A snapped six-game losing skid, seamless defensive rotations, and Paul Pierce’s triple double—17 points, 13 rebounds, 10 assists—only left Celtics fans with mixed emotions after a hallmark 100-98 win over the Miami Heat.
Team doctors announced Rajon Rondo, the enigmatically brilliant Celtics point guard and NBA assist leader, suffered a season-ending ACL injury. With nine new players on this season’s roster and a five-game cross country road trip after the All Star break, Boston’s hold on the Eastern Conference’s eighth playoff seed is tenuous.
Heat shooting guard Ray Allen returned to Boston on Sunday afternoon, where he played from 2007-2012 and won the 2008 championship. The all-time NBA leader in three point field goals made was greeted by pre-game boos, a diplomatic round of applause after a video tribute in the middle of the first quarter, and a subsequent stream of gruff clapping. His 21 points on 7 of 17 shooting and 5 rebounds in 38 minutes were a spark off the bench.
LeBron James was otherworldly against the aging Celtics. He dissected Boston’s zone defense with precise passes, attacked the rim with vigor, and guarded every position on the floor. His 34 points, 16 rebounds, 7 assists and 3 steals on Sunday were transcendent, echoing his 45 points, 15 rebounds and 5 assists performance to stave off elimination against the Celtics in Game 6 of the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals.
James hit a three point shot to tie the game with 7 seconds left in regulation and displayed great intensity throughout both overtime periods. In the first overtime, he drew Celtics defenders and made a perfectly-timed pass to Allen coming off a baseline screen. Later in that period, he drew a Boston double team trap and filtered the ball to forward Chris Bosh for an uncontested layup. His late-game heroics proved insufficient against a tightly-organized Celtics defense.
The Celtics defense switched between a 2-3 zone and man-to-man defense. Their fierce strong side pressure and passing lane disruptions forced 20 turnovers. Defensive rotations were crisp and Boston consistently pestered Miami combo guard Dwyane Wade at the perimeter. Wade, who had been averaging over 30 points in his past 3 games, was held to 17 on Sunday. Boston double teamed Wade in the waning seconds of the second overtime period, which led to a panicked pass to small forward Shane Battier and a missed off-balance three point field goal attempt.
Boston’s Kevin Garnett was the anchor of a stalwart interior defense: his masterfully-timed rotations and help defense prowess were instrumental factors in the team’s win. A smooth mid-range jump shot disorganized the Heat’s defensive spacing, as Garnett scored 24 and grabbed 11 rebounds.
Another bright spot for the Celtics was Paul Pierce’s offensive confidence, notably his willingness to take the game-winning shot in double overtime. Pierce is mired in one of the worst shooting slumps of his career, and was shooting below 35% from the field before his victory stroke. His 13 rebounds were all defensive, and it would serve Boston well if Pierce played off the perimeter and closer to the basket.
Controversy did not lack on Sunday. Miami’s Rashard Lewis tangled himself up with Boston rookie Jared Sullinger, wrapping his arms around the ball and behind Sullinger’s neck. The scuffle resulted in a technical foul for both players. In the second half, Celtics veteran Jason Terry pushed Miami’s Norris Cole into Ray Allen. Terry was likely irked by Miami targeting him in their pick and roll sets, as the former Dallas Maverick lacks the on-the-ball speed to maintain pace with the much younger Cole.
Boston’s signature win of the 2012-2013 season is bittersweet. Rondo’s hyperextended right knee injury was reclassified as a torn ACL midway through the game. The point guard was the motor of an aging Celtics core and his presence will be sorely missed as the team embarks on the second half of the season.