The Boston Celtics laid an egg in Game 6 of their Eastern Conference Finals matchup against the Miami Heat. There is no way around it. Yes, LeBron James went off for 45 points. Yes, he was making contested jump shots, something that you will absolutely live with if you are the Celtics.
However, Boston came out flat, uninspired and with very little sense of urgency.
The C's were very sloppy in their 98-79 loss to the Heat in Game 6, turning the ball over, trying to force the issue and not taking advantage of the opportunities Miami gave them to wriggle their way back into the game. Also, Paul Pierce put forth a complete dud of a performance, scoring only nine points off 4-of-18 shooting. I understand the knee is still bothering him, but 4-of-18? Come on, Truth. You're better than that.
There is a silver lining in all of this, though, for several reasons.
First of all, the Celtics get a mulligan. They were fortunate enough to be up 3-2 heading into Thursday night's loss, so they did not lose the series.
You wouldn't know that with the way the media has already essentially anointed the Heat as Eastern Conference champions.
Second of all, do you really think James can do that again? He is a great player, no question, but it is no secret that his biggest weakness in terms of his skill set is his lack of a jump shot. I highly, highly doubt he is going to knock down that many jumpers in Game 7, and I'm sure Doc Rivers and company would actually invite him to shoot that many again.
Finally, Boston played what was, without question, its worst game of the postseason in Game 6. The C's certainly laid some stinkers against the Atlanta Hawks and Philadelphia 76ers, but what happened last night tops all of those. Now, given how resilient this team has been in 2012, don't you think that the chances are that the Celtics are going to bounce back and play worlds better in Game 7?
All right. So now that I have (hopefully) relaxed some of you Boston fans who think the universe has come to an end, let me tell you what the Celtics can do to come out on top in what is a very winnable Game 7 in Miami.
1. Be patient
I'm speaking mainly to Rajon Rondo here. As incredible of a talent as he is, he still has a tendency to rush and force the issue at times, and that was on crystal clear display in Game 6.
In the first half, with the C's slowly chipping away at what was a 15-point Heat lead, Rondo tried to thread the needle on a couple of silly passes that you just do not make when you are trying to get back into a game. I can understand attempting to make those plays when you have a decent lead, but when you are down, especially to a team like the Heat, you just don't do that.
I'm sure Rivers had this discussion with Rondo after the game, and I'm sure "have patience" was the theme of said discussion. If Boston wants to win Game 7, Rondo has to control the tempo. He doesn't have to put up brilliant numbers, as seen in Game 5 when he went 3-of-15 from the floor and the Celtics still won. He just needs to be smart, make crisp, clean passes and manage the game.
2. Get off to a quick start
The last thing the C's need to do is fall into an early hole and allow the Miami crowd to get into the game—in other words, no falling behind by 12 like they did in the first quarter of Game 6.
Here is the kicker, though: sometimes, getting off to a hot start could prove to be very dangerous. The Celtics built a 15-point lead in the first half of Game 2 and blew it. They then led by 18 in the first half of Game 4, and the Heat forced overtime. Miami led by 13 in the first half of Game 5 and ended up losing.
Boston needs to keep its foot on the gas if it does get out to an early lead.
Basketball is a game of runs, so even if the C's are fortunate enough to build a 20-point lead in the first half (and I am not expecting that; I'm just saying it for the sake of argument), they cannot let up. Teams have a tendency to slow the offense down and fall in love with the jumper when they are on the right end of a lopsided score. That's fine when there are five minutes left in the fourth quarter, but it's not okay during the first 24 minutes.
The Celtics need to come out of the gates quickly and stay aggressive...not so aggressive where they are forcing things but aggressive in the sense that they are taking the ball to the basket and constantly moving the ball to create good shots.
3. This one is for Doc: only rest Kevin Garnett under appropriate circumstances
I know Rivers has a very set schedule for Garnett. When there are six minutes left in the first quarter, he pulls him to give him a breather. Well, Doc did that when Boston was trailing in the first period of Game 6, and it came back to bite him. As soon as he sat K.G., the Heat took off and never looked back.
My advice for Rivers is exactly as the title says. If the Celtics are down in the first quarter, he cannot take Garnett out of the game. The season is on the line here. The C's must win this game. Literally. If that means playing Garnett 45 minutes, then so be it. Regardless of what anyone says, he is Boston's most important player. I know the common theme among media and fans is that Rondo is the engine of this Celtic team, but that is 100-percent false. The C's go as far as K.G. takes them, and that couldn't be any clearer this series.
Well, in Game 2, Rondo scored 44, and the Celtics still lost. In Game 5, Rondo only scored seven off 3-of-15 shooting, but Garnett put up 26 points and 11 rebounds. The result? A Boston win. K.G. also had a pretty poor showing in Game 6, and even though Rondo scored 19 in the first half—surprise, surprise—the C's were blown out.
The offense absolutely has to run through Garnett throughout the course of Game 7, and for that to happen, he has to actually be on the floor.
Play him until the wheels fall off, Doc. You have nothing to lose at this point.
4. Defensive rotations have to be quicker
In all three of the Celtics' losses in this series, Boston has done a very poor job of rotating out on Miami's three-point shooters. This was painfully on display in Game 6, as the C's continued to leave players such as Shane Battier, Mario Chalmers and Mike Miller wide open behind the three-point line.
I understand that doubling James and Dwyane Wade is part of the Celtics' game plan, and it has certainly worked in this series. But when it has worked, Boston has had very quick rotations defensively. Brandon Bass cannot be giving Battier that much space. The same goes for Rondo on Chalmers.
The Heat rely heavily on the three ball. If you take that away from guys like Battier and Miller, there really isn't much else they can do offensively, and as a result, you are putting that much more pressure on James and Wade to go off.
5. Someone has to step up off the bench
In each of Boston's wins in this series, someone has provided a huge lift off the bench. In Game 3, it was Keyon Dooling draining three treys and Marquis Daniels scoring nine points while playing solid defense. In Games 4 and 5, it was Mickael Pietrus, drawing the sixth foul on James and coming up with two gigantic offensive boards on the same possession in Game 4 and nailing two enormous fourth quarter threes and scoring 13 in Game 5.
In Game 6, the bench didn't give Rivers much of anything. That has to change in Game 7, and I like the chances that it will.
Well, it is said that bench players always play better at home. While that is historically true (a la Glen Davis and Nate Robinson's famous "Shrek and Donkey" performance in Game 4 of the 2010 NBA Finals), look at the job that Pietrus did in Game 5 in Miami. Dooling also hit a big three at the end of the third quarter in that game.
So, Boston's reserves have already proven that they can do it on the road.
Someone will come in and spark the C's in Game 7. It might be Pietrus. It might be Dooling. It might be Daniels. Heck, it might be Greg Stiemsma (although that goes against my "play Garnett until his legs fall off" philosophy).
6. Pierce needs to be "The Truth"
Look, I understand we are not going to see a 40-point showing from Pierce in these playoffs. He is just not healthy enough. However, that does not mean that he is incapable of having a big game.
What Pierce did in Game 5 exemplified why he became known as "The Truth." That dagger of a three in the face of James is something we have become so accustomed to seeing Pierce do, and those are the types of things he needs to do in Game 7.
He doesn't need to score 30. He just needs to make big shots and hold down LeBron as much as he possibly can. I think the most we are going to see out of Pierce at this point in terms of scoring is somewhere in the neighborhood of 25, and you can sure as hell sign me up for that.
Pierce cannot, however, put forth another nine-point performance like he did in Game 6. Unless Garnett, Rondo and Ray Allen all drop 20+ and Bass and Pietrus score about 12-15 apiece, that is just not going to fly. He needs to give the Celtics something offensively on Saturday night.
7. Play with heart, will, and determination
If there is one thing on this list that is guaranteed to happen, it's No. 7. You can question Boston's offense. You can question the team's health. You can question Rondo's decision-making and Pietrus' wild inconsistency from three.
You can question almost anything about this Celtic team.
However, the one thing you absolutely, positively cannot call into question is its heart.
The 2012 Boston Celtics have greater intestinal fortitude than any team I have seen in recent memory. Just when you think they are done, they bounce back. They are like that vampire in the horror movie that just keeps coming back. You can drive a stake through its heart, but it will not kill him.
They lost Jeff Green at the start of the season to heart surgery. Then they lost Jermaine O'Neal to wrist surgery. Then they were 15-17 at the All-Star break. Then they heard rumblings that Danny Ainge was considering blowing the team up and starting over. Then they lost Chris Wilcox to heart surgery. Then Allen fell victim to a sprained ankle which eventually led to the bone spurs that still plague him today.
Then they lost Game 1 of their first-round series to the Hawks, and Rondo was suspended for Game 2. Then Pierce sprained his MCL after he tripped over someone in practice. Then they lost Avery Bradley to shoulder surgery in the series against the 76ers. Then they had to play a Game 7 against those Sixers. Then they fell behind 2-0 to this Heat team.
Is your head spinning yet? Because it should be.
Think about this: the Celtics managed to bounce back from all of those things, each and every one of them. I mean, how many teams do you know lose two players to heart surgery in the same season? How many teams lose four key players and have two starters playing hurt and manage to get to Game 7 of the conference finals?
Now, the C's will have to rebound one more time, and if you don't think they can do that after everything they've been through, then I don't know what to tell you.
Boston knows this is its last chance. That's it. There are no more reprieves. No more mulligans. No more opportunities.
This is the last one.
Also, don't you think the Celtics are now motivated by the way the remaining fans at TD Garden serenaded them for the final four minutes of Game 6? I'm always one that says you should not need any extra motivation at this point, but when your fans show they have your back when you are getting whacked by 19 in a game that could have sent you to the NBA Finals, you cannot help but be fueled by that.
It clearly moved the C's, as you saw a very emotional Garnett, Pierce and Allen on the bench.
The Boston Celtics will win Game 7.