Off the Mat: A Delayed Reaction to Celtics-Heat #3

Introduction: Return to Game Two

Dwyane Wade stood at the line, gazing flatly at the rim.  He pinned the ball against his hip with his left hand while his right hand, his shooting hand, dangled loosely at his side.  He bowed his head and bounced the ball into the floor three times.  He bent his knees, held, and then extended, a motion suggesting the compression and release of a well-worn spring.  Arms raised high above his head, he flipped his wrist forward, lofting the ball on a smooth arc toward the basket.  He stood as though posed for sculpture, frozen in place save a barely-perceptible bobbing from the toes, as he tracked the path of the shot.  The ball splashed through the net.  He de-rected himself and got back on defense.

There were 18 seconds left in Game Two of the Eastern Conference Finals.  Wade’s shot, the second in a set of free throws, had given the Miami Heat a 112-105 lead over the Boston Celtics.  Eighty seconds earlier, the game had been tied at 105 apiece.  In the intervening minute-plus, questionable officiating (a no-call on a slap to Rajon Rondo’s face; a Dwyane Wade pre-shot karate kick that went un-whistled in favor of Kevin Garnett’s subsequent hack) and sloppy play (a turnover, the air-ball of a rushed, contested corner three with 14 seconds left on the shot clock) had conspired to submarine the Celtics’ chances of resetting the series to zero before shipping it up to Boston.

Marquis Daniels inbounded the ball to Rajon Rondo in a forward pass that found the Celtics’ point guard just a step or so below the half-court line.  With chants of “Boston sucks” booming throughout the arena, he advanced to the perimeter in two short dribbles, pulled up, and unloaded a shot.

Rondo had played every second of the preceding 52:45, and had been the single most dominating player on the floor.  He had scored 38 points, collected eight rebounds and three steals, and dished out 10 assists.  He had made 14 of his 22 shots and 10 of his 12 free throw attempts.  Statistically, it would be the greatest game he had ever produced, resulting in a career-high John Hollinger Game Score of 41.0.

As impressive as the numbers were and as complete his control of his team had been, the actions that pushed Rondo’s game into the realm of the truly unforgettable came in the waning seconds, when victory was all but out of reach.

Rondo’s shot stuck through the net like a blade, putting three points on the board and closing the gap to four with 14 seconds left to play.  The Heat inbounded and quickly found LeBron James, who was promptly fouled by Daniels.  James sank both of his free throws to increase Miami’s lead to six.

Once again, Daniels inbounded to Rondo, who drove forward to the arc.  He pulled to a halt and up-faked, hoping to bait James into a leap at a shot block, which would give him an outside chance at a four-point play; a shot into contact that would result in an and-one if it went down.  LeBron stayed on his feet, stepping toward Rondo to bother the possibility of a shot attempt, then sliding along his body to stay away from the foul.

Rondo pivoted away from James and swung the ball to a trailing Daniels.  Marquis immediately sent it back to Rajon, who now stood a good three feet beyond the arc.  He rose into the air and fired over the outstretched arm of LeBron James.  The ball seemed to sneer profanely as it went down, ripping the net with a defiant “f*** you” as it cut Miami’s lead to three with just under four seconds left on the clock.

Fourteen seconds ago, the Celtics had been out of the game entirely.  There now existed the slimmest possibility that they could force a second overtime.  It wouldn’t come through.  Miami inbounded to Dwyane Wade, who was quickly fouled by Ray Allen.  Wade made one of his two free throws, needing only the one to ensure a victory.  Two seconds were left in the game, time enough for Allen to get off one last shot which would have only closed Miami’s lead to one had it connected.  The Celtics left the floor, their hopes of a return trip to the NBA Finals reduced to a dim flicker.

And yet…

With those two improbable threes, Rondo had sent a message to the Miami Heat.  No matter how long the odds, no matter how dim the flicker, no matter how banged-up or injury-depleted, the Celtics would not relent at any moment of this series.  Fans, writers and talk show hosts had demanded they be blown up, calling them too old to contend.  They would never transcend their creaky knees, not to mention their point guard’s mercurial nature and dazzling-but-flawed game.  Meanwhile, they had lost two players to heart surgery and their best perimeter defender’s shoulder had been dislocated into uselessness.  In spite of it all, here they stood.  A little over two months ago, people were talking about the Milwaukee Bucks knocking them out of the playoff picture entirely.  Here they stood.

Off the Mat

June 1, 2012
Eastern Conference Finals, Game 3:
Boston Celtics (1-2) vs. Miami Heat (2-1)

“The Celtics have too much pride, too much experience, to be demoralized.  Now, whether they have enough to win and enough energy to regenerate?  We’ll see.” –Jeff Van Gundy

 

We’ll see, indeed.  The Boston Celtics clambered back into the Eastern Conference Finals Friday night, beating the Heat by a score of 101-91.  Despite a scorching first half from LeBron James, in which he scored 20 of his team’s 42 points off 9-of-16 shooting, the Celtics carried a 13-point lead into the third quarter.  By the start of the fourth, they had extended that lead to 22.  Though Miami would make a spirited comeback over the game’s final 12 minutes, outscoring the Celtics 26 to 12 to pull themselves to within eight with two minutes plus left to play, the gap would prove unbridgeable.

The Celtics’ team performance was the most balanced of the series so far.  Rajon Rondo’s 21 points, 10 assists and 6 rebounds were supported by 23 points from Paul Pierce, who shot only 7-of-21 from the field but was a perfect 7-for-7 from the line.  Ray Allen chipped in 10 points and 5 rebounds, and has now collected five rebounds or more in seven of the 14 playoff games he’s played in, after having only nine such games out of 46 during the regular season.

While the charge was orchestrated by Rondo, it was truly led by Kevin Garnett, who put up 24 points and pulled down 11 rebounds.  Garnett keyed an assault on the rim that saw the Celtics score a season-high 58 points in the paint, which accounted for another season-high of 57.4 percent of their total points scored.  According to ESPN’s not-always-reliable shot chart information (HoopData hasn’t posted their much-preferred shot location data yet), 11 of Garnett’s 16 shot attempts came from within five feet of the hoop.  He made seven of those shots; two more than he had made from that distance in the previous two games combined.

Garnett also provided the game’s emotional touchstone which, if you’re reading this, you’ve undoubtedly seen several times by now.  With 8:58 left in the second quarter, Rondo lobbed a pass in to KG, who battled fiercely with Udonis Haslem for position beneath the hoop.  The pass bounced from Garnett’s fingertips to the backboard before falling into his hands.  The ball secured, he collected himself and then elevated for a shot.  As he went up, Haslem clamped his hands on to the ball and pulled down, slamming Garnett to the floor.

Garnett landed hard on his right elbow, howling at the rafters in pain on impact.  His teammates rushed to his aid, gathering in a circle around him.  Marquis Daniels leaned forward, offering to help him to his feet.  Keyon Dooling cut off the gesture, grasping Daniels at the wrist while laying his free hand out above Garnett, fingers splayed, palm down, as if to say, “give him a minute.”

Garnett lay still for a moment, breathing heavily.  Then he rolled on to his stomach, balled his hands into fists, and pumped out eight knuckle-ups as the crowd rained cheers upon him.

Before writing this, we hit the deck for some knuckle-ups to see how many we could do.  We got bored and stopped after 20.

The Marquis Daniels Chronicles

Rounding out the balanced attack was a surprisingly productive night from a Celtics bench that has been woefully unproductive since Avery Bradley was shut down, forcing Ray Allen back into the starting lineup.  From Game Three of the Conference Quarterfinals (Ray’s first playoff appearance) through Game Four of the Conference Semis (Avery’s last), the Celtics’ bench had averaged 20.9 points and 9.8 rebounds per game.  In the four games that followed, those numbers dropped off to 10.6 and 7.0.

On Friday, the bench put up their strongest performance since turning in 20 points and 9 rebounds in the Celtics’ 101-85 blowout win in Game Five of the Conference Semis.  Keyon Dooling and Marquis Daniels spearheaded the effort, playing active defense while combining for 16 of the B-squad’s 19 points and 9 of their 14 rebounds in 39 minutes of action.

Daniels’ performance was particularly surprising.  He had barely been used since a 22-minute run in Game Four of the Conference Quarters, a wall-to-wall blowout that allowed the C’s to limit their starters to an average of 26 minutes each.  He had gone on to play in eight of the next 11 games, scoring a total of four points in an average of 1.3 minutes per.

His number was called for the first time with 1:36 left in the first quarter.  As the two teams emerged from their timeout huddles, Celtics co-owner Stephen Pagliuca nudged Chris Rock and said, “you know who that is sitting behind us?  It’s Avery Bradley, star of The Avery Bradley Chronicles.”  In a moment of unassailable cool, Avery just gazed off into the distance, pretending like he didn’t know they were talking about him.

Daniels set up on the baseline just off the block as Mickael Pietrus inbounded the ball to Keyon Dooling.  From the corner opposite, Paul Pierce curled around a sort of half-screen from Kevin Garnett, pulling Shane Battier along behind him.  Dooling delivered the ball to Pierce just above the free throw line.

Off the pick, Joel Anthony had stepped away from Garnett to close off the driving lane.  This left Garnett wide open in one of his several sweet spots; 15 feet out above the baseline.  Mike Miller shaded toward Garnett to contest if need be, leaving Daniels wide open beneath the basket.  It was too easy; Pierce delivered a bullet to Marquis, who put it up off the glass for two.

Marquis would connect on two more layups that were very similar to this.  The next one came with just over seven minutes left in the third quarter and the Celtics leading 64-46.  Mario Chalmers had gamboled into the lane for an underhanded runner which bounced along the rim and out into Daniels’ hands.  Marquis quickly outletted to Rajon Rondo and then jogged up the sideline behind him.

Rondo advanced to a spot just inside the perimeter at the extended elbow, then pivoted away from his defender.  Daniels continued past Rondo into a curl along the baseline, where he found a veritable runway to the hoop.  Rondo sent him a bounce pass, which he took to the block to meet a frantic contest from Shane Battier.  Marquis up-faked Battier off his feet then hopped into the contact, banking the shot into the hole as he did so.  As the ball fell through, the four other Celtics on the floor pumped their fists in unison.

He even made the free throw.

The next layup came just over a minute later, as Rajon Rondo delivered arguably his most dazzling pass of the game.  Rondo walked up the sideline then broke hard to his right, catching Mario Chalmers against a Paul Pierce screen.  Curling around Shane Battier, he sprang forward into the paint.

Udonis Haslem stepped forward to bar his path.  Rondo elevated at the base of the free throw circle, back spun over his right shoulder, then slung a bounce pass across his body to a cutting Marquis, who caught it in stride and kissed it off the glass for another two.

The most rousing play of the evening began with 7:10 left in the second quarter.  With only five ticks remaining on the shot clock, Ray Allen stood with the ball in his hands, pinned to the sideline by Dwyane Wade.  Brandon Bass sprinted toward him and set a pick on Wade’s left arm, intending to spring Ray toward the corner.  The avenue was shut down by LeBron James, who had followed Bass to the ball.

Brandon released toward the top of the arc, pulling Wade with him.  At that moment, James had hopped into the air, arms raised, perhaps intending to preemptively take away a shot attempt.  The convergence of events created an opportunity for Ray; with Wade gone and LeBron in the air, he had a momentary line on the basket.

Allen drove hard to his right, sprinting along the baseline toward the basket.  As he did so, both James and Udonis Haslem dropped to the hoop and leapt in sync to challenge the shot.  Feeling the swat team upon him, Ray dropped his arm as he sailed underneath the basket, then pulled it up and flung the ball off the glass as he emerged on the other side.

The shot missed the rim entirely before falling to the frothing scrum below.  Both James Jones and Brandon Bass sprung for the rebound, punching it high into the air.  With one second left on the shot clock, it fell into the hands of Marquis Daniels, who quickly squared, hopped, and fired.  The ball left his hands just as the buzzer sounded, and splashed through the net as the whistle blew.  Marquis had been clipped in the head on the way up.  The shot had counted, and-one.  Unfortunately, he would go on to miss the free throw.

Did you ever see that dance that Marquis and Keyon do on the sidelines when the Celtics make a big play?  The one where they cock their arms at the elbows and pump them up and down like they’re signaling a flanking pair of 18-wheelers to honk their horns?  In the second-most adorable moment of the night, Keyon Dooling, who was on the court for the play, celebrated by busting the move out for his partner in crime.

In the first-most adorable moment of the night, this little curly-haired kid in the stands hugged his dad, whose unshakable machismo appeared to bar him from smiling in response to an embrace from another male, out of sheer joy.

On our way out, we leave you with one final note.  It’s been a while since we’ve seen it, what with the intensity of the playoffs and the banged-up knee and all, but midway through the third quarter we were reminded that Paul Pierce does indeed have the best smile in the business.

Game Four tips off on Sunday at 8:30 PM Eastern.  With a gem from Marquis in the books, we’ve got a feeling that Sasha Pavlovic’s turn is just around the corner.

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Tags: Boston Celtics Eastern Conference Finals Game 2 Game 3 Kevin Garnett Marquis Daniels Miami Heat NBA Playoffs Rajon Rondo

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