MIAMI - The Celtics have every right to be angry after their 115-111 loss to the Heat in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals Wednesday night at AmericanAirlines Arena.
They played with a fury and passion not seen for this entire postseason. They played hard, really hard. They dived for loose balls, chased down rebounds, and battled Dwyane Wade most of the night. Rajon Rondo scored a career-best 44 points and still, they came up with nothing besides pride for a valiant effort.
That may not be good enough, but the Celtics earned nothing but respect and perhaps provided life to what was supposed to be an easy series for the Heat.
Yet the Celtics and their faithful can be nothing but demoralized after the defeat. They played with better effort than Miami. Ray Allen returned to the neighborhood of his former self and scored 13 points, including a tying 3-pointer with 34.3 seconds left in regulation.
Everything the Celtics sought to upgrade after their listless second-half effort in Game 1 came to fruition, yet they have nothing but pride and national respect. That’s an empty feeling, no consolation besides national pundits saying you were jobbed by officials, especially in the game’s key sequence, when television replays showed Wade slapped Rondo across the face on a drive to the basket with 1:35 left in overtime.
Rondo missed the layup, there was no call, and the distracted Celtics allowed a Udonis Haslem dunk for a 4-point Miami lead. At the most critical time, the Celtics lost their concentration and their effort was wasted.
Try as he might, Doc Rivers couldn’t help but touch on the officiating. Darn it, if the Celtics were going to play this well, they felt they should be at least rewarded with even officiating. The numbers show another lopsided foul total, with the Celtics being whistled for 33 to Miami’s 18. Three Celtics fouled out. Only one Heat player (Joel Anthony) committed more than three fouls. LeBron James and Wade played a combined 91:35 and totaled four fouls.
“It is what it is,’’ said Rivers, trying to avoid a fine for the second consecutive postgame press conference. “LeBron James took 24 free throws and our team took 29. Paul Pierce fouled out of a game where he was attacking the basket. But listen, we just got to keep playing. I tell my guys, ‘[It] doesn’t matter.’ We can’t get distracted. We will not get distracted in this series.’’
It was so infuriating that vice president of basketball operations Danny Ainge and assistant general manager Michael Zarren had an animated conversation with vice president of referee operations Joe Borgia after the game. And Borgia was doing most of the listening with a helpless expression.
The Celtics fully realized they may not play this well the rest of the series. Rondo was so crushed after his 44-point performance that he had to be consoled by a team official after his postgame press conference. His amazing night meant little because A’s for effort only matter in youth soccer. Miami leads the series, 2-0, and their road to the Finals remains unimpeded.
The only encouragement was coming home, and never during the Big Three Era have the Celtics needed home cooking more than Friday’s Game 3.
“We have the next two at home,’’ Rondo said. “We had two tough losses on the road. It’s a seven-game series. I’m looking forward to it.’’
Rondo was magnificent, especially with his perimeter shooting. He is often criticized, justifiably, for his lack of an outside game. But behind the scenes, he works arduously on his shooting. The shot was going down consistently, so much so that Rondo was holding up his right arm after the follow through - a sign of confidence.
He carried his team through the first two-plus quarters but the Celtics were overcome by the Miami avalanche as the Heat shot 65 percent in the third period and led by as many as 8 points. But the Celtics wouldn’t fold. They withstood the NBA’s version of a natural disaster and came back in the fourth quarter.
Allen may have been able to seal the game with a 3-pointer with 3:13 left in the game and the Celtics ahead, 94-89. It rimmed out and Miami responded with a potential game-sealing 9-0 run for a 4-point lead. The Celtics staggered, scrambled, and responded again, tying the game at 99 on Allen’s 3-pointer.
The 3-pointer could have served as a sign that things would actually work out, the Celtics would steal Game 2 and return to Boston with homecourt advantage. But circumstances would not allow. Rondo didn’t get the call. The Celtics were disheveled in overtime because Pierce fouled out. Kevin Garnett lacked the spring in his step we’ve grown accustomed the past month.
So what now? The Celtics watch film, lament their mistakes, and return home realizing they have no margin for error. They appear convinced they won’t allow this to serve as a detractor. It’s only natural for aging teams to fizzle after a great effort falls short.
The Celtics promised Wednesday that won’t be them. They promised they have more left. And while they believe they can respond, they certainly deserved better fate than they received in Game 2.
“It’s tough when you get a loss, especially when you play so hard, especially when you play so well,’’ Pierce said. “If we continue to play with that effort, play with that passion, I like our chances.’’