HEAT 81 - Celtics 97 Game 3 Recap

BOSTON – For two quarters, Game 3 was lingering closely to the most probably blueprint for a Miami HEAT victory. Take the emotional, home-crowd driven first hit from the Boston Celtics, go down double digits, stay the course with both strategy and controlled energy, then take a lead in the second quarter.

From there, you battle in one of the most hostile environments the playoffs can offer. And Miami lost, getting outplayed by a team that’s been there, done that and wasn’t ready to stop.

“That was a championship caliber response,” Erik Spoelstra said. “No other way to put it. They came out and played extremely hard. They played harder than us and more efficiently than us.”

The Celtics playing harder is, though undesirable, understandable. This was the game for Boston, the one that puts them back in the series or statistically puts them right out of it, and with uncertainty surrounding a veteran core, there was no next year.

They were more in the now than at any other point in their season, and the HEAT were going to have approach flawless basketball, at least in stretches, in order to succeed.

“We’re trying to take down a champion. It will be one of the toughest things we have to do collectively,” Spoelstra added. “If we want to go where we want to go to, we have to outplay them while they are at their best.”

What left the HEAT playing from behind after losing the third quarter, 28-15, was that the Celtics were more efficient.

The mind gravitates towards Rajon Rondo’s story. He falls in the third quarter and dislocates his left elbow. The injury looks so horrific, one immediately had to question Rondo’s availability for the rest of the season, much less the rest of the game. But, the game effectively being the rest of the season, Rondo and the Celtics medical staff popped the elbow back in and Rondo returned, heavily favoring his right arm.

Some will describe the performance – particularly a late steal with the bad arm and a dunk – as courageous. Others will describe his warrior-like approach to the game, his old-schoolness that offered neither excuse nor self-commendation. Whatever words are selected, Rondo deserved nods of appreciation, hyperbole and a few profanities. Just not credit for the accomplishments of two teammates that won the game.

Yes, the energy in TD Garden changed upon Rondo’s re-entry into the fray, the inspiration drawn from it pushing Boston’s defense to its peak in the second half, but Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett each had their best games of the series.

For Garnett, it was one of the best postseason games of his Boston career. Pierce did Pierce things, finishing with contact in the lane and hitting threes in the secondary break, but Garnett, with a 14-point third quarter, achieved a rare level of greatness.

“He’s a hall of famer for a reason and tonight he had a hall of fame performance,” LeBron James said. “They rolled with him and he brought it home.”

There were two truths to the 28-point, 18-rebound performance. Though Miami’s defense deteriorated as the game wore on and Boston’s fervor took hold, it defending Garnett no differently, and often no worse, than before. Garnett earned himself better position near and in the paint, but Joel Anthony and Chris Bosh – mired in one of his worst offensive games of the year – continued to stick with Garnett laterally and without fouling. They defending Garnett straight up and made him shoot over the top.

The shots were just closer this time, and therein lies the second truth: Garnett was so much better than good, he rendered defense meaningless. It was incredible, but, as with Miami’s jumpshooting from the first two games – the HEAT shot 12-of-39 from beyond 16 feet – it was fleeting in its improbability. If the HEAT push Garnett a few feet further out, the defense they played before unraveling could and should suffice.

It didn’t tonight, and unfortunately that meant wasting a career-playoff high 12 points, along with 11 rebound and some soft jump hooks from Anthony, who played as well defensively in the first half as any player has played all season. And yet another Mario Chalmers outing, this time 17-points off the bench, was overshadowed as the HEAT drifted into hero-ball in the fourth quarter.

But there was not a single issue that the HEAT haven’t run into at one point in the season, and often corrected within days or even games themselves. Miami lost to a desperate team playing its best, while itself playing a shadow of its capabilities. It doesn’t require much analysis to reach that conclusion, in large part because the contest offered few learning points. It’s a series now, the Celtics providing a reminder for who they are and the HEAT doing the same, only by becoming what they aren’t as an emotional swell, and unstoppable performance, washed over the second half.