MIAMI - The Celtics have been in rally mode all season. And that attitude helped carry them to a 94-90 victory over the Heat Tuesday night, taking them within a game of a third trip to the NBA Finals in five years.
The return of Chris Bosh was expected to give the Heat an edge in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals. But Bosh played only briefly (14 minutes and 23 seconds) and the Celtics were able to withstand the Heat’s LeBron James-Dwyane Wade combination to take the lead in the series with a chance to close things out in Game 6 at TD Garden Thursday night.
Celtics coach Doc Rivers found a successful combination with a zone defense and a small lineup, Mickael Pietrus providing a spark with 13 points and also helping to hold James to 12 points in the second half.
“We had a rough first quarter, first half, Doc just kept telling us stay with it and continue to, you know, fight,’’ said Kevin Garnett (26 points, 11 rebounds). “I thought for the most part we did that. We got into a defensive rhythm, we got some stops, went through a stretch where we made a run ourselves. And when we had to we got stops.’’
The Heat led by as a many as 13 points in the opening half and were up by 9 points late in the third quarter and by 6 midway through the final quarter. The Celtics struggled offensively most of the game, but broke through with a 15-1 run late in the third quarter.
Garnett had 18 points and seven rebounds in the second half, plus a key block on James in the final minute. And Paul Pierce (19 points), after starting 2 for 11 from the field, drilled a crucial 3-pointer for a 90-86 advantage with 52.9 seconds remaining.
“I kind of wanted him to drive, honestly,’’ Rivers said. “I’ve been around Paul long enough, right when he gets into the footwork, you knew he was going to shoot it. Honestly, I thought he was going to drive it, but he made it. That’s what players like Paul do. It really is. He’s a big shot-maker, he always has been.’’
The Heat reverted to overdependence on James (30 points) and Wade (27 points), who scored 32 of Miami’s 48 second-half points.
Meanwhile, the Celtics presented several different threats - Ray Allen, Keyon Dooling, Greg Stiemsma, and Garnett were involved in the scoring during a 15-1 rally that provided a 65-60 lead after three quarters.
The Celtics stayed in contention with strong defense. Allen got a steal to ignite the run over the final 5:09 of the quarter. Pierce made a jumper and Stiemsma a layup, then a free throw. The Celtics appeared to be struggling against Miami’s aggressive, overplaying defense - Rondo committing a backcourt violation, plus Brandon Bass getting a technical foul after slamming the ball in frustration after a turnover. But the Celtics were able to get into transition, closing the quarter with a 5-point lead.
Garnett tied it, 60-60, with a dunk for a 3-point play off a delayed fast break, started by a Pierce rebound of a James miss, Garnett left alone by the Heat as a trailer. Then Pietrus sank a jumper and Dooling a 3-pointer.
Miami turned on the James and Wade show in the final quarter, the Heat taking a 78-72 lead with a 9-point run over a 2:23 span. Then, the Celtics combined good fortune and resourcefulness to break a 2:53 scoring drought.
Wade blocked a Bass dunk attempt, but Rondo spiked the rebound to Pietrus for a 3-pointer to get the Celtics within 78-75 with 6:01 left.
“I thought maybe that was the biggest play of the game,’’ Rivers said.
Garnett’s second-chance jumper put the Celtics in the lead, and Allen hit a free throw after Mario Chalmers was issued a technical foul, making it 82-80 with 2:54 to play. Chalmers hit a 3-pointer with 2:34 to go, giving the Heat its final lead.
Pietrus’s 3-pointer gave the Celtics an 85-83 edge with 2:11 to play. A Wade drive produced the final tie, 85-85, with 1:39 remaining. The Celtics ran off the make, five seconds later Pierce getting two foul shots to make it 87-85. Udonis Haslem converted a free throw off an offensive rebound with 1:12 left. Then, Pierce stepped into a 3-pointer in a one-on-one situation with James. And the Celtics closed things out at the line.
“We’ve been together for a while, been through countless different battles [against] different teams,’’ Garnett said. “We knew the circumstances of us coming down here and everybody was locked in, man, and we’ve got to take that same approach to Game 6.
“To be honest, I’m not really grasping it – taking this team thing one game at a time and next game will be no different from that. We’ll prepare, we’ll make our adjustments, we’ll watch film, and we’ll come in and prepare for this next game and that’s what it is.’’