- Chris Forsberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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BOSTON -- It was one thing for him to struggle with his shot; it was another for his defense to dip. With Ray Allen battling painful bone spurs in his right ankle, Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers could live with those aggravations.
But when Allen started passing up open looks in the second half of Game 7 of Boston's Eastern Conference semifinal series against the Philadelphia 76ers, Rivers had seen enough.
"He had back-to-back plays where he was wide open and passed up the shot," Rivers said. "And when we took him out, I went over to him and said, 'Hey, listen, we're not going to have that.' And he just said, 'My foot is killing me. I need a break. I'm good.' And I told him again, 'Ray, listen, you don't ever pass up shots.'"
If Rivers' message wasn't clear enough, Rajon Rondo and Kevin Garnett soon shuffled over and echoed their coach's sentiment. Allen never lacks confidence in his shot, but for a player who has endured unprecedented struggles this postseason, a pep talk actually might have been therapeutic.
Allen returned to play all but seven seconds of the pivotal final quarter, splashing a pair of key 3-pointers to help the Celtics emerge with an 85-75 triumph that punches their ticket to the conference finals.
Allen finished 3-of-11 shooting with 11 points, 4 rebounds and a steal over 37:35. But he'll pack some restored confidence when the team treks to Miami on Sunday in advance of Monday's Game 1 against the Heat at AmericanAirlines Arena.
"I say it all the time, but I had some great looks tonight, probably the best that I've seen so far in this postseason," Allen said. "I think about it all the time, I wish I had them back. But they go in when they count. It's almost like I need the fourth-quarter theatrics. I love to get to that point when you focus in a little bit more, but again, they go in when it counted."
There's no way to sugarcoat it: At times in this series, Allen was a liability. He shot a career-worst 26.5 percent beyond the 3-point arc (9-of-34) and a mere 38.3 percent from the field (23-of-60), all while averaging 8.9 points over 31.9 minutes per game.
Defensively, the 76ers attacked him (particularly in the pick-and-roll) with blatant disregard for his ability to fight through screens or recover out to shooters. Rivers admitted that at times he's been uncertain if he could mask Allen's defensive struggles, which were all the more noticeable after the team lost Avery Bradley to season-ending shoulder surgery.
Heck, moving forward, one can't help but wonder if the Celtics will explore utilizing Mickael Pietrus in an elevated role against the Heat, hoping his on-ball defense might help slow Dwyane Wade the way they had hoped Bradley would.
And despite all that, Rivers still had the faith to leave Allen on the floor in the fourth quarter on Saturday night, knowing that the odds said he would break through in a big spot.
"We never want to give Ray Allen a clean look at a 3," Sixers coach Doug Collins said. "The one thing about great shooters is that they are going to keep shooting. He knocked down those two 3s and gave them some distance. That's what great players do."
Throughout Allen's postseason battle with the balky right ankle, Rivers noted that teams still couldn't leave him alone for fear of allowing an open look. That changed toward the end of the conference semifinals when the 76ers pretty much dared Allen (and the Celtics as a whole) to shoot jumpers.
That's what happened early in the fourth quarter on Saturday. Allen had missed 8 of 9 shots, including five quality looks from beyond the arc. He wasn't just long or short with his attempts, he was missing to the left and right -- and badly.
Even still, early in the fourth quarter, the Celtics ran a little pick-and-roll that freed Allen, dribbling up the right side of the floor with Thaddeus Young in the neighborhood. Evan Turner seemed in no hurry to get out to contest and Allen guided home a triple -- offering a little body english as he leaned in across the arc as the ball rattled in.
Just like that, his confidence was back.
Four minutes later, the Celtics ran Allen off a double screen from Garnett and Brandon Bass on the left wing. Garnett stonewalled Lou Williams, and Elton Brand gave a half-hearted wave while diving out from the elbow. It didn't matter. This was vintage Allen, catching the ball off the curl and displaying his familiar quick trigger as he drilled the triple for a 69-61 edge with 5:51 to go.
"Ray is the ultimate gunslinger," Rivers said. "Really. That's what makes great players great. You know, I was a basketball player one day. And I would have never taken that shot late in the game like Ray, after missing my first 15. First of all, I wouldn't have been in. But you know what I mean? A lot of guys -- you've got to have a set to do that, you really do. It was just impressive."
Echoed Pietrus, "He's got to keep shooting. If I were Ray Allen, I would keep shooting all day. I don't know why sometimes he's being timid. You guys need to remind him, he's Ray Allen. The best 3-point shooter in the entire NBA."
No need to remind Allen. On Saturday night, he reminded the 76ers and the rest of the NBA.
5hEthan Sherwood Strauss
3hArash Markazi and Ben Alamar
1dAlok Pattani, ESPN Stats & Information
2dDan Le Batard