C's Fail To Execute, Fall in 3-1 Series Hole

BOSTON – Down 2-1 on Sunday, it was a hill. Now behind 3-1, it’s a mountain for the Celtics to climb.

The question is, do they have the legs – and elbow – left to do it?

The momentum the Celtics built on a raucous Saturday night win lasted for 48 hours, and then for about 47 of the 48 regulation game minutes on Monday night at TD Garden. Unfortunately, poor execution throughout most of the contest, and most notably on the final play of regulation, cost them the chance to tie the series. Then they were steamrolled in the extra period, falling to the Miami Heat in Game 4, 98-90 in overtime.

The C’s were outscored 12-4 in the extra five minutes and now find themselves on the postseason precipice. It may not only be the end of the season, but perhaps the championship window and Big Three era could both draw closed if the Celtics fall on Wednesday in Miami.

Rajon Rondo

Delonte West filled in admirably when Rajon Rondo was on the sideline, scoring 10 points on 4-for-7 shooting.
Brian Babineau/NBAE/Getty

Shockingly, for a team that’s made its name by executing down the stretch and in the clutch over the last four years, the Celtics stumbled trying to pull off a pick-and-roll play they’ve used several times. Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen couldn’t free themselves of each other as they tried to set it up, and Paul Pierce was stuck dribbling down the clock and taking a tough fade-away from the left wing – his sweet spot these days is the right elbow – as regulation expired, forcing overtime.

“(We) eneded up leaving Paul on the island. It’s a play we’ve run several times. We just didn’t execute,” Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. “It’s supposed to be a pick-and-roll with a flair (for Allen) and none of it happened, which is unusual for us. But it happened.”

What didn’t happen was Boston’s offense. For much of Monday night, most notably during a critical five-minute stretch of the fourth quarter where the Celtics couldn’t generate a field goal, the offense was flat and discombobulated. And it probably had something to do with the fact that Rajon Rondo, their floor general, just couldn’t perform anywhere near his usual level.

Said Rondo, “For us as a team to score only 13 points in a quarter, that’s something we can’t allow.”

Then again, you can’t allow a dislocated elbow to heal in just 48 hours, either. The Celtics’ chief catalyst played essentially one-handed for the entire game, and while he had moments where he looked somewhat healthy (or just ignored the pain), it became clear as the game wore on that he was too limited to be truly effective. He was costing the Celtics points and possessions with passes that were slightly off the mark and with an aggressiveness that was understandably dialed down.

Draped in only towels after the game, Rondo talked to the media telling them he was fine, wasn’t limited and insisted he’ll play in Game 5. You’ll have to forgive him for not being completely forthcoming, and you have to admire his desire. You certainly can’t question his heart or fault the guy for trying. If anything, Rivers probably let him play too long, something the coach basically copped to in his postgame presser.

“I don’t know what the right call was. They clearly were trapping off of him and trapping him,” Rivers said of playing Rondo for 38:09 in Game 4. “He struggled to get the ball to guys in the right spot.”

Rondo sat out most of the overtime, and while he couldn’t have been happy about it, he seemed to at least accept the decision.

“I wasn’t surprised. Of course I wanted to be out there, but Coach made the decision,” Rondo said.

Whether Rivers is reconsidering starting Rondo for Game 5 remains to be seen, and reserve point guard Delonte West certainly gave the Celtics some quality play (10 points) when Rondo did take a seat. But the ensconced starter isn’t ready to abdicate his spot, injured or not.

“I’ll be fine. I’m playing,” Rondo said. “I want to play.”

With that said, Rondo finally admitted toward the end of his postgame interview that he “had a little trouble going left.” He was only charged with three of the Celtics’ 16 turnovers in the box score, but the eye test told a different story. As Rivers alluded to, his one-handed passes were often a bit off the mark, and he had to pick up his dribble a few times where he’d never otherwise do it. Defensively, he didn’t spend much time hectoring his opponents the way he normally does. Earlier in the afternoon, Rondo was named to the NBA’s All-Defensive First Team, but with his left wing dangling by his side, he struggled to be a presence while trying to protect and not expose his arm.

“I know that he’s probably dealing with some type of pain, some type of just infringement, while he’s running up and down the floor,” Allen said. “Anytime you have an injury like that you come out the next game, you’re limited a little bit.”

Teams have routinely sagged off Rondo in the postseason for the last three years, and the Heat did it again tonight. When he had the ball, they were trapping him to test his dribbling abilities. Rondo only used his left hand when it was absolutely necessary, playing much like he did in the fourth quarter of Game 3 when he was going on adrenaline and bravery and playing with the lead.

Meanwhile, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, two NBA superstars (oh yeah, remember them?) who traditionally have struggled at TD Garden, both came up with big games on the offensive end. James scored 35 points, including a dramatic 3 with Pierce in his face that blunted a deafening crowd. His tag-team partner, Wade, also poured in 28 points, 12 of which came at the free-throw line. Meanwhile, Chris Bosh, a guy who admitted to letting the crowd (not to mention KG) get the best of him in Game 3, brought his A-game in Game 4, scoring 20 of his own and helping to hold Garnett to just seven points on 1-for-10 shooting.

So the C’s pack up on Tuesday for a trip to Miami where they’ll try to extend the series. They’re looking for just one win to bring it back to Boston for a Game 6.

“Just try to win one game. Simple as that,” Rondo said.

If history has anything to say about it, they at least have a chance. The 1968 and 1981 editions of the Boston Celtics both fell behind 3-1 in series against the Philadelphia 76ers, but each time rebounded to win three straight and earn 4-3 victories to advance. Each time, the Boston Celtics closed the season as NBA Champions.

Encouraging? Perhaps. It’s still unlikely this group knows much, if anything, about those legendary Celtics teams and their exploits. Frankly, the history is irrelevant to them heading into Game 5. All they can think about is the future.