May 9, 2011, 11:21 PM EDT
The first half of Miami’s 98-90 overtime win in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals consisted of two very good teams executing very well. The second half of the game was a battle of wills — the kind of game the Miami Heat weren’t supposed to be able to win against the Celtics. They came out on top anyways, and the Celtics will now have to win three games in a row to avoid an early summer vacation.
Boston held the lead for most of the first half thanks to some crisp ball movement, timely shooting, and an absolutely brilliant performance from Paul Pierce, who put the Celtics on his back with a wide variety of gritty drives to the baskets and jumpers from nearly every spot on the floor. The injured Rajon Rondo wasn’t his usual self, but he was still able to keep the Heat honest by attacking the basket with his one good hand and finding shooters. More importantly, the bench was able to pick up the slack for Rondo, outscoring Miami’s reserves 21-7 on the night. Delonte West in particular continued to play tough defense and hit timely shots — his play has been a hugely pleasant surprise for Boston in this series.
The Heat kept the Celtics from opening up a big lead by staying in attack mode throughout the first half. LeBron James set the tone early by making a layup while absorbing a flagrant foul from Jermaine O’Neal, and the Heat never stopped attacking after that. James and Wade used each other’s aggressiveness to find their own lanes to the basket, and combined to shoot 23 free throws on the night. And after a slow start, Chris Bosh finally got involved by being active in the paint, fighting for every loose ball, and out-toughing Kevin Garnett, who finished the game with 0 offensive rebounds and a 1-10 shooting performance.
The second half was an all-out war. Neither team was able to get much offense going, or get any sort of comfortable lead, although Boston had a few chances to do so. The defenses swarmed, and the offenses got stagnant. There were no fast-break opportunities to speak of, and the teams didn’t seem interested in starting their sets until there were 12 seconds left on the shot clock.
Late in the game, Boston looked to have Miami in a hole with a pair of three-pointers that put the Celtics up three with just over two minutes remaining, but LeBron James was too much for Boston down the stretch. James, whose failures in the clutch made him a constant subject of criticism throughout the season and likely cost him his third consecutive MVP award, was superlative when it mattered most.
James scored 11 of the Heat’s final 13 points in regulation, and scored or assisted on the first two baskets of overtime, which put the Heat up for good. LeBron gave the Celtics a chance to win when he turned the ball over just before the end of regulation, and Bosh and Wade were the ones who put the final nails in the coffin in overtime, but the two-time MVP was the difference between success and failure for the Heat on Monday night.
What does this mean for the Heat? All it tells us is something we should have known long ago: there is not some curse on or inherent flaw in this team that makes it unable to win close games. The Heat can play tough, the Heat can win ugly, and the Heat can win close games against experienced teams. Past performance does not guarantee future results, and the NBA world was reminded of that in Game 4. That goes both ways — the Heat could easily lose the next close game they find themselves in, and that game could be the one that costs them a championship. Heck, they could still collapse, lose Game 5, and have to win another game in Boston to prevent a Game 7.
We don’t know if the Heat will win the next close game they play in. We don’t know if they’ve fixed whatever seemed to ail them late in regular-season close games. All we know is that (unless home-court advantage plays a major role in the Chicago series), the Heat have played in exactly one close game that truly mattered to their season, and they won it. Going forward, that has to give them confidence. Or maybe it won’t. All we can do is wait and see what this insane collection of talent does while they try and get the nine more wins they need to achieve their ultimate goal.
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