It was a disheartening first three quarters for Ray Allen. Despite all the pregame work he put in, despite his shot falling effortlessly hours before Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, he was 1 of 9 with five missed open looks through three quarters.
His decline has been sad to watch, troubled by bone spurs in his right ankle that cause him to limp even when wearing the most comfortable shoes. Allen has never looked this ragged or slow, his confidence drained because those shots that he buried for so many years were bouncing off the rim.
Yet, with the Celtics clinging to a fourth-quarter lead Saturday night, Allen responded with a 3-pointer that toured every part of the rim before falling through for a 60-54 lead. Exactly four minutes later, Allen drained his second 3-ball from straightaway, giving the Celtics an 8-point lead with 5:51 left.
Allen capped his quarter of rejuvenation by sinking two free throws in the 85-75 win, giving the Celtics his biggest contribution since scoring 17 points in the Game 2 loss to the 76ers. His stat line was still subpar - 3 for 11 overall and 2 for 7 from the 3-point arc - but it was beautiful in the bigger picture.
The Celtics welcomed back their 3-point threat, hoping and banking that this surge can spark him for what is expected to be a brutal conference final series against the Miami Heat.
“I had some great looks tonight, probably the best that I’ve seen so far in the postseason,’’ said Allen, who was 9 for 34 from 3-point range in the series. “I think about it all the time, I wish I had them back. You know, they go in when they count. It was almost like I need the fourth-quarter fanatics. I love to get to that point and focus in a little bit more.
“The guys on this team, [Rajon] Rondo made big plays down the stretch. [Brandon] Bass made big plays down the stretch. Kevin [Garnett] made big plays down the stretch. But all our guys are ready. I’m very optimistic about the direction we’re in.’’
Allen missed three weeks with soreness in his ankle and in the process lost his spot in the starting rotation to Avery Bradley. Allen returned far less than 100 percent, trying to get accustomed to a new role off the bench. With Bradley out for the rest of the postseason following surgery to repair a dislocated left shoulder, Allen is back in the spotlight, but his lack of mobility and lift indicate a decline.
The 76ers spent the series taking advantage of Allen defensively, using Evan Turner or Jrue Holiday to score on him at will because he can’t move to the same spots in the same amount of time. Saturday night, Turner burned him again in the first half, but Allen responded with strong defense against Holliday in the fourth quarter. With Rondo primarily guarding Lou Williams, Allen was on the Sixers’ point guard, and Holiday missed 4 of 5 shots in the final quarter and managed 3 points. He finished 5 for 17.
Teams will continue to go at Allen defensively, but Saturday night he gave the Celtics a much-needed lift.
While Allen may not be the player he was five years ago, the Celtics require that he be an outside threat if they are to have any success against the Heat. Philadelphia coach Doug Collins offered Allen a harsh dose of reality by allowing him to shoot without being blanketed by a defender in Game 6. It was the same in Game 7, and he was erratic at best.
But those thousands of hours of practice perhaps paid off in the fourth quarter, when his precision and form overcame his lack of lift.
“Ray is the ultimate gunslinger. I mean, really, that’s what makes great players great,’’ Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. “I would have never taken that shot late in the game like Ray, after missing my first 15. You’ve got to have [guts] to do that, you really do. It was just impressive.’’
After missing a couple of open looks and hearing moans from the Garden crowd, Allen passed up some shots. Rivers, Paul Pierce, and Rondo approached him and told him to keep shooting. Allen said the ankle was so painful he wasn’t able.
But that pain subsided, just in time for the fourth quarter, as if his ankle knew he had unfinished business.
“Going into those situations, my lift isn’t where it needs to be, so it’s almost like I’m guessing, which I don’t like to do,’’ said Allen. “I missed two shots [in the third quarter] and based on how I look at the basket, I was nowhere near it, which I didn’t like. I guess that’s why I always continue to grind it out, got to shoot tomorrow. You’ve always got to shoot because you always want to stay on point and never want to guess.’’Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @gwashNBAGlobe.