This is exactly the same scenario the Celtics faced last season. Just like last year, they lost the first two games in Miami, coming close to winning one of them. Just like last year, they returned home and posted a convincing victory in Game 3 (if we sort of airbrush out the first eight minutes of the fourth quarter).
The win in Game 3 on Friday night was necessary to keep the series -- and the Celtics -- viable. The same is true for Game 4. While it is not a must-win game -- there is going to be a Game 5 -- the Celtics do not want to go through a repeat of 2011.
But they are going to have to be a lot better in Game 4 this year than they were in Game 4 last year. Already forgotten that one? Probably a good thing. In the final possession of regulation, the Celtics somehow went into vapor lock and couldn't execute a play they had run about 10,000 times. "Unexplainable," Danny Ainge said. "Inexcusable," Paul Pierce said.
They then succumbed to a LeBron James barrage in overtime, losing 98-90. They went down to Miami and actually led Game 5 in the fourth quarter, but couldn't hold on.
They did all this with Rajon Rondo (dislocated elbow) playing with basically one arm. They did all this with Kevin Garnett hobbling on one leg; he had one decent game in the five-game series. They did all this with Chris Bosh playing for the Heat and going for 20 points and 12 rebounds in Game 4 (after a disappearing act in Game 3.)
Yes, the smart money and the silly bloviators still favor Miami. The Heat still lead the series. If they can find a way to win Sunday night -- and you can be sure they'll be better than they were Friday -- then the series is, in all likelihood, over. The only unknown will be when and where these Celtics finally go down.
Maybe that's why Kevin Garnett used the word "desperation" eight times when answering four questions after Game 3. (Or five more times than he used the F-bomb, a surprising ratio if you are acquainted with Garnett-speak.) When you drop the first two of a seven-game series, Games 3 and 4 become de facto desperation games. The Celtics played like their professional lives were on the line on Friday; they had no choice. They have to do the same thing Sunday night or we're going to see déjà vu all over again.
"You don't want to get in a situation where you go down 3-1 and then they have two games left at home," Paul Pierce said. "It doesn't really figure in your chances."
So what about their chances? You have to like them a lot more this time around, for the three injury situations noted above. Rondo nearly won Game 2 all by himself and was downright Stocktonian in Game 3. Garnett exploited his size advantage -- Earth to Celtics: What took you so long? -- to the point where his first pick and pop, trademark-KG, face-up jumper of the game resulted in the Celtics' final two points in the game's final minute.
Finally -- finally! -- Doc Rivers went to his bench and got a big boost from Marquis Daniels. I thought we'd see more of him and/or Sasha Pavlovic for exactly the reasons we saw in Game 3. Daniels gives the Heat a different look, especially on defense. There isn't a whole lot of scouting tape on him. Is it any coincidence that as soon as Daniels entered the game, he broke free for a wide-open layup? It's like the Heat were saying to each other, "Who is that guy? Where did he come from?"
Then again, that's what series are all about: adjustments. Maybe Erik Spoelstra will go more with the small lineup that helped reduce a 24-point deficit to eight points in the fourth quarter. (Then again, Garnett was resting for a lot of that run.) The one change in Game 4 you can absolutely take to your favorite bank is that Dwyane Wade will be able to deduct the foul line as a second home in his 2012 1040. He had no free throw attempts in Game 3. That hadn't happened in a playoff game since his rookie season.
The Celtics have had success taking the ball out of Wade's hands by double-teaming him. Without Bosh to set screens, there is no one to stop the Celtics from overplaying. They'll continue to do that and they should continue to try to find Garnett down low. For a player who supposedly doesn't like contact, Garnett was a beast Friday night.
When it was pointed out to Rondo that the Celtics couldn't take two straight from the Philadelphia 76ers in the second round, he snapped back, "We didn't lose back-to-back either. It's a new series. Each series is different. Each game is different. We're not satisfied with just one win. They've defended their home court. In a couple of days we'll do the same."
They'd better. Otherwise we'll be looking at another five-game series, which isn't the way these guys want to go out. They appear this year to be better prepared to carry it out; they're not that far away from being up 2-1.
If the Celtics can somehow find a way to square this thing, then we're in for at least two more games, at least one more TD Garden appearance, and plenty of questions for LeBron & Co.