In the immortal words of Young Charles Bronson, “this ain’t ovah.”
The Miami Heat forced a Game 7 in the Eastern Conference Finals Thursday night, absolutely pummeling the Boston Celtics on their home floor by a score of 98-79.
LeBron James did the lion’s share of the pummeling, scoring 45 points while shooting 19-26 from the field (73.1 percent) and collecting 15 rebounds. His 11 teammates combined for 53 points, hitting 18 of their 50 shots (36.0 percent) while grabbing 29 rebounds.
Rajon Rondo led the Celtics’ response, scoring a team-high 21 points and dishing out 10 of Boston’s 14 assists. He also committed seven of their 13 turnovers. Kevin Garnett and Brandon Bass had 12 points each, while Ray Allen chipped in 10. Paul Pierce scored just nine points, misfiring on 14 of his 18 shot attempts while making only one trip to the free throw line.
Prior to the tip, Boston appeared to have Miami on the ropes, having won the series’ last three games, each in increasingly dramatic fashion. After pounding the Heat for 58 points in the paint in a 101-91 Game Three victory, the Celtics took Game Four’s 93-91 overtime thriller in the Garden before overcoming a 13-point second-quarter deficit to win Game Five’s 94-90 South Beach Slugfest.
James almost single-handedly assured that the series would be played to the max limit. In what will go down as one of the all-time dominating performances in a career filled with them, he scored 30 points in the first half, missing only two of his first 14 shots. He was as dynamic as ever, scoring off post-ups, put-backs, transition slams, and jump shots from all areas of the floor that frequently scored in the top portion of the degree of difficulty scale.
Though the Celtics were able to find the basket in the early going – they hit exactly one half of their shot attempts through the first 24 minutes – nine turnovers and an inability to connect from downtown kept them firmly beneath LeBron’s boot.
Three-point shooting was an underrepresented facet of Miami’s Game Two overtime win. The discussion around that one tended to center on the officiating, particularly on the 47-29 free throw attempt edge that the Heat enjoyed. Lost in the noise was the fact that Miami actually made only five more free throws (31) than the Celtics did (26). At the same time, they sank 10 three-pointers; the second most by a Celtics opponent this season.
In that game, the Celtics could muster only five three-point makes in response. The 15-point advantage that the Heat got from a hot night of shooting from deep had a much larger impact on the game than the advantage gained through frequent trips to the line. In the three games that followed – all Celtic wins – Boston outshot or neutralized Miami from downtown, making a total of 20 threes to their opponent’s 18.
On Thursday, Miami would shoot 7-16 from beyond the arc while Boston shot a mere 1-14. Paul Pierce “led” the way in this department, missing every one of his team-high six three-point attempts. It was the Celtics’ second-worst three-point shooting night of the season, ahead of only a pair of oh-fers in losses against Philadelphia in the regular season and Atlanta in Game One of the Conference Quarterfinals.
While six additional three-pointers from Boston – or six fewer from Miami – wouldn’t have won them the game, they certainly would have helped the Celtics hang around for much longer, impacting how the late minutes played out.
The Celtics trailed by 13 at the end of the first half, surely a bridgeable gap. Unfortunately, a 36-percent shooting performance in the third quarter held them back by the same deficit going into the fourth. Dwyane Wade helped LeBron close the game out by scoring eight of his 17 points in the final 12 minutes, keying a 15-3 run to kick off the start of the final period that put the game out of reach for good.
Unlike in the last three games, which saw significant offensive and defensive contributions from Marquis Daniels, Keyon Dooling, and Mickael Pietrus, the Celtics’ bench was a no-show. A review of the box score will show that they kicked 15 points in to the effort, but will fail to tell you that all but two of those came prior to the 6:18 mark in the fourth quarter, when a Ryan Hollins dunk cut Miami’s lead from a game-high 25 to 23. Shortly thereafter, Doc Rivers would empty his bench entirely, raising the white flag on a lost effort.
Game Seven tips off in Miami this Saturday at 8:30 PM. The Celtics have already come back from one seemingly inextricable hole. It was just over a week ago that they trailed 2-0 in the series, having lost first in humbling and then in heartbreaking fashion. To propel themselves to a Finals matchup with the Oklahoma City Thunder, they’ll have to overcome a different kind of loss: a humiliating one.