2012 NBA Playoffs: The Celtics Rise, the Heat Fall and the Beat Goes on
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Well, that was some classic, ultra-pivotal Game 5, huh? That said, expecting greatness from the fifth game of a tied conference finals is a pretty easy call.
Far less of a sure thing going into last night's tussle in South Beach was knowing which way that greatness was going to swing.
Would the Heat, buoyed by the return of Chris Bosh, lock in on both sides of the floor, hit their free throws and successfully defend their home court? Or would the Celtics steal one in Miami, led by the continued brilliance of Rajon Rondo and the poise and presence of their veterans?
We all know what happened. Now the series shifts back to Boston, where the Celtics will get the first of their two shots to send the Heat packing and earn a third Finals trip in the fifth season of the Big Three era.
The Celtics are the ones who escaped Miami with the 3-2 series lead, but it wouldn't have stunned me to see the Heat hang a blowout on the Celtics behind say, twin 30+ point efforts from LeBron James and Dwyane Wade.
These same Celtics struggled on the road against lesser opponents earlier this postseason. They dropped the first two games on this series, bringing their road record in the playoffs to 2-6 entering last night.
Never mind the cliche charges of age, injury, or fatigue, the Celtics had plain old sucked in some big moments on the road these playoffs, looking quite far from being a team with the potential to earn a Finals berth, let alone have the ability to compete to that end. A stinker of a Game 6 from the C's wouldn't have been the strangest thing in the world, even for all of the glee and momentum from their big pair of wins in Boston last weekend.
The Heat and, in particular, LeBron James, continue to fall short of the high standard set for both the team and the man after the summer of 2010. For the LBJ era Heat, the championship-or-bust edict continues to hang as a burdensome weight of inevitable shortcoming, rather than as a fueling propellant of grit and self-assured dominance.
For LeBron this must feel a lot like 2010 all over again, when Boston bounced Cleveland on their way to the NBA Finals. It was over his face and not-so-outstretched arms that Paul Pierce sank last night's dagger; an arcing three-pointer that gave Boston a four-point lead with 52 seconds left.
It was LeBron who had an uncontested lay-up with nine seconds left, but couldn't muster a basket in the final eight minutes of the game. James was in total control during the first half, but as locked in and as dominant as he looked in the first half he was as lost and hapless as he looked in the game's final minutes.
Wade did far better. Bosh played well... when he was the court. (Where was he in the fourth quarter?) James is the elite, excelling factor behind the team though. Wade cannot do it by himself and Bosh, one must surmise, is still too far short of 100 percent to be a game-changing force. So then we have LeBron once again wilting in the clutch and shrinking from the moment.
What has made this series' recent games such wonderful theater is that at any moment it would not have been strange for the tides to have turned and momentum to swing. The Celtics are indeed old and tired and hurt. That is except for Rondo, who's Achilles' heel is his volatile temperament.
The Heat, for all of the hate and all of their documented struggles in big moments, remain a team anchored by two of the game's best. And when everything clicks they are truly the best there is. It just hasn't been happening.
So the Celtics now have the Heat on the ropes. They're up in the series and heading home to a building where the Heat have struggled to win. They'll have two shots to punch their Finals tickets.
I'm wary, I'm guarded, I'm more than a little surprised and I'm sure as hell pinching myself, but I'm also feeling pretty damn hopeful.
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