- Jackie MacMullan, ESPNBoston.com columnist
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MIAMI -- This is one of those demoralizing games that settles in your gut and stubbornly chews away at your insides.
It's the kind of loss that, when the cameras are gone and the rhetoric has ceased, and the Boston Celtics players are no longer required to present a brave, united front, their thoughts will unwillingly meander to an unspeakable, sobering realization: There may be no way we can beat these guys.
"These guys" are the Miami Heat, the blustery, upstart, athletic team that pulled off the biggest comeback in the franchise's playoff history to seal a 115-111 overtime victory.
LeBron and the Boys wiped out a 15-point second-quarter Celtics lead with a burst of open-court dominance in the third. This wasn't a case of Boston coughing up the ball, rushing its shots or failing to execute.
Here's the hard truth about the magnificent basketball game that unfolded in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals Wednesday night: The Celtics can't play much better, and they have nothing to show for it except a point guard who put on a show for the ages in vain, and logged 53 minutes -- that's right, the entire game -- in the process.
Rajon Rondo deserved a better outcome. He was otherworldly, the best player on the court, even as LeBron poured in 34 points of his own. And yet, while Miami's league MVP got the calls reserved for the top player, Boston's young point guard was not afforded the same respect at a key juncture of the game.
Rondo had a right to be incensed by a key no-call on his contested drive with 1:33 left in overtime and the teams locked in a 105-105 duel. The replay showed Wade raking Rondo across the face, but no whistles were blown, and as Rondo's shot rolled off and he crashed to the ground, the Heat quickly converted a Udonis Haslem fast-break slam in transition.
The Heat would never trail again.
A clearly agitated Rondo moved to confront referees Jim Capers and Tom Washington, but coach Doc Rivers quickly called time and pulled him away.
It was one of a number of beefs that Boston had with the officials. The Celtics had three players (Paul Pierce, Keyon Dooling and Mickael Pietrus) foul out -- and the Heat had none. James shot 24 free throws, while the entire Boston team took just 29.
Part of the free throw gap is reasonably explained. Miami attacks by driving to the hole and forcing contact. Boston is primarily a jump-shooting team. Yet when the Celtics penetrated and still didn't get the calls, it prompted everyone from Rondo to Rivers to Danny Ainge to leap up in protest.
"I guarantee you right now, they're distracted, our team, in the locker room," confirmed Rivers. "But we have to get it out of us and move on."
That could be a tall order. Each Celtics player nodded in agreement over the notion that Rondo's finest playoff performance of his young and rapidly developing career was all for naught.
He completely dominated the game as a facilitator, defender and multi-faceted scorer, whether he was knifing to the hole or knocking down elbow jumpers. He finished with a career-high 44 points on 16-of-24 shooting and sank 10 of his 12 free throws after shooting zero free throws in Game 1. His poise and command were impressive, yet his ability to produce key basket after key basket was the most memorable component of his evening.
"He shot amazing tonight," Wade said. "It seemed like he was 24 for 24."
"He played his heart out," Pierce lauded. "I hate to see an effort like that go to waste."
The same could be said of the entire Celtics team.
Ray Allen, the subject of much discussion due to the bone spurs in his ankles that have reduced him to a shell of himself, bounced back with 13 points on 5-of-11 shooting. His 3-pointer with 34 seconds left in regulation sent the game into overtime. Pierce (21 points) also delivered some big hoops until he fouled out with 47 seconds left in the fourth quarter.
For the majority of Game 2, the Celtics accomplished everything their coach asked of them. They were a model of offensive efficiency, a stout, solid defensive unit, a team that withstood one of those LeBron-DWade Demolition Duo hurricanes that literally blows away everyone in its path. The Celtics rebounded the ball. They kept their turnovers down.
"Listen," Rivers said, "we played terrific."
After allowing too many layups in Game 1, the Celtics tightened the screws defensively and sealed off the lane. Those uncontested drives in the paint that LeBron and D-Wade feasted on last time? Poof. Gone -- except for a brief 11-0 Heat explosion in the third quarter when Boston's shooters seemed to tire and came up short, enabling Miami to streak out in the open floor off the misses.
The Celtics' game plan was sound: Force the ball out of Wade's hands so he couldn't break them down with his considerable arsenal of isolation moves.
By halftime, Greg Stiemsma had scored more baskets than D-Wade. That's because Wade had none.
As in 0 for 5.
The Celtics were jamming him on the pick-and-roll, forcing him to pass the ball rather than penetrate.
So what was the Boston lead at intermission? Ten points? Fifteen?
Nope. It was only seven (53-46), because of one glaring statistical category: three-point shooting. The only column in the box score that didn't favor the Celtics revealed an enormous disparity -- 18-0 in points on treys.
By the time the game ended, that lopsided statistic had ballooned to 30-15.
"You know," Pierce said, "we played terrific defense in the half court, but they got the offensive rebounds and kicked them out for the 3. It's demoralizing when you play hard defense for so long and you see those plays happen."
It's frustrating when you thwart LeBron or Wade on a possession, only to watch them kick it back to Shane Battier or Mario Chalmers for a clutch 3. It's demoralizing when your team shoots nearly 50 percent (49.4) and it doesn't translate into a W, or when you shoot nearly 90 percent from the line (26-of-29) and that's still not good enough.
Asked if he sensed the Celtics were discouraged from what transpired Wednesday evening, Wade surmised, "Another team possibly, but not them."
He is right, of course. This is what the Celtics do. They retreat, lick their wounds, lather themselves up with their "no respect" mantra and solider on, ready to fight another day. They will find a way to rejuvenate Rondo and Kevin Garnett (45 minutes) and Pierce (43 minutes) in time for Game 3, which will be back on the inviting parquet of TD Garden, a place that has cured so many ills through the years.
They will generate energy from their loyal, faithful home crowd.
And, knowing them, they will probably even win Game 3 on Friday night.
But, when the Celtics look back and remember the drama of Game 2, that old nauseous feeling will settle in their gut to remind them of what might have been.
And what may cost them the series.
1dMatt Walks, ESPN.com