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Wednesday, May 30, 2012
Can Ray Allen shake off the rust?

By Israel Gutierrez
ESPN.com

Allen
Ray Allen made just 1 of 7 shots from the field in Game 1 against the Heat.

MIAMI -- The scene was stranger than surreal.

There was Ray Allen, so smooth a shooter, so relentless a worker, so detailed in his preparation, missing a free throw. Then another. Then another.

It reached the point where Kevin Garnett was encouraging Allen from the bench after he missed 2 of 3 when fouled on a 3-pointer.

That's Ray Allen, on the free throw line, needing encouragement?

It just doesn't happen. Ever. Like Allen missing four free throws in a game doesn't happen. Ever. Until it did on Monday.

"That's never going to happen again for the extent of his career," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. "That's like one of the Seven Wonders of the World."

But that wasn't actually Allen on that free throw line. Hasn't been Allen for a while now because bone spurs in his right ankle won't let him be.

And that's why those moments on the foul line in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals felt like more than just some noteworthy occurrence.

Because this is very likely Allen's last run with the Boston Celtics, the team on which he won a championship and cemented himself as possibly the game's best shooter and certainly a Hall of Famer. And this is the picture he might leave them with: a one-legged athlete playing through so much pain that he can't even hit half his free throws. Can't keep Dwyane Wade from catching the ball in sweet spots on the floor. Can't get the ball above rim level on his normally gorgeous pull-up jumper.

Had this been happening at the end of a regular season in a wasted year, it wouldn't elicit as much empathy as it does right now.

But it does because these are the conference finals, and Boston is a team that, not too long ago, was the hottest in the East. And Boston's opponent is missing a key element of its own, which would appear to make this a very real chance for this Celtics core to reach the Finals again, for a third time in five years together.

Yet rather than seeing a player who -- along with Grant Hill and Steve Nash -- has taken plenty of swigs from the fountain of youth have one last hurrah with the Celtics, we're watching a broken Allen just trying to do something, anything, to contribute.

"I don't even like talking about it," Allen, an impending free agent, said of the pain he's experiencing in his ankle.

Fine then, let's let some numbers help describe the pain.

Allen missed four free throws in 39 minutes in Game 1 against Miami (3-of-7).

Allen missed 12 free throws in the entire 2008-09 season (237-of-249).

Allen once hit 100 consecutive free throws in a workout session. Then he just stopped shooting.

"Because I believed if I kept going I could make 500 in a row," Allen said. "Unless I'm doing it for a record or somebody's challenging me, I'm like Forrest Gump. I just stop running."

Only severe circumstances turn that Ray Allen, the Forrest Gump version, into the adaptation we saw Monday night. If you can't feel his pain yet, you don't know Ray Allen.

"Right now, he's all over the place, leaning, going sideways. It's all created by the injury," Doc Rivers said. "One thing you can see that's changed is it's not as quick, his release."

But if you think he's going to settle for a couple of empathetic pats on the back before calling his Celtics career a wrap, you still don't know Ray Allen.

The reason Allen was on the floor for 39 minutes in Game 1, besides the fact that Avery Bradley is out for the rest of the year with a shoulder injury, is that he remains, even on that one good ankle, such a threat.

The Heat played Allen no differently than they would've the 2008 Allen. Big men jumped out to double him off screens, often leaving a Celtics big man alone near the rim. Wade and Mario Chalmers and Shane Battier chased Allen with the same determination they would a healthy Allen, because they all know he can still change the game with the quickest of hot streaks.

"Whenever shooters are struggling with their shots, the law of averages eventually kicks back in," the Heat's James Jones said. "You don't want to expect that he's having an off night, because we know with the flip of a switch he can be instantly on again."

Yes, even on a bum ankle.

In fact, just the threat of Allen is what largely helped the Celtics score 35 points in that second quarter Monday night, Spoelstra said Tuesday.

The attention he drew, even in a quarter in which he missed three straight free throws and was clearly not himself, created open opportunities for all the other Celtics, helping Boston tie the game at halftime.

Imagine how much panic would've set in for Miami -- well, at least for the Miami fans -- had Allen made those free throws and had his Celtics been up by three at the half?

"The fact of [Allen] coming off of any screen will aggressively involve all five players as much as any other situation in the league," Spoelstra said. "In a lot of ways, much of what we developed defensively from the first day of training camp is to challenge us to the extreme, for a team like Boston, because they challenge you beyond the extreme."

So the Heat won't change the way they guard Allen.

And Allen won't change the way he approaches this series.

He remains confident a scoring burst can happen at any given time, which is exactly what the Celtics need to take some of the scoring load off Garnett.

And as much as his ankle is limiting his leaping ability, Allen doesn't want to adjust his form much, either.

"I don't want to change my technique," he said. "I just have to continue to work on getting my lift. My technique has been solid for a very long time, and it's successful.

"Sometimes you just don't make shots, too. I don't put to much pressure on it. You just kind of find your rhythm and just glide into it as well as you can."

So you can expect Allen to keep gliding gracefully into his next series of shots.

But even if he doesn't make them at the rate we've grown accustomed to, and even if it's a considerable reason these Celtics don't get another chance at a second ring together, you can also expect Allen to create new memories in years to come.

Memories that will make his free throw shooting blunders in Game 1 what they should be, a mere blip in a brilliant career, rather than a lasting memory of his final stint in Celtics green.

Because once that ankle is surgically repaired, the player with the obsessive game-day routine and the tireless training regimen will be back, quite possibly in another uniform, scaring defenders every time he rises with the ball.

"Ray is by no means done, he's not washed up, and Father Time has not caught up with him," said Juwan Howard, the 39-year-old veteran whose nickname may as well be Father Time. "This guy still can play."

The Heat recognize that, as do his Celtics teammates -- even as they still try to process possibly the oddest moment in Allen's career.

"It's like I told Norris Cole, sitting next to me on the bench," Howard said of Allen's missed freebies, "'Get excited now, because you'll never see that again.'"