It seemed as if there was a different face each game of the Celtics-Heat series.
In Game 1 it was Tony Allen, who had been cast to the outskirts of the Celtics rotation during the season pondering how he had gotten there and if he’d be able to work his way back with the team adding so many new players. He was the one that embraced the role of star stopper, fanning Dwyane Wade’s flames while also scoring 14 points off the bench.
For Game 2 it was Glen Davis, eager to start after basking in the playoff limelight a year ago. With Kevin Garnett suspended, the understudy stepped in and stole the show.
In Game 3, it was Paul Pierce, drilling a buzzer-beater for the win.
Last night, with the Celtics trying to send the Heat on vacation, the wheel spun and the arrow landed on Ray Allen. From the start of the series, he had drawn the short stick, given the task of guarding Wade. But he responded by going for at least 20 points each game.
Last night Allen scored 24 points, pouring in 20 in the second half as he played the role of reaper in the Celtics’ 96-86 Game 5 series-clinching win.
If there was a difference between Wade and Allen, however, it was that Allen could play knowing he had weapons around him, while Wade was forced to be a one-man army.
“We had a multitude of guys that stepped up and played well for us,” Allen said. “I know on their end, they were counting on Wade the whole time and he had to carry a huge load the whole time. So if he wasn’t on, they were looking for a second or third option.”
The Celtics’ next test will be a Cleveland Cavaliers team that was Boston’s rival and measuring stick during the regular season.
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra knew the task that awaited his team before the series started. When the Celtics were healthy, Spoelstra saw a team with too many weapons and too many veterans. When he and Celtics coach Doc Rivers had a chance to talk, he told Rivers, “Boy, it was a battle getting your team healthy, but I think you’ve finally got a healthy team to coach.”
“They understand the moment,” Spoelstra said. “They’ve had injuries. Everyone discounts that, but that’s a big part of an NBA season.”
Dropping 46 points on his home floor with his mother and girlfriend in the crowd in Game 4, Wade did what everyone expected he’d do at some point in the series: win a game by himself. But the supporting cast that had given Wade so much help Sunday afternoon all but abandoned him last night. Quentin Richardson went 2 of 8 from the floor. Michael Beasley missed all three of his first half shots and never saw the floor in the second.
Meanwhile, the Celtics got numbers from all over, from Kendrick Perkins swatting three shots, to Rajon Rondo grabbing 8 rebounds to go with his 16 points and 12 assists, to Davis taking charges, including one on Wade, further frustrating the star who had been kept in a straight jacket much of the night.
Whether it was the double-team on the perimeter or the bear-trap that clamped down whenever he drove the lane, Wade never got a clean look, and he never found a rhythm, missing 7 of his 11 first-half shots.
The Heat shot 39.2 percent from the floor and Wade finished with more misses than makes (10 of 24) for the first time in the series.
“It started on the defensive end,” Perkins said. “I thought we got the job done and that’s what we’ve got to do every night.”
There were times when it seemed the Celtics had pushed the Heat to their breaking point.
In the second quarter, when Pierce hit the hardwood to recover a loose ball, drawing a foul on Richardson, all the Miami forward could do was shake his head, more out of disappointment than disbelief. Pierce would hit a pair of free throws that would put the Celtics up, 42-30.
Boston led by 10 at the half and stretched the advantage to as wide as 21 in the third, but Wade wouldn’t let the Heat lay down, even if a rally felt futile.
“You got to know a player like Wade is not going to just completely give up,” said Pierce. “He is going to try to take the game over. When we went up 18, I thought that was a perfect chance to really put this game away. I said at halftime, `Come on guys, one more step,’ a little more sense of urgency, and then we pushed the lead and then we just didn’t step on them like we wanted to, but that is something that we can learn from.”
Allen’s 20 second-half points came despite spending much of his energy trying to make Wade miserable. He spent the series guarding the star, and when the Celtics face the Cavaliers, Pierce will be the one who draws the short stick in the form of LeBron James.
“In the playoffs, it’s all about matchups,” Allen said. Then he joked, “I was in the hot seat. I think Paul will get it now in the second round.”