Once again on Monday night, the Celtics found themselves in position to get a pivotal win against an overwhelmingly talented Miami Heat team in the final minutes. But once again, the C's are left reflecting on bad breaks and missed opportunities rather than celebrating a life-saving victory.
The C's have fallen behind 3-1 in this Eastern Conference semifinal series for the same reason that they fell behind 2-0 six days earlier — they simply ran out of gas. Winning playoff games takes more than a mere 40-something minutes of resolve. It requires the full 48, or occasionally, as it did Monday night, 53. This team doesn't have that in them.
This time, they were tied with the Miami Heat 84-84 with exactly two minutes left to play, and then again, 86-86, heading into the final possession. But a broken play in the final seconds of regulation, an offensive drought in overtime, and a back-breaking jump shot from Dwyane Wade spelled the Celtics' doom.
It wasn't the first time in this series that the Celtics have come off as the older, weaker, less durable team in the final minutes. They'd better hope it's the last.
"It's frustrating because we've had so many opportunities," C's coach Doc Rivers said. "The fast breaks, the missed layups, the open shots. And then not to execute that play at the end. It doesn't mean we win. We should have gotten a better shot, but there's no guarantee that you make the shot or not. But those things are disappointing."
A lot of things went right for the Celtics in Game 4, a virtual must-win played in front of 18,624 home fans. The C's got a heroic performance from Paul Pierce — 27 points, eight rebounds and three assists — plus a couple of big shots from Ray Allen and inspired play off the bench from Delonte West and Jeff Green, two once-maligned reserves finding redemption on the playoff stage. But with another painful loss to the Heat that pushes them to the brink of elimination, the Celtics are sadly fixated more on all that went wrong.
Glen Davis gave the C's nothing off the bench — again. Shaquille O'Neal's return became a non-story as the aging center hardly played. Kevin Garnett shot 1-of-10.
With less than 10 seconds to play in regulation, the Celtics attempted to run a pick-and-roll play with Pierce and Garnett, but Garnett's pick never came and Pierce was stranded to take a bad shot with the game on the line.
In overtime, Rivers was forced to remove Rajon Rondo, as the injured point guard wasn't getting the job done and the tough decision had to be made.
Put it all together, and you get a miserable effort from the Celtics at a critical juncture, and you may even get the final chapter of the four-year Big Three era in Boston.
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra was kind to a Celtics team that he's long respected, saying postgame that beating the Celtics from up 3-1 will be the hardest thing his team has ever had to do. The Celtics are left just praying there's any truth to that.
"I hope he's right," Rivers said. "In our minds, there's a lot of basketball to be played. It's going to be extremely hard, and if we're not up for that, then we'll lose. But if we are up for it, I think we can win three games. We have to play great basketball."
"These are the moments," said Ray Allen. "Whether you write papers, books, poems, quotes, whatever it is, these are those moments. I look forward to it. I think it's a challenge everyone on this team looks forward to. We know what we have to do. It's not going to get any easier, but that's what makes it that much more special if we can pull it off."
Here we are. The Celtics find themselves in unfamiliar territory, trailing a playoff series 3-1 for the first time in the Big Three era. They never thought they'd be here, but they are, and there's no turning back. They've got to find a way out of this.
"Right now, they're hurting, I'm sure," Rivers said. "Let them hurt. We'll rebuild tomorrow."