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2012 NBA Playoffs Eastern Conference Finals Preview: Celtics vs. Heat Game 3

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The scariest part of the Celtics loss to the Miami Heat on Wednesday in the second game of their Eastern Conference Final wasn’t that the Celts blew a 15-point lead or that Paul Pierce fouled out for the second time in three games. It was how well the Celtics played.

Rajon Rondo may never have had a better game in his six-year career. He probably isn’t going to have a better one in this postseason – or any postseason, for that matter. He scored 44 points, shot the ball well from the perimeter and singlehandedly willed the Celtics to the brink of victory.

But they lost. And that’s the problem.

The Celtics can’t really play a hell of a lot better than that. Sure, you can point to a few things – Brandon Bass could contribute more than eight points, Mickael Pietrus could contribute more than three and Keyon Dooling could contribute something other then six fouls in 15 ineffective minutes. Pierce could not foul out.

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Realistically, though, they played pretty damn well. Rondo had the 44, Ray Allen (without his legs under him) had 13 points on 5-of-11 shooting, and he hit a huge three toward the end of regulation despite only being able to jump as high as Erik Spoelstra. Kevin Garnett didn’t shoot the ball great, but he still had 18 points and eight boards. Rondo, Garnett and Pierce combined for 85 points. As a team, the Celtics turned the ball over only eight times.

And they lost.

Then look at the other side, the way the Heat played. LeBron James was 7-of-20 from the floor. The team shot only 66-percent from the line, including an 18-for-24 performance from LeBron and 7-of-11 for Dwyane Wade. They both missed free throws at crucial points in the game.

They played a terrible first half in which Mario Chalmers was their leading scorer.

And they won.

This whole series isn’t quite as simple as I’m making it, but it’s close. The Heat didn’t play their best game, and they won. The Celtics played about as well as they can at this stage, and they lost. In Game 1, nobody walked away saying, “Man, the Heat took the Celtics’ best shot and still managed to come away with the win.” Nope, people thought that Boston played like crap. I didn’t want to rush to conclusions as to how the rest of the series was going to play out, because  I didn’t think that game was indicative of how well the Celtics were going to play going forward.

As it turns out, I was right. That game wasn’t indicative at all of the Celtics. If their team from Game 1 played aginast their team from Game 2, the Game 2 team would win by 20 points.

The Miami Heat beat the Game 2 team by four. They did take the Celtics best shot and still managed to come away with the win.

Over this stretch of success, the Pierce, Garnett, Allen and Rondo era, the Celtics have made a living by fighting back. Whenever they got down by a game, they rebounded with an all-out ballsy performance in the next one. That’s why they almost never seemed to lose two games in a row in the postseason. They certainly never did in the 2008 playoffs, the year they won it all, and the following year the only time they lost two in a row was to the Magic, the team that knocked them out.

In 2010, they lost two games in a row to the Magic after leading the series 3-0, but that doesn’t really count. They were never going to blow a 3-0 series lead. But in the Finals that year, they lost two games in a row to the Lakers, and lost the series.

Last season, the Celtics didn’t lose two in a row to the Knicks in the first round, but they lost the first two to the Heat in the second round and ended up losing the series.

What exactly am I getting at here? Well, historically, teams that have handled the Celtics bounce-back game, their “let’s show them who we really are” game, have gone on to win the series. The Celtics have never once backed down in that game after a loss, and more often than not, they’ve played their best game of the series. And they’ve won.

On Wednesday, they played what may go down as their best game of the series. They bounced back. They refused to lose. Rondo played 52 minutes, 63-year-old Garnett played 45 minutes, Allen and Pierce each played 43. The Celtics did everything they possibly could do to win the game and get back in the series. It just didn’t happen.

Now, there are other factors. If the Celtics win Game 3, everyone – including me – will have them squarely back in the series. They’ll be playing at home for the first time this series, which not only means they’ll have their own fans, but it also means that LeBron won’t nearly attempt more free throws than the entire Celtics game.

Because the reffing has been comically bad and has overwhelmingly favored the Heat, people are using that as a reason for optimism. The reffing will get better, so therefore a close game that the Heat won (Game 2) will become a Celtics victory.

That’s true. If the refs had been decent, the Celtics probably would have won Wednesday, and if the refs are decent on Friday, and the Celtics and Heat both repeat their performances from Wednesday, the Celtics will probably win that game.

Yet, then it gets tricky, the phrase if the “Celtics and Heat both repeat their performance from Wednesday.” The Celtics expended so much energy, and had to be so mentally taxed after losing a game they absolutely felt they should win, that it’s so hard to imagine them coming out and playing that well again. It won’t be for a lack of effort (I promise you that), but it might not be physically possible, and more than that, it might not be mentally possible.

Losing on Wednesday, after the effort they showed, was about as large a letdown as you can have besides blowing a 10-point lead in the last minute or something. Even with vastly improved reffing (we hope), will there be enough left in the tank for the Celtics to actually take advantage of the calls that go in their favor?

So here’s the general approach I’m taking going forward: I’m not giving up on the Boston Celtics just yet. I have no doubt that they will play as hard as they possibly can. If Game 2 showed us anything – besides the greatness of Rondo – it showed us that the Celtics aren’t going to roll over. They are as tough as it comes, no matter what Wally Szczerbiak says. They will fight tooth and nail to try to win Game 3, and they’ll do the same in Game 4, regardless of Game 3′s outcome. I hope they win, and I hope they prove me wrong. They’ve already done more than I expected this season, and they’ve proved me wrong a number of times.

The Heat aren’t going away, though, at least I don’t think they are. And the Heat aren’t going to struggle as much as they did for stretches on Wednesday.  I mean, maybe they’ll wilt in Boston when the pressure gets a little higher, or maybe Rondo will actually repeat his performance and go for the best two-game stretch of any player in NBA playoff history. It’s just kind of a hard sell.

Here’s a good way to look at it – losing Game 2 on Wednesday was like proposing to a woman, and her saying, “No, not right now. Maybe down the road, but I’m not ready.” In other words, the possibility is still there - theoretically - but barring some major turn of events, it’s not happening.

Well, the Celtics proposed to the Heat on Wednesday. The Heat said “No, not right now.” Much like a guy proposing to a girlfriend, the Celtics did everything right, got all their ducks in a row and presented the best package they can over. They even bought the biggest, most expensive ring out there – Rondo’s 44 point performance.

And it wasn’t good enough.

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