MIAMI - First reaction: Wow!
Immediate question: How?
How did the Boston Celtics pull off their biggest win of the year? How did they come into Miami, shoot 33 percent in the first half, lose a 6-point fourth-quarter lead (68-62) to fall behind by 6 (78-72) with 6:17 remaining, and then re-group to walk off the AmericanAirlines Arena floor with a 94-90 victory that leaves them one home victory away from a total surprise berth in the NBA Finals?
“We were just hanging in there,’’ said coach Doc Rivers. “They jumped on us in the beginning and we just told our guys, ‘Just hang in there. Don’t overreact. Just hang in there.’ ’’
The Celtics have won three games in succession after losing Games 1 and 2 in Miami last week. Game 6 will be Thursday night at TD Garden.
But “hanging in there’’ against the Heat means dealing with the menacing LeBron James and the acrobatic Dwyane Wade, who combined for 57 points and 19 rebounds. Their mutual greatness is no myth.
Neither, it should be pointed out, is the greatness of Boston’s proud veterans, most notably 36-year-old Kevin Garnett, who, despite laboring at times, found a way to come up with 26 points and 11 rebounds while directing the defense; and 34-year-old Paul Pierce, who was a shaky 2 for 10 in the first half and a wobbly 5 for 18 overall when he administered a vital 3-point facial to Mr. James to give Boston a desperately needed 4-point cushion (90-86) with 52.9 seconds to play.
Pierce was isolated with James deep to the left of the circle. “I kind of wanted him to drive, honestly,’’ Rivers acknowledged. “I’ve been around Paul long enough. Right when he gets into the footwork, you knew he was going to shoot it. At least I did, because I’ve seen him enough. That’s what players like Paul do. It really is. He’s a big shot-maker. He always has been.’’
The third Oldie-But-Goodie, 36-year-old Ray Allen, had his big moment, too. Fouled on an in-bounds play with 13.8 seconds remaining and the Celtics ahead by 2 (90-88), he did the typical Ray Allen thing by swishing his free throws. Garnett mimicked him with two perfect swishes of his own at 8.8 to wrap it up.
It is an NBA axiom that so-called role players are more likely to perform better at home in big games, but that wasn’t the case Tuesday night because the key auxiliary player in this one belonged to the ebullient Mickael Pietrus, a perfectly charming fellow whose primary contribution to the cause in the postseason has been his defense. Now he is also supposed to be a man who can provide some offense, particularly with his 3-pointers, but coming into this game he had shot a dismal 10 for 45 from long distance.
Let’s just say he picked a rather propitious occasion to rediscover his shot, making 5 of 8, including a pair of threes, one of which launched the Celtics on a crucial 9-2 run after a highlight film excursion to the hoop had given the Heat their peak fourth-quarter lead at 78-72. He also had a long two that required a review to be reclassified as a two.
And speaking of reviews, Celtics fans should be thankful for that process, for it took a review to reverse a call that would have denied them a very important possession with 43.1 seconds to play. Mario Chalmers missed a jumper, and when the rebound was knocked out of bounds, the original call was to give Miami the ball. But referees went to the videotape and discovered that both Udonis Haslem and Shane Battier had touched the ball before it left the court.
The first period was not very pretty for the Celtics, who made only 6 of 20 shots and who needed nearly nine minutes to crack double figures. James appeared on his way to another monster game (scoring 14 of Miami’s first 31), but the Celtics never fell behind by more than 13 (31-18), and they did as Rivers said, hanging around until a little flurry at the end of the second quarter pulled them to within 2 (42-40) at the half, a perfectly amazing circumstance, given that Rivers would surely have interpreted any deficit under 10 as a positive occurrence.
It’s perfectly clear by now that the Celtics are playing comfortably, something that cannot be said for the Heat, a team that performs under more ludicrous minute-by-minute scrutiny than any team in American professional sport.
The “How?’’ question remains unanswered. Perhaps it’s just sport’s version of a supernatural mystery.Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist and host of Globe 10.0 on Boston.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.