BOSTON — It was long after the conclusion of the Celtics' 106-95 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks in their regular-season finale on Wednesday night, and not a Celtic was stirring. They all had a game to watch.
The Bucks had just polished off their 46th win of the season at the TD Garden, matching the 46 of the Miami Heat on the final night of the season. And the Heat, with playoff position on the line and the basketball world holding its collective breath, had somehow managed to let the visiting Nets force double overtime at American Airlines Arena.
The Heat were vying for the right to play the Celtics. And the Celtics had a little bit of an interest, whether they were willing to admit it or not.
"I know the game is on," Ray Allen told the media at the start of the second overtime. "But at some point, we'll know who we're playing. I'm not worried about it."
And yet he couldn't take his eyes off the TV.
The whole team had at least one eye on the Heat. Allen was watching quietly, discretely, as he stood in front of his locker. Rajon Rondo sat in a desk chair in the center of the locker room, glued to the flat-screen TV at the front of the room. Nate Robinson was his usual animated self, jumping and dancing around with each big play. Rasheed Wallace, Glen Davis, Michael Finley and a few others milled around, patiently awaiting their fate.
In the end, Miami prevailed, opening the second overtime on a 7-0 run and holding on for the dramatic victory, 94-86. The Celtics could exhale. It was time to bring on Dwyane Wade and the Heat.
"It's more than Dwyane Wade," Rondo told the media after the dust had settled in Miami. "It's [Michael] Beasley, [Mario] Chalmers, Jermaine O’Neal. I think Wade has a good supporting cast. But the bulk of it is stopping Dwyane Wade. But I think if we don’t stop him, we can stop the other players."
The Heat are going to be a daunting first-round opponent for the Celtics. Regulation meltdown against the Nets notwithstanding, this is a Miami team that closed out the regular season by winning 12 of its last 13 games. They're hot as wildfire, and the Celtics are well aware.
Of course, Wade is king. He's been one of the three or four best players on the planet for years now, and he's a force to be reckoned with in big games. He's carried a team to a title before, and there's no doubt he wants to do it again. It's up to the Celtics to stop him.
"That's not Rondo's matchup — that's the whole team," Robinson said. "We've got to be prepared to play against their whole team, but definitely key on Dwyane because he's a phenomenal player. But you know, it's a team game. Dwyane Wade can't do it without his team, and Rondo can't do it without us. So we just have to be prepared to play together as a team."
The Celtics are ready. They may be heading into the postseason on a down note, with seven losses in their last 10 games, but it's now time to let the past be the past. The Celtics' goal down the stretch was to head into the playoffs with their health and their confidence intact. And that much, they've accomplished.
"I feel good," Rondo said. "And I feel good about my team. We got guys rest tonight, some of the older guys. So I'm excited, it’s a different atmosphere playoff time — different feeling, different vibe, everything."
The Celtics are out of time to make excuses. Playoff time is here — it's time to put up or shut up, as they say.
Come this weekend, the task at hand becomes stopping Wade and sending the Heat packing. The only question is how.
"I don’t have that answer," Rondo said. "Hopefully Doc does. I'll be ready for tomorrow."
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