Ray Allen had missed a lot of free throws, by his standards, in these playoffs. When he toed the free throw line with 13 seconds left in the game Tuesday, there really should have been some doubt as to whether the veteran guard would convert and clinch the Celtics' victory.
Only there was no real doubt. Allen calmly drained both foul shots, just as he has throughout his career, as though he were not shooting 61 percent from the line in the playoffs or battling bone spurs in both ankles. With Allen's two free throws providing the capstone, the Celtics dismissed the Heat 94-90 in Game 5 to take a 3-2 lead in the Eastern Conference Finals.
They are now one game away from closing out the best-of-seven series, which heads back to Boston for Game 6 on Thursday, in one of the most improbable postseason runs in team history.
The Celtics are wary of looking too far forward, so allow us to look back. A month ago, Allen could not walk, leading to the emergence of Avery Bradley. Then Bradley suffered an injury to his shoulder that turned into an injury to both shoulders. This followed two players being lost for the season with heart conditions, starting center Jermaine O'Neal suffering a possibly career-ending injury, and Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce battling back from their own early-season maladies. All the while Rajon Rondo, their most important player, never seemed more than one outburst away from getting tossed from a game.
All that was forgotten when Pierce gathered the ball on the left wing with less than a minute left and Boston leading by a point on Tuesday. He faced up against LeBron James, took a few rocking dribbles and held the ball in his left hand for a beat, sizing up his defender. Seeing James on his heels the slightest bit, Pierce rose and released a shot millimeters above the outstretched fingers of the recovering James.
Bang. With a four-point lead in hand, the Celtics merely had to execute the rest of the way, and in crunch time few teams execute like the Celtics.
The Celtics had many heroes, as teams always do in close playoff victories like this one. They did not completely make up for a 16-point first quarter until the second half, when Mickael Pietrus and Keyon Dooling combined to finish the third quarter on a 5-0 run that gave Boston its first lead of the game.
"They jumped on us at the beginning of the game and we just told our guys, 'Hang in there,'" Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "'Just hang in there. Don't overreact. The longer we're in the game, the better we'll be.' It was really nice. I thought our execution down the stretch, defensively and offensively, the different lineups we had on the floor, the going back to man and zone with guys who hadn't been in those positions, I've got to say I asked a lot of our guys. Maybe it was too much, but they came through."
No one came through like Kevin Garnett, who had 26 points and 11 rebounds as he continued his fine postseason. His 10 points in the third quarter paced the Celtics until the bench came through with their late flurry that gave Boston the momentum heading into the final quarter.
Now the Celtics, who were not promised home-court advantage in any round when the playoffs began, can close out the series at home and earn their third NBA Finals berth in the last five years. In the storied history of the franchise, the Celtics have not made three or more finals appearances in a five-year span since 1964-69, when they won four of five.
That last team, the 1968-69 edition, had a few things in common with this year's crew. Bill Russell and Sam Jones were in the final seasons of their Hall of Fame careers, and Satch Sanders was finishing his final productive year as a fully healthy member of the rotation.
When a reporter approached Russell, the player/coach, in the locker room after Boston's Game 7 win in Los Angeles and asked him to describe his emotions, Russell sighed and rubbed a hand over his perspiring face. The greatest player in franchise history was speechless.
More than four decades later, the Celtics are again having the same effect on people.