Despite a 10-point lead, the season appeared to be over for the Celtics with 7:02 remaining in the third quarter of Saturday night’s Game 3 against the Heat.
Rajon Rondo lay motionless in the paint, clutching his left arm. Replays showed countless times by ABC would show what certainly appeared to be a broken arm, but the point guard was back on the end of the bench before the quarter was over.
Boston’s training staff popped Rondo’s dislocated elbow back into place, covered it with a huge compression bandage and cleared him to return to the game. He was back on the floor to start the fourth, albeit one-armed, much to the surprise of the TD Garden crowd.
“The first report was ‘dislocated – out,’ basically for good,” Celtics coach Doc Rivers said after the game. “Thirty seconds later, I was in the huddle and I saw Rondo walk by me, and it looked like he was going to play. Clearly, that got everyone excited. It was awesome to see him back out on the floor.”
The Celtics were thin at point guard, having deactivated Carlos Arroyo to make room for Shaquille O’Neal prior to the game. Delonte West filled in admirably for Rondo while his injury was being tended to and whenever the starter needed a breather.
After Miami opened up a 2-0 lead in the semifinal series, the story was supposed to be centered around O’Neal, whose presence in the paint was expected to shore up Boston’s defense while improving their ball movement and spacing.
Instead, Rondo stole the show with his miraculous return and a pair of old standbys, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, willed the Celtics to a much-needed victory.
After trailing by two points at the half, Boston held Miami to just 35 points in the second half, including 35.1% shooting (3-for-13 from downtown). In turn, the Celtics moved the basketball, allowing Pierce and Garnett to get into rhythms simultaneously.
<b>The Pierce and Garnett Show</b>
Pierce brought energy out of the game in both the first and third quarters, which just so happened to be the two best of the night for the Celtics. His stat line doesn’t reflect his emotional contribution, but the captain finished with 27 points (9-for-20 shooting), five rebounds and five assists.
Garnett, meanwhile, awoke from the nap he took in South Beach. He posted 28 points (13-for-20) and 18 rebounds, totals greater than his efforts in Games 1 and 2 combined (22 points on 11-for-29 shooting and 14 rebounds).
More importantly, he intimidated Chris Bosh, who was nonexistent on Saturday night (six points on six shots and just five rebounds in 30 minutes).
“We understand fully now how tough it is to take down a champion,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra admitted after the loss. “All this fuel, the last three days, that was going on, I was cringing. Because you know this is a proud group, and you knew they would have a response.”
Lost in the brilliance of Pierce and Garnett was the poor performance of LeBron James. In close to 43 minutes, he shot just 6-for-16 from the field and 3-of-7 from the foul line for a mere 15 points. His five blocks were a significant part of Miami’s early defensive intensity, but he also turned the ball over four times.
The perception that James always struggles against the Celtics is unfounded, but it’s clear that the Heat would have benefited from a stronger Game 3 performance.
He finished with four assists and wasn’t creative offensively. There were times when he seemed like a forgotten member of the team and I attribute that more to his seemingly lackadaisical play than anything else.
<b>The Magnitude of Rondo’s Return</b>
There is a ton of hyperbole thrown around in Boston when it comes to injuries at critical junctures, but the buzz surrounding Rondo’s return from a seemingly-major injury was absolutely legitimate.
It wasn’t one of Pierce’s trademark dashes to the locker room only to emerge unscathed and unaffected moments later. There were rumbles among the press that Rondo’s arm was broken -- and therefore his postseason over.
That Boston’s medical staff was able to pop his elbow back into place a) so quickly and b) so effectively, is nothing short of amazing.
“He showed he's a really tough young individual," Garnett said. “I don't know what he's going to be like when he's 35, but right now he's playing pretty well.”
After the game Rondo expressed optimism that the team’s trainers would have him ready for Monday night’s Game 4, but Rivers wasn’t nearly as optimistic.
<b>Neutralizing Joel Anthony</b>
Dwyane Wade had 14 points in the first half to lead all scorers, but Miami held a lead heading into the break because of Joel Anthony. In a little more than 18 minutes, he had 10 points and seven rebounds on 5-for-5 shooting. He grabbed four offensive boards, allowing for a series of easy put-backs.
There was a point in the first half when Anthony’s +/- was the second highest in the game and Miami was trailing by close to double digits. I think it’s safe to say there’s a chance he’ll start over Zydrunas Ilgauskas in Game 4.
“We’ll evaluate everything, A-to-Z,” Spoelstra said when asked about the team’s starting lineup going forward.
However, in the second half, with Pierce and Garnett picking up the intensity, Anthony was limited by Boston’s big men. He had just two points and zero offensive rebounds. He did finish the game tied with Mike Miller as a team-best +5.
<b>The Bench Shows Flashes</b>
In order for the Celtics to remain alive they had to get better production for their bench and that’s exactly what they got in Game 3.
In the first two games they got a combined 50 points from three players (Glen Davis, Jeff Green and West). The box score shows that the trio (plus the returning O’Neal) contributed just 19 points in the win, but the intangibles were evident.
Rivers praised Green effusively after the game despite his moderate scoring total (six points on three shots), noting his hustle and defensive intensity – something the Celtics have been looking for from Green all postseason.
West led the bench bridge with 11 points, all of which seemed to come at critical points in the game. He also contributed three assists and a single turnover in seven-plus minutes as Rondo was worked on in the third quarter.
Davis struggled to make an impact and O’Neal’s imprint was overstated by Rivers, but the wheels are in motion for the second unit. Boston can’t expect to get 55 points from Pierce and Garnett less than 48 hours after their Game 3 masterpiece, but they should get more from Ray Allen and Rondo (21 combined points on 7-for-18 shooting).