Posted May 12 2011 7:05AM
MIAMI -- The end came abruptly.
There was not much the Boston Celtics could do about the furious 16-point blitzkrieg that LeBron James and the Miami Heat hit them with in the closing moments of Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinals on Wednesday.
"It's a make-miss league," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said afterward. "If their bad shots go in and your good shots don't, you lose the game. And that's how I felt down the stretch."
We all knew the Celtics were not going to go down easy. They certainly put up a championship-caliber fight on Wednesday and for much of the fourth quarter, it looked like the series would be heading back to Boston for Game 6. But ultimately, the prideful veterans ran out of gas.
"It's a tough pill to swallow," Paul Pierce said. "You have expectations at the beginning of the year, you play so hard throughout the regular season to have an opportunity to win a championship, and when you fall short, it's very disappointing. We have high goals around here in Boston."
The Celtics' earliest exit since they acquired Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen brought the end to another long season, but not an end to an era. From all indications, their core group will be back in green next year. Rivers is domino No. 1 when it comes to this team's future, and he plans on sticking around.
"I'm leaning heavily to coming back," he said after his team was eliminated. "I haven't made that decision, but I can tell you that I probably will. I've kind of come to that over the last couple of weeks."
Rivers and his stars believe they can still compete for a championship. And if they look back at this series with green-colored glasses, they might see more reasons for optimism than the 4-1 tally would seemingly indicate.
Primarily, they can look back at this series and wonder how it would have gone had Rajon Rondo been healthy. Not only did the point guard dislocate his elbow in an ugly fall in Game 3, but he was dealing with back issues throughout the series.
Rondo was Boston's key matchup advantage against Miami and maybe the most important player in the series. But he was obviously hindered by both injuries, and wasn't on the floor for the final 12 minutes of Game 5.
The Celtics can wonder how it would have played out if they had Shaquille O'Neal. The Big Shamrock never recovered from the Achilles injury that kept him sidelined for the second half of the season, but he too, even at his advanced age, would have given the Celtics a big matchup advantage.
Those injuries, along with Jermaine O'Neal's back issues, clearly sapped the Celtics. Despite all the moves that they've made over the summer, they still had a core group that had been through the fire together. But in the closing minutes of their season, they were counting on Jeff Green, Nenad Krstic and Delonte West.
"We didn't have all the guys in that we wanted," Rivers said. "This was not the team that we had on the floor that had the experience. It was three guys and two new guys. So it wasn't the experienced group."
The ineffectiveness of their bench sapped the Celtics even more. While the Heat had the two best players in the series, the Celtics were supposed to be deeper. But Green and Glen Davis were largely ineffective, putting added stress on their All-Star teammates.
As you would expect them to, the injuries and lack of depth made their biggest mark in the fourth quarter. In Miami's wins in Games 2, 4 and 5, they outscored the Celtics by a cumulative score of 73-51 in the final 12 minutes.
And maybe most of all, the Celtics will look back at the last two minutes of Game 4, when their time-tested ability to execute failed them. Rondo missed a wide-open lay-up that would have given them a late lead, and they ran the last play of regulation like it was the first day of training camp instead of their 90th game of the season.
If they won that game, it's a different series. It's also a different series if they didn't have so many defensive breakdowns in Game 1. But it still may not have been a winnable series.
There's one thing you can't take away from the Heat. LeBron James and Dwyane Wade played like stars. Their talent ultimately trumped the Celtics' experience. And that was never more evident than on Wednesday.
"[Wade] carried them just long enough for LeBron to knock us out," Glen Davis said.
Out for now. Not out for good. This team believes it has another run in them.
"Unfortunately, we had our ups and downs with our health this year, which kind of made for some inconsistency," Pierce said. "But I still believe we had enough out there to win."
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