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Coaches always stress that to win games in the NBA, you have to “play all four quarters.” But sometimes, all you need to do is play one quarter really well. The Celtics shot 83.3 percent in the third quarter of Sunday’s home game against the Miami Heat, scoring 35 points and building up a lead that survived a late Miami push and a double-double from Miami power forward Chris Bosh (game-high 24 points, 10 rebounds). Final score: Celtics 85, Heat 82.
With the victory, the Celtics re-took the #1 seed in the Eastern Conference and clinched the season series, which would give them the tiebreaker should they finish the regular season with the same record as the Heat.
The Celtics started the second half of the game down 43-39, but it didn’t stay that way for long. On offense, Rajon Rondo set the tone on the Celtics’ first possession, drawing a foul and getting to the line. He made one of two free throws, then two possessions later scored by dribbling straight at Heat center Zydrunas Ilgauskas, drawing contact and laying it in. He missed the free throw, but the aggressive move sent a message to the Heat.
The defense increased its intensity to match the offense, forcing a 24-second violation early in the fourth when the Heat could not find any penetration into the paint.
The pesky Celtics play finally caused the Heat to lose their cool midway through the third quarter. Up 53-46 and on offense, Kevin Garnett set a hard but clean pick for Ray Allen on Heat shooting guard Mike Miller. Miller sprawled onto the ground, and Allen drained the wide-open jump shot. But as the ball splashed through the basket, Heat shooting guard Dwyane Wade (16 points, but six turnovers) ran up to Garnett and shoved him hard in the chest. Wade was given a flagrant-1 foul, and Garnett sank both free throws, putting the Celtics up 57-46 with 7:28 left in the quarter.
The Celtics went on a 22-6 run through the first six minutes of the third quarter, building towards their 13-point lead going into the fourth quarter.
Garnet finished the game with 19 points- including all seven free throws- and seven rebounds. He hit two key jumpers in the fourth to extend the Celtics lead, even as the Heat kept eating into it.
Allen finished with 13 points, including two more three-pointers to add to his record-setting career.
Four other Celtics also scored in double digits on Sunday. Rondo put up a triple-double without ever really trying to. He finished the game with 11 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists. But his best moment came when, during a third quarter timeout, he walked over the Miami Heat and tried to eavesdrop on their huddle. He was pushed away three times, but he kept walking back over, craning his neck to see what they were talking about. Apparently, the Heat didn’t want to include him.
Kendrick Perkins scored 15 points, sinking seven of his nine free throws while grabbing six boards and leading the team with a plus-minus of plus-11.
Von Wafer, one of only four Celtics reserves available for Sunday’s game, quietly put up 10 points in 14 minutes, sinking two consecutive three-point shots in two minutes. He was also a major defensive contributor in the second quarter, in which the Celtics forced eight Heat turnovers.
But the hero of the game may very well have been Glen Davis. Playing 30 minutes at both center and power forward, Davis put up 16 points. He sank two free throws in the fourth quarter that pushed the lead to three points after LeBron James (22 points, seven assists and seven rebounds) missed a free throw with 12.5 seconds left that would have tied the game. The Heat got the ball back with six seconds left, but Miller’s three-pointer bounced off the back iron.
Davis did an excellent job of varying his offensive game. He made two jump shots from 19 feet away, but was just as good in the paint. In the second quarter, he spun through a double-team to give the Celtics a 31-30 lead. In the third, he used his size to back down his coverage, then barreled his way through the paint for the easy layup.
There’s no denying the Celtics are hurting right now. They dressed nine players for this game. They have one healthy true center and one backup for Rondo at point guard. Three starters played over 40 minutes Sunday.
Boston came into this game having lost three of their last four. In all three losses, the Celtics held leads that they could not maintain, mostly because they didnt’t have enough bodies to play for four quarters. But somehow, in the one game that really mattered, the Celtics found a way to win. The Heat’s Big Three outscored the Celtics’ 62-33, mostly because Paul Pierce missed all 10 shots he took, scoring just one point on a free throw. So the Celtics relied on their other two starters and a strong bench to outplay the Heat when their superstars weren’t on the floor.
The fact that the Celtics have won so many games is remarkable, given that at no point this season have they had their entire roster healthy. Someone has always been hurt, meaning the Celtics have scrambled all season to put rotations together. But the Celtics still find a way to win.
Doc Rivers has said certain players have been held back so they’ll be fresher for the playoffs. This worked last season, and this year’s Celtics squad is absolutely a better team than last year’s. Should the Celtics find a way to get completely healthy, all the playoff-bound teams that the Celtics have squeaked past during the regular season will suddenly pose far weaker challenges.