They'd just rattled off a 9-0 run in crunch time in their biggest game of the season, a home showdown with the NBA-best San Antonio Spurs, seizing control of the game with under a minute to play, and then disaster struck.
First, Manu Ginobili drained a three-pointer from the top of the key with 50 seconds to play, instantaneously cutting the Celtics' lead from nine to six at 105-99. Then, a Tony Parker steal led to a quick fast-break bucket for the Spurs, and the lead was four. Then, a Ginobili steal led to two Richard Jefferson free throws — the C's were up two. Then two missed free throws later, the Spurs had the ball with a chance to tie the game or even win it. In the blink of an eye, the ballgame had gone from "in the bag" to "up for grabs."
So what was going through the Celtics' minds?
"Nothing," Rajon Rondo said with a shrug. "Just keep your composure. I didn't panic or anything. I just told guys to be strong with the ball, and let's just close it out."
It might sound too simple, but it worked. The Celtics did what a seasoned veteran team should do — they made the big play when they needed it, and they finished off a showcase win.
Ginobili squared up from beyond the 3-point line, Paul Pierce closed in, and the captain came up with a game-winning block to seal the deal. Rondo recovered the loose ball for his 10th rebound, polishing off his sixth career triple-double — 12 points, 10 boards and 22 assists.
In the most catastrophic minute of their season, the Celtics prevailed.
"We had so many things go wrong in a row," coach Doc Rivers said. "I just thought it was part of that process, honestly. But it’s great to get the win even though, you know, we did it in an unconventional way."
The game was close for most of the way, as you'd expect between the league's two elite teams. The Celtics started off strong, taking a 14-7 lead early on a flurry of jumpers from Ray Allen. The Spurs pulled ahead later, leading by as much as five before halftime. It wasn't until the final minutes that the C's began to pull away — the Celtics were tied 96-96 with three minutes left, but then led by nine with 56 seconds to play.
"You knew it was going to going to be a nip-tuck game pretty much all night," Pierce said. "It was hard to pull away from them until down the stretch, when we put together a nice little defensive run. But then we do that, and they come right back. You've got two heavyweights battling, and it was fun for me to be a part of. I'm just glad that we won."
The Celtics won this game without Kevin Garnett, and they won it despite the chip on the Spurs' shoulder from a shocking loss in New York the previous night. It wasn't easy, and it was in doubt right up to the final buzzer, but the Celtics eventually emerged with a win that says a lot about their character.
"It was a definitely a great test for us," Allen said. "We've been playing a lot of teams outside of our division, and I don't think we've played great for four quarters in a lot of games, but we've managed to win games. But tonight I thought we played a solid four quarters. We had some bumps along the way — coming down in the fourth quarter, we tried to give the game away by turning the ball over and not executing down the stretch. But for the most part, we did the job, and we can always use this as a measuring stick."
Measure this — the C's are now 27-7 on the season, just a game and a half removed from the game's best record. They've now won three straight games, and the mighty Spurs have lost two on successive nights. The Celtics might have stammered a little bit, but ultimately, they made a big statement.
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