Commentary

Suddenly, we have a series

The Big 4 took charge, but the C's bench made the difference in statement game

Updated: June 2, 2012, 2:50 PM ET
By Jackie MacMullan | ESPNBoston.com

BOSTON -- Well, now that we've got that straightened out.

Put away the brooms, the tissues, the coffins -- and all those angry letters to the commissioner.

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What was the biggest factor in Boston's Game 3 win over the Heat?

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The Celtics will not be swept, the Big Four won't be engaging in tearful farewells over the weekend, the series is not dead and nobody who favors the professional basketball team based in Boston should have a single beef about the officials after Game 3.

That's because LeBron James shot only five free throws (and missed four of them). Dwyane Wade? He never got to the line at all. The destruction efficiency of The Demolition Duo was muted by a high-energy Celtics defense that denied, trapped, harassed and hawked the ball, then pounded it inside the paint once it secured possession.

The Heat have every reason to believe the referees took note of Boston's vociferous complaints that Miami's superstars were given preferential treatment and made the necessary adjustments. In Game 2, LeBron was not whistled for his first foul until there was 3:23 left in the third quarter. On Friday night? The whistle was blown on the league MVP a mere 32 seconds into the game.

Ah, but we digress.

In the wake of a resounding 101-91 Game 3 Boston victory, there's evidence this series can be competitive going forward, and that has nothing to do with how the games will be called.

It's all about Boston's defense and its ability to contain (within reason) two of the most lethal slashers in the game. It should come as no shock the Celtics' effort was anchored by two people in particular: the redoubtable Kevin Garnett and the mercurial Rajon Rondo, who followed up his magnificent Game 2 for the ages with a satisfying double-double (21 points, 10 rebounds).

[+] EnlargeRajon Rondo and Kevin Garnett
Jared Wickerham/Getty ImagesRajon Rondo and Kevin Garnett laid the foundation for the Celtics' Game 3 win, with Rondo finishing with 21 points, 10 rebounds and KG with 24 points, 11 rebounds.

So the "usual suspects" laid the foundation for the win, yet the player who infused the Celtics with a critical burst of active, aggressive, high-octane play was Marquis Daniels.

No kidding.

You remember Daniels. When he arrived in Boston in 2009, he was advertised as the next James Posey, an X factor, high-energy player who would bound off the bench, make some stops and slash to the basket and score some points.

Only that never really happened. Daniels had trouble finishing around the rim. He struggled to stay healthy, then suffered a frightening neck injury that appeared to have ended his career. The Celtics released him, then signed him again, and while Marquis still had the coolest hair in town, his standing in the rotation was nothing to envy.

He sat most of the regular season, averaging a career-low 12.7 minutes a game, an afterthought in Rivers' rotation.

In the previous five playoff games, he played a grand total of 7 minutes and 5 seconds. Yet in Friday's win, he logged 17:19 of court time.

Why the change of heart? For one thing, Brandon Bass was mired in foul trouble, and for another, Rivers recognized that Garnett simply could not be asked to log another 43-minute-plus game. He needed someone from his decimated bench to provide some relief.

Marquis, the one who showed up early for shootarounds and put himself through a regular workout, was up for the job.

"I've been waiting, and hoping," he said with a smile.

Before Games 1 and 2, Daniels said, Rivers urged him, "Stay ready. Stay ready."

"It's funny," Daniels said. "He didn't tell me that tonight."

Daniels I've been waiting, and hoping.

-- Celtics reserve Marquis Daniels

Yet there he was, checking in for Rondo with 1:36 left in the first quarter. At the time, another bench player, Keyon Dooling, had just drilled a 3-pointer to cut Miami's lead to three, 28-25.

Marquis was allotted all of 5 seconds to become acclimated. That's how long it took Pierce to glimpse him cutting through the key and deliver the ball. Daniels converted the shot in the paint, exhaled and, he said, "got my legs under me."

Some of what he did was demonstrative, such as grabbing the offensive rebound off a Ray Allen reverse lay-in miss and ramming it home. Other things were more subtle, such as the perfect screen he set for Rondo so he could knife to the hole unmolested, or the high lob he lofted into KG in the key. And then there was his defensive performance, predicated on fundamental skills, such as denying James Jones the pass the way you are taught all the way back in grade school -- hand flat, thumb down, palm out.

In the midst of the mosaic this forgotten Celtic was creating, Boston ripped off a 15-0 run that culminated with a Rondo-to-KG connection in the paint.

Because of the efforts of Daniels and Dooling and Mickael Pietrus during that stretch, Miami went 6:55 without scoring. Boston's coach took note, saying, "Our second unit came in with a defensive energy that changed the game."

Daniels' halftime box score was a surgically pristine 7 1/2 minutes of 2-for-2 shooting, 2 rebounds, 1 assist and 0 turnovers. His defensive impact didn't come with a number attached, but, as Dwyane Wade noted afterward, both Daniels and Dooling enabled the Celtics to continue while their starters sat without a significant dropoff. "That's all you can ask for," Wade shrugged.

And yet, in some ways, it's a lot to ask for. NBA veterans throughout the league are told to sit and wait, to stay ready, stay positive, stay engaged, but sometimes, after another week devoid of game-day sweat, another night of disappointment, the frustration tends to bubble over.

"It's challenging at times," admitted center Greg Stiemsma, who logged only 3 1/2 minutes Friday night. "But it's our job. We talk about it all the time, about trying to remain positive.

"So many times the coaches will tell you, 'Stay ready, stay ready' and it doesn't pan out.

"I was so happy for Marquis tonight. There's a big difference between 'staying ready' and then, when the time comes, to actually going out there and doing it."

They cheered wildly for Daniels because they all can relate: Stiemsma and Dooling and Ryan Hollins and Sasha Pavlovic and even Pietrus. They are bit players in a larger NBA drama that will always feature Rondo and KG and Paul Pierce and Ray Allen.

Daniels is good with it. He'll relish the nights when he can check out with 9 points and 5 rebounds and 1 steal and 0 turnovers in a meaningful, critical playoff game, one his teammate KG labeled a "desperation game."

The promising signs included a 58-46 advantage in the paint, a rare rebounding edge (44 to 32), a perfectly respectable 10 turnovers. Yet more important was the Celtics' ability to force Wade into 9-of-20 shooting, to prevent the Heat from literally running off with the win.

Maybe Daniels' superb defense will earn him more minutes in Game 4. Maybe it won't. Either way, he'll be ready.

"That's what I do," he said.

In the wake of a season-saving Game 3 win, his Celtics teammates are more than grateful.

Jackie MacMullan

ESPNBoston.com columnist

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