one was willing to do more than Rondo, who sustained a dislocated left elbow with 7:02 remaining in the third quarter, and yet returned to play the entire fourth and drive Boston as it pulled away for a 97-81 victory.
The Celtics might not have won without that injury. Although they held a 10-point lead when Rondo was helped off the floor and into the locker room, they were nonetheless playing on Miami's terms: They looked like an old team trying to fend off the laws of nature, with the understanding that their lead wasn't large enough to withstand the kind of comeback that Miami had made in each of its three previous losses to Boston this season.
When Rondo was injured in his unfortunate tangle with Wade, the terms of the game changed. The Celtics became angry. They didn't like the way Rondo had been hurt, and they weren't going to lose because of it. When Rondo returned, that anger was channeled ever more narrowly into Boston's best run of play in almost two months.
A big question entering Game 4 is whether Spoelstra will change his starting lineup by promoting Joel Anthony to starting center in place of Zydrunas Ilgauskas. Anthony holds a plus-96 points impact during the playoffs -- the best of any player this postseason -- and his defensive production in the paint and on the boards could help Miami to not only avoid the bad starts but also to potentially seize control of the game early. Spoelstra acknowledged he is considering a lineup change.
Miami will also be hoping for a bounce-back performance from Bosh, who was suffering from a pinched nerve in his neck that limited him (along with Kevin Garnett's defense) to six points and five rebounds in 30 minutes. Bosh draws a lot of criticism from those who believe he has no business being praised as an equal to James and Wade. But on the whole, he is one of the most productive big men in the league, and the Heat would have no championship hopes without his presence. Not only is this his first appearance in the second round of the playoffs, but he also has never experienced a series as frenzied as this one. It will be no surprise if Miami goes to him early in Game 4 in order to establish him, because he'll be needed.
Bosh's importance grew because of the Game 3 performance of Garnett, who finished with 28 points and 18 rebounds in 38 minutes while playing the entire third quarter, which is rare for him. Garnett promised to continue to play as aggressively for the remainder of the playoffs, but can he maintain that level? The Celtics need it, given the disappointing playoff performances of sixth man Glen Davis.
The bottom line for Miami will be James and Wade, who will be seeking to play their best in the same game -- which is something the Celtics haven't seen. If both are attacking the basket and feeding off each other, then it's difficult to imagine another Celtics win. But it may just be true that Wade and James aren't ready, in their first year together, to produce that kind of dual performance against a galvanized defense like Boston's.
The Celtics, meanwhile, will be waiting to see what Rondo can give them. He admitted that adrenaline carried him through the fourth quarter of Game 3, but his injury will undoubtedly limit him and Boston's offense in Game 4. It'll be interesting to see if Miami gets physical with him in an attempt to limit his penetration, but Rondo's already accomplished more than most players would have after his injury, so don't be shocked if he pulls off another inspirational run Monday.