MIAMI - The Celtics’ third final four appearance in five years ended abruptly late Saturday night. But they went down fighting, their improbable, overachieving playoff run ended with a 101-88 loss to the Miami Heat.
After holding the lead for most of the game, the Celtics were overpowered by the force of LeBron James and had no answer for the Chris Bosh X-factor in the fourth quarter of Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals.
The Celtics wilted in the last minutes of what could have been the final act of the Big Three era, which started with the 2007-08 championship season.
“I was really proud of our guys, especially early on,’’ Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. “You could just see they had the fight in them. They were going to play the right way.
“Honestly, I just thought we had nothing left. That’s how it felt as a coach. I was trying to push every button we possibly had.’’
The Celtics led by as many as 11 points in the opening half and were in front by 9 in the second half. But they were outscored, 28-15, in the final quarter, only Rajon Rondo (22 points, 10 rebounds, 14 assists) able to score in the final six-plus minutes.
“Everything was front rim,’’ Rivers said of the Celtics’ late-game performance. “We started throwing the ball away. They started beating us off the dribble.
“But overall, I don’t know if I’ve ever had a group like this. I had a group in Orlando that I am fond of, that I talk about, the heart and hustle group. They’re very similar to that group. They did everything I asked them to do. They came up short.’’
What distinguished this Celtics team was an emphasis on unselfish team play from future Hall of Famers Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett, and Paul Pierce, plus Rondo, an All-Star guard, and an effective mix of role players.
The Celtics, who had a 16-17 record at the halfway point of the season, performed for most of the game with the intensity and precision that had resulted in a Game 5 win at AmericanAirlines Arena. They were also able to slow James (31 points), but could not counter Bosh (19 points), who had his strongest showing since being injured in the first game of the conference semifinals.
The last gasp for the Celtics came with a 1-point lead and Allen shooting for a possible 4-point edge. His 3-pointer had provided an 82-81 edge with 8:49 left, but this time Allen was off target and James’s driving dunk gave Miami an 83-82 advantage with 7:59 remaining.
After that, the Celtics were finished. Pierce lost possession and had a shot blocked, Miami running off 5 successive points - a Bosh 3-pointer out of a timeout and a James drive making it 88-82 with 6:50 left.
Brandon Bass hit a jumper for the Celtics, but James launched a 28-foot 3-pointer off the dribble to make it 91-84 with 5:44 remaining. Rondo outmaneuvered James for a layup off a long rebound near midcourt, but the Celtics misfired after that.
The Celtics’ tactics had Miami frustrated for most of the game, as they made James a nonfactor with a relay of defenders, starting with Bass.
James, who had 45 points and 15 rebounds in the Heat’s 98-79 win in Game 6, was held to 14 points in the opening half but finished strong, totaling 11 in the final 9:07.
“We needed Bosh’s guy to help slow down LeBron, to simplify it,’’ Rivers said. “And Bosh made shots. We were running out on him, he made two threes, they were way back, if that’s what’s going to beat you - if you told me that before the game, not taking anything away from Bosh, he’s a great shooter, but if their ‘5’ is going to beat you with the three late in the shot clock, and we took the ball out of LeBron’s hands, I’ll take it. [Bosh] was the X-factor, he gave them exactly what they needed.’’
Yet, the Celtics were still in contention before a strange sequence before the Bosh 3-pointer. Pierce appeared to have faked Dwyane Wade out of position, then lost control of the ball as Wade grabbed it and appeared to be tied up while on his back. Miami retained possession by calling a timeout before the jump ball was called.
Bosh converted his third 3-pointer and then helped out as Shane Battier blocked a Pierce drive, James scoring in transition for a 6-point Miami advantage.
The Celtics’ starters departed with 28.3 seconds on the clock, all hugging Rivers as they left the floor.
“If we could have got this group to the Finals, it would have been fantastic for us,’’ Rivers said. “That’s all I thought about today. Somehow, let’s see if we can get this group in the Finals. They deserve it with their will. I hear people talk about the NBA as an individual league. I think that theory is gone. This is a team. We had a terrific team effort by everybody.’’