Heat face toughest challenge to date: Putting away a champion
MIAMI -- Will the new replace the old? Will nature have its way?
This is what the Celtics are up against. Down 3-1 in their second-round series, they must somehow win Game 5 here Wednesday night to extend what may be their final run of contention together. They must quiet the support of the Heat's home audience, shut down a young Miami trio that combined for 83 points in its crucial Game 4 overtime win at Boston and, above all, they must believe that they remain capable of sweeping the final three games.
"In our minds, there's a lot of basketball to be played," Boston coach Doc Rivers said. "It's going to be extremely hard, and if we're not up for that, then we'll lose. But if we're up for that, I think we can win three games. But we have to play great basketball."
The Celtics will need to execute at their best. They've done it many times over the years, but injuries, age and Miami's tirelessness have recently conspired against them. Boston point guard Rajon Rondo was viewed universally as the key to his team's success, but he was unable to create to his triple-double standards in Game 4. In fact, it was amazing that he was able to play 38 minutes despite a dislocated left elbow. By overtime on Monday, however, Rivers had to replace Rondo in a desperate search for scoring.
But asking if Rondo can play better is asking too much of a player who, by the standards of almost anyone else, shouldn't be playing at all.
His missed layup was one of many. "I know that he's probably dealing with some type of pain, some type of infringement while he's running up and down the floor," Celtics guard Ray Allen said. "Anytime you have an injury like that, you're limited a little bit. I've seen him take a shot, he's feeling it as it goes up."
The Celtics have essentially taught the Heat how to prevail in this series. After years of being exploited individually with previous teams, and a half-season in which they lost their first three games to Boston, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh have watched the Celtics win the most important games by outsmarting, outworking and outlasting opponents.
Bosh applied the same dynamic at halftime of Game 4. Over the previous three halves he had gone 3-for-13, including a sorry Game 3 showing in which he was thoroughly outplayed by Kevin Garnett. But he responded with 15 points (on 6-of-9 shooting) and 10 rebounds during the second half and overtime, moving without the ball to finish a layup from James and to tip in a James jumper to help finish off the Celtics in OT.
"We're one more away from our short-term goal, and we just have to keep playing together and keep the defensive frame of mind that we did for the last three quarters," Bosh said. "Two things that I always try to do is try to be a presence on the offensive rebounds and get a good shot, and I think I accomplished that with that one."
Wade and James are both on the verge of overcoming years of trouble against Boston. Wade had averaged 12.8 points and 5.3 turnovers against the Celtics during the season; in this series he has assaulted them with a team-best 29.3 points (while shooting 48.7 percent) and 4.8 assists. He and James have been blending together better than ever, with one becoming more of a playmaker when the other is scoring. In Game 4, Wade led the Heat with four assists to complement his 28 points, while James led everyone with 35 points and an uncharacteristically low three assists.
Wade hit a huge three-pointer in OT, and on other nights it has been -- and will continue to be -- his job to finish wins for Miami. But in Game 4, it was James who made most of the big plays down the stretch.
"He had some really incredible 'will' plays there in the fourth quarter and overtime where it's not us helping him," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. "It's nothing that we can scheme [or] strategize. It's a competitive will with his talent. He's one of the most unique players I've ever been around in terms of how he can impact the game in so many different ways."
The Heat will continue to experience pressure, realizing that Rondo may feel better for Game 5, that Garnett has to play better and that Paul Pierce has been as good as ever over the previous two games.
"[Game 4] was one breakthrough," Spoelstra said. "What we're going to face on Wednesday will be our greatest challenge of this season. It will be the toughest thing we have to do up to this point is to put away a champion. We'll have to play our very best with our best effort probably to win by one."