When the Celtics fell into a 2-0 hole in Miami against LeBron James and the Heat, the Eastern Conference Finals looked like they would be wrapping up early. And even when they defied expectations by defending home court and knotting the series at 2-2, everyone assumed the Heat would just take Game 5 at home and have two chances to finish Boston off. But after a 94-90 win in a pivotal Game 5 in Miami, the Boston Celtics look like a team to be taken seriously again.
Kevin Garnett led the Celts with 26 points and 11 rebounds and Paul Pierce scored eight of his 19 points in the fourth quarter, including a dagger 3-pointer over LeBron James to give Boston a four-point lead with less than a minute to play. Pierce’s big-time bucket was reminiscent of James Harden’s clutch three that sunk the Spurs in Game 5 and helped Boston win its third straight game to take a 3-2 lead on the series. The Celtics never led until the third quarter, when they went on a 15-1 run as the Heat once again went through a dry spell. Miami didn’t have a field goal for more than five minutes and once they fell behind, the veteran Celtics held on to their narrow lead, which was particularly impressive since Boston’s stars were struggling from the field up to that point. Rajon Rondo had only seven points on 3-of-15 shooting, Ray Allen had 13 points on 2-of-9 shooting (he knocked down eight free throws) and Pierce was only 6-for-19. However, Garnett’s brilliance, Pierce’s fourth quarter resolve and Boston’s role players stepping up proved to be too much. Mickael Pietrus had 13 points off the bench while Brandon Bass had another solid performance with 10.
The Heat tried to get Dwyane Wade going early on and for the most part, it worked, as LeBron and Wade combined for 14 of the Heat’s first 16 points. Unfortunately, Wade was nowhere to be found again until the fourth quarter. LeBron led Miami with 30 points and 13 rebounds while Wade pitched in 27, 14 of which came in the fourth. The Heat also got an initial boost from Chris Bosh, who made his return to action with nine points and seven rebounds in 14 minutes off the bench. Unfortunately for the Heat, Erik Spoelstra didn’t play him much down the stretch as Miami watched a perfectly winnable Game 5 slip away. Although Wade was absent until the fourth quarter and LeBron was dominant until the fourth quarter, they were the only one who put up points for the Heat. Mario Chalmers continued to struggle with his shot and only had nine. Udonis Haslem, who was inserted into the starting lineup, made a poor debut with only three. Shane Battier only put up five and Mike Miller had just three off the bench. In fact, no one scored more than nine for the Heat other than LeBron and Wade. Miami also couldn’t get their hands on a few unlucky 50-50 balls, including one that led to a 3-pointer from Pietrus after Rondo perfectly tipped a phenomenal block from Wade to the wide open man in the corner. And after Pierce’s dagger three, the Celtics hit their free throws and finished off the road win to send the series back to Boston for an elimination Game 6.
The Miami Heat missed a golden opportunity to take back control in this series at home, where they have been nearly unstoppable during the postseason. It’s amazing how much of a difference coaching is making in this series; Doc Rivers is guiding and old and hobbled (but determined and experienced) Celtics team to the Finals while Erik Spoelstra is letting a team with two of the game’s biggest superstars underachieve once again. If the Heat do lose this series, Spoelstra’s job could (and should) be in serious jeopardy. But for now, the Eastern Conference Finals shift back to Boston, where a rocking TD Garden will make things even more difficult for a Heat team struggling to find support outside of LeBron and Wade. Chalmers and Miller need to start knocking down 3-pointers again, Haslem has got to make himself an offensive option and Chris Bosh will need to be ready for extended minutes (Spoelstra’s decision to bench him for the entire fourth quarter of Game 5 was ultimately dumb, but not indefensible; there will be no excuses in Game 6). If Bosh can play like he was before his abdominal injury, he will have a huge impact on the offensive end by putting up points in the paint and on the defensive end by matching up with the formidable Kevin Garnett. But the key to getting such a difficult win on the road in an elimination game will be Dwyane Wade. LeBron James shows up to play every night and has been quietly putting up nearly 30 ppg in the postseason, but Wade has been all too inconsistent in the playoffs this year. When Wade does come to play, the Heat are nearly unstoppable, as evidenced by their two-man demolition of the Indiana Pacers in the second round. Miami needs their supporting cast to step up and knock down perimeter shots and a good game from Bosh would definitely be a plus. But after losing a game where Rondo and Pierce both shot so poorly, the Heat need Wade to go off to force Game 7.