First, Paul Pierce exited with his sixth foul, followed less than three minutes later by LeBron James. The final 1 minute, 51 seconds of Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals was played without either team's leader on the floor, and despite the hisses from the TD Garden crowd, the Celtics' 93-91 victory enabled them to get philosophical about the situation.
"It was like chess," Ray Allen said. "They took our queen. We took their queen."
Pierce, who fouled out for the third time in five games, and James were not the only players who dealt with foul trouble. Every starter finished with at least three personal fouls, while Mario Chalmers, Brandon Bass and Mickael Pietrus survived disqualification with five fouls each. The only thing that lessened the bite of fouling out for Pierce was seeing James follow him to the sideline.
"It was very frustrating," Pierce said. "But it's gratifying when you see the other star player fouling out also."
Gratification came easily with the victory, but for the fourth time in as many games this series the Celtics sounded less than thrilled with the officiating. Unlike in the first two games, when the Celtics seemed to feel the officiating was uneven, both teams seemed unhappy with the consistency of the officiating in Game 4.
Inconsistent officiating is the hardest type for a player to deal with, because adjustments are nearly impossible. If a foul in the first quarter is no longer a foul in the third quarter, foul trouble is inevitable for players who are constantly shifting with the rhythm of the game.
"It is, but you have to put the refs in a position to make some calls," Kevin Garnett said. "Doc stressed to us to stay aggressive. At times it is difficult to decipher, but you can't let it [affect] your aggression, especially during a run."
The officiating created issues for the coaches as well, although neither would specifically attest to it. Celtics coach Doc Rivers expressed satisfaction with the win and Heat coach Erik Spoelstra noted that there was no "textbook" for keeping star players out of foul trouble.
What both coaches and everyone else watching the game recognized, though, was that the game's crucial possessions in overtime did not include two of the best players to lace up sneakers in this series.
"That's a shame," Spoelstra said. "You hope that both teams have their guys and may the best team win."
The Celtics were the best, if incomplete, team on Sunday.