Commentary

Boston wilts in face of Heat

Celtics didn't just let a close-out opportunity slip, they got steamrolled in Game 6

Updated: June 8, 2012, 3:30 AM ET
By Jackie MacMullan | ESPNBoston.com

BOSTON -- There was a multitude of scenarios that were possible in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals, an evening that represented a precious opportunity for the Celtics to transform their gritty, gutty season into a truly special, memorable one.

LeBron James
Jim Rogash/Getty ImagesLeBron James' Heat looked like the superior team throughout Game 6.

Game 7, the Boston players coined it.

Do or die.

That ruse was necessary, apparently, because the Celtics have exhibited an annoying tendency to fail to grasp the urgency of closing out a series on the first attempt.

So, as game day approached, you ran through the Game 6 possibilities in your head. The Celtics are cruisin', the Gahden will be rockin', it's ovah!

Or, the Heat restore their pride, D-Wade and LeBron put a major scare into the Garden faithful, but the redoubtable Celtics survive and advance to the NBA Finals.

But suppose LeBron goes off and the Heat eke out a win. Suppose the Celtics slip into one of their offensive funks in which nothing falls and their stars resort to "hero ball" and their rhythm abandons them.

In that situation, a loss would have been painful, disappointing, yet fathomable.

But this? No, not this. There's nothing acceptable about this.

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Not a 98-79 shellacking that lacked so many of the qualities that set Boston apart: heart, resiliency, togetherness.

There are two things you simply cannot allow to happen when you play the Miami Heat, and that's turn the ball over and allow those miscues to translate into transition points. So what did Boston do? Cough up the ball 11 times in the first 15 minutes of the game.

Here's the one irrefutable thing about the Heat: They are a marvelous, athletic basketball machine when they are in front and running and dunking and scoring. And here's one irrefutable thing about the Celtics: They don't have enough weapons to erase double-digit deficits late in ballgames.

It's one thing to lose because you miss shots, as Paul Pierce, who was 4-of-18 from the floor, most certainly did. It's another thing to falter because of fatigue, the culprit that appeared to finally cut the single-minded Kevin Garnett (12 points in 31 minutes) down to size.

But to literally throw away your chance to advance to the NBA Finals, to punt on the best storyline in the league -- Old, injured, exhausted Green Geriatrics eliminate South Beach's Insufferable Stars! -- it's frankly hard to understand, and even more difficult to digest.

The Heat forced a Game 7 in Miami on Saturday because they played as if their professional lives depended on it. The Celtics, meanwhile, forfeited their edge, their swagger and a small piece of their credibility as the team that is superior in pressure situations, by being unwilling or unable to match the Heat's urgency.

"We left a huge opportunity on the floor," conceded Celtics coach Doc Rivers.

Let's first dispense with the obvious. Reports of the death of the Miami Heat were greatly exaggerated. Ditto on the demise of LeBron James, the most scrutinized and criticized and aggrandized superstar in sports. He was, in a word, relentless. Or superb. Or vindicated. Take your pick; they all apply. He scored 45 points but truly could have gone for 60. He appeared to be on track to play a full 48 minutes before the Celtics imploded so completely that each coach emptied his bench.

Celtics
Greg M. Cooper/US PresswireThe Celtics need better efforts from everybody to stand a chance in Saturday's Game 7.

LeBron initiated his assault with an unmolested drive and rim-rattling slam just three minutes into the game. He continued with a turnaround jump shot, and then built on not four, not five, not six, not seven ... but closer to 10 fallaways. They were not easy shots, nor uncontested, either. LeBron's performance not only overpowered the home team, it demoralized it and its raucous crowd.

"He was absolutely fearless tonight and it was contagious," lauded Heat coach Erik Spoelstra. "The way he approached the last 48 hours, and not only LeBron, but everyone else.

"Nobody likes getting thrown dirt on your face before you're even dead."

Duly noted. Much of Boston's malaise was in direct correlation to the energy and effort and approach of the Heat, who had lost 15 of the past 16 games at the Garden before this one.

Yet the Celtics' abysmal offensive performance was due, in part, to a stagnant attack that too often left Boston settling for long jumpers. The Heat can certainly lay claim to contributing to some of that, but so many of their opponents' miscues were unforced that any possible comeback became an exercise in futility.

"Our energy level was way too low," said Mickael Pietrus. "It's going to be like that sometimes."

Sometimes, sure, but in a close-out Game 6 (oh, excuse me, I mean your "Game 7")? For a game of this magnitude to feature Garnett fumbling the ball in the post, and Pierce tossing a lazy cross-court lob that got picked off, and Rondo (7 turnovers) insisting on jamming it inside to Brandon Bass with spinning bounce passes that Bass simply couldn't hang on to, and Bass committing a completely boothead foul with 0.3 left until halftime -- those are plays you expect in Sacramento in February on the tail end of a West Coast swing, not a critical postseason performance.

Just as the Heat had to live with their embarrassing performance in Game 5, the Celtics will now have to examine their own reflection in the mirror and explain to themselves how they could have been so utterly and completely disconnected from what brought them here in the first place.

The sobering storylines are obvious. With this loss, the Big Four may very well have played their final game together in Boston. Naturally, the stubborn Celtics waved off such chatter. In fact, Pierce actually declared, "We're right where we want to be."

That might be almost as absurd as LeBron's comments following the heartbreaking Game 5 Miami loss, when he announced that his team had a chance to win, "and that's all you can ask for."

Nobody believes that. And nobody should believe the Celtics are right where they want to be.

If they had shown up for Game 6 and treated it like Game 7, as they had vowed they would, here's where they'd be Friday: at home, with their families, lounging with their feet up on the ottoman and basking in the realization they were four wins away from that elusive NBA ring.

Instead, the Celtics will be on a plane, winding their way back to Miami, trying to salvage this series.

They need five wins now. For that they can point to LeBron. And, when they are done heaping deserved praise on the league's MVP, they should turn and position the finger at themselves.

They all said what you'd expect them to say afterward: We are ready; we are confident; nothing has been easy all season, so why should we start now?

Because close-out games at home are a high-yield proposition. Game 7s on the road are not. One of these days -- maybe Saturday -- the hardest path is going to turn out to be the impossible one.

Jackie MacMullan

ESPNBoston.com columnist

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