Is this it? Are the Boston Celtics done? Will substance be taken over by self-aggrandizing? Southie outdone by South Beach?
Many seem to think so. The Celtics head back to Miami down three games to one in the Eastern Conference semifinals, to the arena in which they lost the first two games of the series. Coming off a game in which LeBron James reappeared as a dominant force (35 points, 14 rebounds) and Kevin Garnett barely appeared (1 for 10 from the field). A one-armed Rajon Rondo could only muster five assists, and Glenn "Big Baby" Davis could not find himself.
Paul Pierce's shot with James in his face clanged off the rim at the end of regulation, after the Celtics failed to execute the play drawn up by coach Doc Rivers. A play, according to Rivers, that the team had run hundreds of times. James may have had a little extra inspiration fueling his defense of Pierce in the final seconds, as it was his turnover that gave the Celtics the ball. Ray Allen, with his sweet three point stroke, was one of the more likely candidates to receive the pass that never materialized.
The Celtics led the Heat by 11 in the first half and by eight with 1:14 left in the third. The Celtics relinquished the lead with 6:14 left in the fourth, and it was a back and forth battle until the Celtics collapsed in overtime.
Boston has faded dramatically towards the end of games (with the exception of Game 3). In Game 1, the Celtics were never really in it. In Game 2, Boston kept it close until halfway through the fourth quarter when the Heat went on a 14-0 run. In overtime of Game 4, the Celtics had as many points (four) as turnovers, and lost by eight.
This is likely a symptom of the team's age, injuries, and fatigue.
Perhaps the emotional boost of Rondo coming back from injury in Game 3 overrode the fatigue and thus allowed the Celtics to close out with a 16 point win. It is possible that fatigue prevented the Celtics from executing that crucial final play of regulation in Game 4.
This begs the question, can the threat of elimination give the Celtics the emotional and physical boost needed to win in Miami and send the series back to Boston?
Based on Games 1 and 2 in Miami, it is somewhat illogical to think the Celtics will win tonight. What we can take from this series thus far is that home court and energy are significant factors—and both favor the Heat.
It seems plausible that a former and nearly two-time champion could muster up enough emotion and energy to win one game in Miami. However, there is only so much gas in the tank. If the Celtics make it out of Game 5 or miraculously make it out of this series, it is unlikely they will be able to sustain the energy for many more games.
Boston has a lot of pride. The core of this team has been here before, and it is always tough to close the curtain on a former champion. Even down three games to none against the Dallas Mavericks, many commentators found it difficult to declare the Lakers dead.
The Kendrick Perkins trade was made with the thought that the Celtics could count on several players to fill the void, most notably Shaquille O'Neal. Even the most optimistic fans now know that Shaq is little more than a stop gap and symbol of former greatness, as his calf is severely limiting his contributions. It should be noted that Jermaine O'Neal has exceeded expectations in the postseason.
It will be interesting to see if Rivers increases Delonte West's playing time, as he has two functional arms and has been playing well—particularly on defense. This much is obvious with the Celtics, if they come out shooting well, they are tough to beat (see Game 3 blowout of the Knicks in the first round where Pierce and Allen shot the lights out). Expect the Celtics to catch a few breaks tonight; it seems the referees tend to favor the team on the verge of elimination.
It is difficult to separate yesterday's great from today's good.
Pierce, Garnett, Allen, Rondo, and Rivers are still on the court, which leads us to think that championship ability is still there as well—just waiting to come out. Yet, this Celtics team is clearly not the dominant force that won the title in 2008.
The 2011 Celtics are also not the team that flipped the switch in last year's playoffs—surprising everyone and nearly hanging a second banner in three years. Bostons' pride and experience may lift them to a Game 5 win, but it is unlikely—the Heat win in a squeaker.
Bonus prediction: Doc Rivers retires (at least temporarily). At least Celtics fans have another team to turn to in their time of need as the puck is about to drop in the Stanley Cup Conference Finals—go Bruins.