- Peter May, Celtics reporter, ESPNBoston.com
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BOSTON -- It's safe to assume that Tuesday night represented the first time that TNT's Craig Sager sought out Sasha Pavlovic for his "player of the game" interview.
It's not that Pavlovic wasn't deserving of the honor. He was. He scored a game-high 16 points, 12 coming in the game-deciding fourth quarter as the crypto-Boston Celtics took out the quasi-Miami Heat 78-66. In a game that did not include the likes of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Rajon Rondo, Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett, Mickael Pietrus or Greg Stiemsma, it was going to be someone like Pavlovic who ended up next to TNT's sartorial nightmare at game's end. Marquis Daniels was probably the No. 2 choice.
The only marquee player on either team to suit up was Paul Pierce, and he left early after the game, failing to elaborate on an 8-point, 6-turnover, 18-minute submission that was beneficial only in that he broke a sweat. He looked out of sorts playing with the B team, and Doc Rivers admitted as much. We don't know what Pierce thought. He left after the game with Rondo, Garnett and Allen, telling reporters, "I'll talk to you all in three days."
That would be prior to the start of the playoffs and, after 65 games, the Celtics still don't know where they'll be for Game 1. Atlanta defeated the Clippers on Tuesday and still leads Boston by one game. So it boils down to this: Unless the Atlanta Hawks lose Thursday (to Dallas at home) and the Celtics win (against Milwaukee at home), their playoff series will open in Atlanta.
But overtaking the Hawks has never been one of Doc's priorities. If it was, he wouldn't have rested his main guys on Friday when the teams played. Rivers has continued to state he wants his regulars as rested and healthy as possible. If it happens that the Celtics overtake the Hawks, so much the better.
That is what happens when you cram 66 games into 120-plus days. Even the world's finest conditioned athletes aren't prepared for a season with few, if any practices, little rest and game upon game. Pierce mentioned Monday that he was personally satisfied that he "made it through" the season, talking about the season like it was a trial by ordeal. Keyon Dooling agreed.
"It's not good on your body as an athlete. It's your vehicle to make your money," Dooling said. "As a basketball player, recovery is very important. We haven't had that luxury this year. But it's not just us, it's everybody, so we all feel the same way. But it's not a normal season."
That, unfortunately, is what has forced Rivers and many of his peers to make the personnel decisions they have made in this ridiculous season. Heat coach Erik Spoelstra began to rest his big guys even though Miami still had a shot over catching the Chicago Bulls for the No. 1 seed. James, Wade and Bosh sat for only the second time; the first time was the season finale in 2010-11.
If the fans got shafted -- and they did Tuesday -- well, that's too bad. Even in an 82-game schedule, regulars get rested at the end when game results mean little or nothing. But this is the difference: Rivers and others have been forced to rest their guys for meaningful games. It's the classic lose-the-battle-to-win-the-war mentality and Rivers said before the game he didn't feel like he had any other option.
"A lot of teams have not been able to work on a lot of stuff," he said. "I look at some of our young guys who may have been able to help in an 82-game season.
"By the end of the year, they've had zero practices," Rivers said, exaggerating only slightly. "On the days that we do practice, it's not as competitive as it would have been, and I think those guys have been robbed of a year in a lot of ways, the young guys.
"Our team," he went on, "had seven or eight new players. Our execution has taken all year. I mean, we're still working on it. I've talked to coaches who have teams who have returning players and they're still out of sync, execution-wise. So it's been harder that way.
"I didn't anticipate it being as difficult. I didn't think it'd be this hard in that way. I thought if you had guys back, they would pick it up pretty easy. It's just been more difficult."
Rivers hinted that Garnett and Rondo might play Thursday, but only if they are healthy. Rondo has back issues. Garnett's hip is acting up again; he missed a game in February with a sore left hip.
Pietrus also is a possibility. Allen looks to be on the shelf for a while longer.
With both teams relying on their benches, the one-time glamor matchup that lured TNT to town in the first place instead had a distinctive Sioux Falls feel to it. The first-quarter box score alone was a keeper: 17 combined turnovers and 12 combined field goals. The Celtics were down 11-0 before their first basket of the game with 5:45 remaining in the quarter. They ended up with 10 points. Miami then went scoreless for the first 4:33 of the second quarter.
The Heat's 66 points were a season low and their 25 turnovers were a season high. The Celtics needed a 28-point explosion in the fourth quarter to beat their season low of 71 points. Compelling basketball it was not, even if it did get mildly entertaining in the fourth, when Pavlovic knocked down five of six shots and the Celtics pulled away.
"Well, someone had to win the game," Rivers said.
Pavlovic was headed to the locker room when a Celtics official grabbed him and told him he was wanted for the postgame interview. On a night of many surprises, this may have been the biggest one of all. But it more than spoke to the occasion, both on this particular night, and to a season unlike any other.
Doc Rivers, like most NBA coaches, is getting his team rest while he can.