- Jackie MacMullan, ESPNBoston.com columnist
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MIAMI -- To the doubters and the naysayers and the so-called experts, the message was the same.
Listen closely. That's Mickael Pietrus, the Boston Celtics' defensive workhorse, who for five games has harangued and harassed LeBron, D-Wade or whomever Doc Rivers asked him to with such effort and energy that his offense has sputtered, leaving his own fans groaning as his shots went up. But with 2:12 left in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals, on a night when -- finally -- Pietrus bottled some offensive rhythm, there he was, standing all alone in the corner, drilling a 3-pointer to push Boston ahead of the Miami Heat, 85-83.
In the final minute, with the Celtics clinging to a 1-point lead and the shot clock down to its nub, there was Paul Pierce, 5-of-18 from the floor at that point, sizing up the rim, staring down his more celebrated, league-MVP defender, then drilling a 3-pointer in the face of LeBron James.
Yeah, take that, too.
"I saw it in our shootaround," Pierce reported. "Our focus. It was one of those games when we were just locked in."
Thus, when the host Heat, favored by nine points in Vegas before tipoff, tried desperately to salvage a game that could well haunt them deep into the summer, it was too late because veterans Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett stepped up to the free-throw line and hit all their shots down the stretch.
Allen dropped his in after watching hours and hours of film before discerning he needed to exaggerate his lift on his free throws, whether it inflamed his balky ankle or not.
As for KG, who continues to epitomize the commitment, the concentration and the attitude of this Celtics team, he had missed two free throws earlier, which completely rankled him. So when he stepped up to the line with 8.8 seconds left and his team up two, he was damn well going to knock his shots down.
Yeah, that's right. (Expletive) that.
"[KG] is our life," his coach, Doc Rivers, said. "He does so many things that don't have numbers [attached] to it."
Things like keying defensive stops and grabbing 50-50 balls off the glass. Things like imploring his teammates to stay strong and to stay together.
And so here we are. The team nobody said could win this series -- and yes, that absolutely, positively included me -- the team that is too old, too fragile, too hurt, whose margin of error is too small, whose bench is too anemic, whose lack of athleticism is too much of a handicap, is now up 3-2 in the conference finals, with a chance Thursday night to close it out on the parquet floor.
Shame on me for doubting champions who have been there before, who draw from deep reservoirs of pride and experience, who trust each other implicitly, who, as Allen explained, "know what we want to do, where we want the ball, have an idea of the plays we should call. We've been together so long, you see us in the huddle at a timeout exchanging ideas."
We can only guess what the Miami Heat were saying in their huddle. (A guess: What the hell do we do now?)
The most perplexing team in the National Basketball Association must explain to their fans this morning how they let this game slip through their hands, how LeBron James could look so unstoppable one minute, then be able to muster only a single basket in the final 8:12 of the most important game of the season -- and that single basket came on an uncontested layup in the final seconds when the Celtics were protecting a lead and trying not to foul.
James and Dwayne Wade combined for 57 points. Wade did his part down the stretch, scoring eight of his team's final 14 points. But where was his sidekick?
"I think we played good enough to give ourselves a chance to win, and that's all you can ask for," James said afterward.
Almost everything the Heat could have hoped for transpired in the opening half: Boston's weary 30-somethings came up short on jumper after jumper, Miami's prodigal (third) son, Chris Bosh, returned to contribute what his coach coined "short bursts" and made an instant impact on the game, and James dominated play with 18 points and nine boards.
Meanwhile, Rajon Rondo, Pierce and Allen were a combined 4-of-22 from the floor. For those of you scoring at home, that's 18.1 percent.
After taking all that into account, the Heat jogged into their locker room up by only two points.
The Celtics, in a word, were ecstatic.
"We had a rough first half," Garnett conceded. "Doc kept saying to us, 'Stay with it. Stay with it.'"
"We just didn't play intelligent for long stretches of the game," Heat forward Shane Battier offered.
We can surmise he was referencing the 11 first-half turnovers, many of them needless attempts at forcing the action, particularly in transition.
It is a mistake to let a group like these Boston Celtics hang around. Their energy and rhythm are usually derived from their defense. They assaulted the Heat with a number of different looks in the second half, including alternating between man-to-man and some funky zones that left Miami completely out of sync.
The game turned late in the third quarter when Boston wiped out a 59-50 Heat advantage with a crushing 15-1 run that was all the more remarkable because Garnett was watching most of the rally from the bench.
KG's value in this series has been undeniable. But it was Greg Stiemsma (8½ significant minutes) and Brandon Bass and Rondo and Pierce and Allen who put the clamps on this time, enabling Garnett to catch a breather in order to amp up for the pivotal fourth quarter.
As the minutes ticked away and the game remained tight, was there any doubt which team would prevail? The Heat thrive on big leads, fast breaks and momentum. When the game slows down and needs to be won in the trenches, put your money on the guys in green, no matter what Vegas says.
"That's who we are," said Keyon Dooling, who hit yet another big 3-pointer to close out the third quarter. "It's been our personality all year long. Dig in and grind it out."
Never mind that Rondo missed nine of his first 10 shots, or that he finished 3-of-15 from the floor, because once again, he accounted for some huge plays, including tipping Wade's block of Bass to Pietrus in the corner for a 3, including following his own miss with 4:13 to go with a putback, including keeping an Allen miss alive by punching the ball to Pierce, who kicked it to KG on the baseline for a critical make.
You get the idea. Everyone contributed in Game 5, even though it was KG who checked out with 26 points and 11 boards. Pietrus had 13 points and Rondo had 13 assists.
It's hard to fathom how a group this tight and this motivated is going to lose Game 6 at home on the parquet.
The Heat's damage control was in full spin after the game, with coach Erik Spoelstra declaring, "It's a loss, and that's all it is."
Ah, coach, you know better. Your team was at home and had a bunch of champions on the ropes and you failed to deliver the knockout punch.
The Celtics have been there before. They know how to close the deal. They are old, they are fragile, they are injured and they have no margin for error.
But they are ready, and they are waiting.
34mEthan Sherwood Strauss
1dMatt Walks, ESPN.com