MIAMI -- Was this the end, or a beginning? Will the Celtics be too exhausted to go on, or will they be heartened to build on the gains made here? Will the Celtics be discouraged by the discrepancies of officiating, or will their anger inspire them to defend their home court in Games 3 and 4?
This was a night when Rajon Rondo dominated while playing to a style that no other NBA point guard can manage. He had 44 points (16 of 24 from the field), 10 assists (to three turnovers) and eight rebounds while playing every moment of regulation and overtime. And yet his Celtics lost Game 2 of the Eastern finals 115-111, and afterward Boston president Danny Ainge had it out with NBA VP of refereeing operations Joe Borgia in the hallway outside the officials' locker room. Boston was whistled for almost twice as many fouls as Miami (33-18) and three Celtics were disqualified, including Paul Pierce, whose absence was crucial to Miami's seizure of a 2-0 series lead Wednesday.
"LeBron James took 24 free throws and our team took 29,'' said Boston coach Doc Rivers. "Paul Pierce fouled out of a game where he was attacking the basket. I guarantee you right now they're distracted, our team, in the locker room. But we have to get it out of us and move on. Whatever happens happened, and we're just going to move on and play the next game.''
There were three sides to the story of this terrific night. There was the resilience of the Heat, who showed the kind of patience they were lacking throughout last season. When Rondo held court for most of the evening, the Heat were lurking with confidence and faith in their ability to survive. They kept the deficit manageable until Dwyane Wade could overcome an 0-for-5 start to generate all but two of his 23 points in the second half and overtime.
There was the renewal of the Celtics, who overcame a dreadful Game 1 loss to control the majority of the 53 minutes via Rondo. But their bench was outscored 25-7 while the Heat generated terrific production from Mario Chalmers (22 points and six assists) and backup big man Udonis Haslem (13 points and 11 rebounds). Rivers often refers to Boston's shrinking margin of error and here was the worst kind of example -- the Celtics were controlling the pace and the boards, and in previous meetings that kind of performance would have earned them a lead in the neighborhood of 20 points. This time, however, all of their best efforts were undone by a strong James and Wade third quarter that turned a 53-46 advantage at halftime into an 84-77 deficit early in the fourth.
The third side was the officiating. Had the Heat been anything better than a clumsy 31-for-47 from the foul line, they would have won going away. Rondo was driving in for the go-ahead basket in OT when he was plainly raked across the forehead and spindled backward in midair by Wade. No foul. After the play went back the other way to be finished in transition by Haslem for a 107-105 Miami lead with 1:27 remaining, Rondo had to be restrained from going at referee Tom Washington. It was one of the many reasons why Ainge did his best impression of Red Auerbach while confronting Borgia after the loss.
"We all thought he got hit -- I'll say it,'' said Ray Allen. "He did, but what can you do about it?''
"That was a big swing for us,'' said Rondo. "I think we had the momentum. A lot of controversy out there. Just didn't go our way.''
The next time down, Wade used a screen by James to drive past Rondo before running in a three-point play while being knocked down by Garnett. Wade glared up at Garnett as he got back on his feet, and then he made the free throw to make it 110-105 with a minute left.
James didn't allow his team to lose. He was struggling to convert from the field at seven for 20, though he did nail successive threes in the third quarter that enabled Miami to keep treading water until Wade exploded back to normal. LeBron was at his best when he did what he was unwilling to do last season: He turned himself into a fullback and plowed into the line time after time, drawing free throws (18 of 24) that enabled him to finish with 34 points in addition to his routine 10 rebounds and seven assists. He missed a buzzer-beating jumper over Rondo that would have avoided the OT, but that will be easily forgiven.
The Celtics benefited from the momentary return to health of Ray Allen, who for this day was not restrained by his ongoing ankle injury while going five for 11 for 13 points. An 11-1 run had put the Celtics back on top when Allen missed a transition three that would have given them an eight-point lead with 3:13 remaining. But he would convert a three with 34.3 seconds to force OT and restore hope that he may yet help the Celtics make a series of it.
The disappointments for Boston were the 6-for-18 performance of Kevin Garnett, who was unable to exploit his size advantage in the post, and the DQ of Pierce (21 points in 43 minutes), who has now fouled out in two of his last three playoff games. When he left Game 7 against Philadelphia, Rondo was able to rescue the victory. But the undermanned Celtics are heavy underdogs in this round, and Pierce's absence with 47.7 seconds remaining in regulation was too much to overcome.
Can the Celtics get more of the same from Rondo? He showed his hand in the second minute when he pulled up transition to convert a midrange jumper. He was going to take whatever he could find, and he was shooting as confidently as when he was finishing off the 76ers. The Heat's failure to run their half-court offense or make open jump shots invited Rondo to lay his claim to the open floor. Whether at full speed or in second gear, he appeared to be in control and reading the defense like the best quarterbacks. When two defenders followed Rondo under the basket in transition he left the ball behind for Brandon Bass to finish a dunk alone, without interference, because by now they were obsessed with stopping Rondo.
"We feed off what he's doing,'' said Allen. Much as Oklahoma City may have been discouraged by its loss Game 2 loss at San Antonio despite exceptional play from the Thunder's three stars, this too will be a hard outcome for the Celtics. Even if they can forget about the officiating and the lost opportunities, there are still the practical matters of 53 minutes for Rondo, 45 for Garnett, 43 each for Allen and Pierce. This series will carry forth every other day, and the Celtics' bench isn't going to make it easy for the Big Four to find time to rest.