MIAMI – The general manager of the Boston Celtics was trying to understand how LeBron James could get to the free-throw line those 24 times, and so Danny Ainge stood in the hallway recreating a clear-path foul call for the NBA's vice president of referee operations, Joe Borgia. Ainge slid his feet, and tried to show how the Celtics defender had reached around to the Miami Heat star, how they were far too close to the rim for that call.
"How?" Ainge asked him.
They did some kind of a dance here late Wednesday night, Borgia and Ainge, the NBA official delivering his explanation, and Ainge, the ultimate contrarian, challenging the premises. And hey, how could Paul Pierce foul out again? How could the Heat get to the free-throw line 47 times? These were the things on Ainge's mind, and there would be no satisfaction coming out of here for these Celtics, no solace out of an epic effort and a historic performance out of Rajon Rondo. Ainge was persistent, polite and Borgia finally relented that he'd watch the film of the Heat's 115-111 Game 2 overtime victory.
"I'm sure we missed five or six calls somewhere," Borgia said.
Well, wonderful. That's true every night in the NBA, but the Celtics were feeling victimized, like they were on the wrong end of the whistle. Down the hall inside the visiting locker room, coach Doc Rivers didn't need to see the film. Here he was, standing in a doorway to the coach's room, lurched forward and slapping himself upside his head and recreating the moment where everything started to slip away in these Eastern Conference finals.
Oh, this was where the Celtics were sure this devastating loss had gone sideways for them, where Rondo – on the way to a force-of-nature 44 points – had gone up-and-under the rim, flipped the ball off the backboard only to have the sweeping arm of Dwyane Wade come crashing down on his face. He crumpled to the ground with the score 105-105 and a minute left in overtime, and within moments, Udonis Haslem dunked the ball, and the Heat never lost the lead again.
"It was obvious," Rondo said.
Rivers seethed, but he could change nothing late Wednesday night. "LeBron James took 24 free throws, and our team took 29. Paul Pierce fouled out of a game where he was attacking the basket. I guarantee you right now, they're distracted, our team, in the locker room.
"But we have to get it out of us and move on."
In the foggy aftermath of a devastating loss, the Celtics didn't know whether to be discouraged that they gave everything within them, and yet they're still down 2-0 to the Heat; discouraged that Rondo delivered one of the great Celtics playoff performances ever, an unbowed 53 minutes of hellacious fortitude where those 44 points had come with 10 assists, eight rebounds and three steals and still Boston couldn't beat Miami.
They didn't know whether to be encouraged that they found a way to make James and Wade work to score, that blitzing those Heat pick-and-rolls kept those stars from getting separation on Celtics defenders. Boston matched the Heat on the backboards and the floorboards. In the foggy aftermath, they understood that they let one slip away, that they gifted the Heat the franchise's greatest playoff comeback ever, from 15 points down to utter heartbreak for the Celtics.
When it mattered most, it wasn't the officials failing to chase down missed shots, and failing to run back out on the Miami shooters getting second and third cracks at dagger jumpers. And Boston knew that too, knew that that for all the progress it had made in Game 2, it hadn't tightened things enough.
James had 34 points, but he missed a tough, twisting layup in the final seconds of regulation, only to get his own rebound, dribble out, and run the clock out with a chance to hit a buzzer-beater. Rondo was on him, and James finally pulled up for a long jumper that clanked off the backboard and rim.
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In victory, James understood that this night had belonged to the singular genius of Rondo, whom he called " … Absolutely amazing. The performance he put on will go down in the record books. He's a unique player, an unbelievable player."
Fifty-three minutes without a rest, and Rondo kept coming for Miami. His relentlessness belongs to the ages, something fleshed straight out of Isiah Thomas' big-game heart. Fifty-three minutes, and Rondo beat Miami with jump shots, ferocious drives and an iron will to go at James and Wade until he could stand no more. Fifty-three minutes, after he made himself a target for suggesting that it was time for Heat stars to "hit the deck," and yet he absorbed it all, and spit back out the greatest performance of his brilliant, young career.
"He almost singlehandedly beat us," Miami's Shane Battier marveled. "That's one of the best games I've ever seen in person."
For the Heat, it was so easy to be gracious and complimentary, because they took the game of the Celtics' best player's life – Boston's best shot – and still beat them. The Celtics don't back down to the Heat, and Miami respects them for it. Boston does demand that out of teams, but in the past two years James and Wade have beaten the Celtics six of seven times in the playoffs. They've figured out the formula, and now they go to Boston for Games 3 and 4 to put them away once and for all.
The Celtics were livid with the officials, yes, but mostly they were so, so angry with themselves. All those second and third chances they gave the Heat, when they needed a defensive rebound, a loose ball.
"Demoralizing," Pierce said.
They were exhausted, exasperated, and Rivers was right: They were distracted in the losing locker room, despondent. All they could think about was Rondo's 44 points, and Ray Allen rising for a clutch 3-pointer inside the final minute of the fourth to tie the game, and James failing to deliver in the final minute of regulation, and the Celtics knew – they just knew – that winning this series had to start here.
Ainge is responsible for constructing these Celtics, and he'll be the one to take them apart again someday. Maybe someday soon, too. Here he was in the corridor, trying to get clarification, trying to get answers, but he's been through so many of these playoffs series for so many years.
Eventually, there was no more to say with the NBA VP responsible for overseeing the officials. Yeah, yeah. Go watch the tape. Go see the mistakes. Whatever. It changes nothing. Rondo was genius, and that old core courageous, but down two games is down two games. Soon, the Celtics were slogging to the waiting bus, leaving the arena on the shores of Biscayne Bay with the Miami Heat in complete control, with the Celtics season on the brink.
Between the locker room and the bus to the airport, between Games 2 and 3, Rivers told these Celtics that they had to get over it and get on with this series. The Boston Celtics left a lot back here – anger and resentment and maybe most of all, the will of a champion. They left a lot here, and you had to wonder whether there was enough to return to Boston with them, to make one final stand for everything at the Garden. Back home now, back to the brink.
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