BOSTON -- The Celtics and Heat have spent the first three games of their Eastern finals exploring unpredictable ways that ended in the predictable results.
Rajon Rondo's 44-point, 10-assist performance in Game 2 was as unexpected as Dwyane Wade's failure to attempt a free throw in Game 3. Put it all together and the Heat lead 2-1 overall entering Game 4 here Sunday.
Game 4 becomes the game that matters. It seems as if the entire world expects Miami to survive this series in five or six games on its way to a repeat appearance in the NBA Finals. But if the tired Celtics are able to duplicate the efforts of their Game 3 victory, then they'll turn this round into a best-of-three event that no longer can be viewed as a likely win for Miami.
That's why the Heat were promising more toughness and aggression in this game than they showed in their loss Friday.
"They played like a more desperate team," said Miami coach Erik Spoelstra. "Even though it wasn't smooth all the way through, I think we played well enough to give ourselves a chance to win on that end. But defensively we were as poor as we've been all playoffs. We have to be much tougher in the effort areas, the big muscle areas, which we were in the first two games."
Indeed, Miami was physically dominant in its two wins at home. Its threat entering Game 4 was to prevent 6-foot-11 center Kevin Garnett from controlling the paint with his size after watching him go for 23 points and 11 rebounds in Game 3.
"He came in with an aggressive mindset," Spoelstra said. "They came in with a mentality to make sure he got some deep catches. So we have to meet him with force, play him with two people at times, but do things harder and better than what we did."
In other words, Garnett can expect to be bumped and bodied on his way into the paint as he seeks to establish early post position near the basket. In other situations, when he's setting screens for Rondo or for Paul Pierce, Garnett has been popping for jump shots less often in order to seek the inside presence that is crucial to the Celtics.
"It's easier to post him out of a pick-and-roll than it is just straight post," said Boston coach Doc Rivers. "Straight post they are fronting, and their weak side is so athletic with LeBron or Wade that it's difficult to try to throw a pass up in the air. But at the end of the day Kevin is still the biggest guy on the floor, the longest guy."
It has been weeks since the Celtics have held a full-strength practice based in running plays and honing their timing. Can they continue to execute under these extreme circumstances, or must their teamwork break down eventually?
"We're just too old," said Rivers. "We're tired and old and banged up. If I have a choice between the legs and the brains, I'm going to take the legs every single time. We need those. I don't know what I could accomplish by bringing them in here."
"We have to do whatever we need to do. It's not by choice. It's what we have, so we have no choice in the matter."
The Celtics will be hoping for another solid night from their bench, which in Game 3 was led by the surprising emergence of Marquis Daniels. The Heat, in turn, will be hoping for more from Wade. While James was both aggressive and productive in scoring 34 points in Game 3, Wade finished with a disappointing 18 points on 20 shots. His relevance will be judged in part by his production at the free throw line in Game 4: If he is drawing fouls from the Celtics then it will mean he is attacking alongside James.
"They are doubling me a lot," Wade said. "I have to find a way. We have to find a way as a team to open up the lanes a little more. But they do a great job of protecting the paint. They try to make you beat them from the outside. (They've) always been that way.
"It's no secret I'm getting doubled at the top, at the key, in the paint. So unless I shoot a turnaround jumpshot all the time, which is not a good shot for our team, we're going to have to find other ways to loosen things up.
I'm a patient person. So eventually things will hopefully loosen up, and I get my opportunities where I can attack and get into a rhythm a little bit more. You give them and Doc Rivers credit for coming up with the scheme. And now we have to do our job in making adjustments."
"He's been slowed down before, and he's come back pretty well," warned Rondo. "We want to try to stop that from happening. He's going to be aggressive. I'm sure he's going to try to attack and get to the line. I'm going to do the same. Regardless of who they've got on their side, we're going to try to do our thing that we do -- play team defense, shrink the floor and rebound the ball."