Let me start by saying this was an instant classic. A breathtaking, awe-inspiring experience filled with memorable, top shelf quality moments that’ll keep both fan bases talking all summer long, and beyond, for years to come. Viewing it as a spectator may have taken three to five years off my life, but I’m glad I endured.
Now that my polite preamble is out of the way…wow. For at least half a dozen reasons, Game 2 was the basketball watching equivalent to having a sharp metal shaft jammed directly down my spine. There is no “deserving” to win in sports, but this Celtics team did just about everything possible to tie this series up at one. And behind an all-time brilliant performance from Rajon Rondo, came about as close to “deserving” a victory as anyone ever has.Remove Jordan from the conversation, and there are maybe five individual playoff performances more impressive than what we just saw. There is no hyperbole. Rondo played the entire game (53 minutes) with a burning rage. From the first quarter—where he attempted six free-throws on furious drives to the basket—a strong “there’s no way we’re losing” attitude emanated from his body like steam from boiling water. The pessimist could say he had a hot hand, and that this game was the true definition of an anomaly. But I would argue it goes much deeper than that. Sure, Rondo made a bunch of jumpers, but he also attacked and got guys open buckets in transition. He confidently placed the Celtics on his back, on the road, against one of the league’s most punishing defenses, without relenting for a single instant.
Rondo scored 44 points on 16-24 shooting (including 2-2 from deep, not including 10-12 from the free-throw line, and all 12 of his team’s points in overtime) against every capable defender Miami has—including Dwyane Wade, Udonis Haslem, and LeBron James. Adding to that, he grabbed eight rebounds, had three steals, and finished the game with 10 “ohbytheway” assists. Rondo roved the perimeter on defense—holding the planet’s best player to a fadeaway jumper as regulation came to a close—and was once again called upon to assume the role of go-to scorer down the stretch after Paul Pierce fouled out in regulation (on a play where Wade jumped in the air, spun his back towards the basket, and blindly flipped a shot over his head). Boston’s point guard did everything his coaches, teammates, and fans could ever ask of him, but when he woke up this morning, there was nothing to show for it but a devastating loss and two legs that feel like marmalade.
All previous displays of brilliance on par with the one we just witnessed came in winning efforts. Rondo’s didn’t, but for this it shouldn’t be marred. If Rondo someday enters the Hall of Fame, clips from Game 2 of the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals will proudly play in the background as he walks to the podium. This is how great he was; it was historic.
Now, I believe no single play decides the outcome of a basketball game. Within 80-100 possessions there are countless moments where plays can be made and outcomes can be altered. But unfortunately last night, the Celtics, and Rondo, were vacated their rights in a crucial sequence that significantly altered who won and who lost. With 90 seconds left, and the game tied at 105, Rondo darted past Haslem towards the basket. He went up for a reverse layup, and was smacked square in the forehead by Wade. No whistle. The Heat gathered the ball, ran the other way on a four on five (Rondo was down after, you know, GETTING SLAPPED IN THE FACE) and converted on a dunk.
It was a super obvious call resulting in a possible four point swing in Miami’s favor. (While we’re here, let me take two quick seconds to get this off my chest: The Celtics were called for 33 fouls. Three of their players fouled out, including Pierce. They went 26-29 from the free-throw line. On the other end of the spectrum, Miami was called for 18 fouls. None of their players had more than three, except Joel Anthony, who had four. The Heat went 31-47 from the free-throw line (not a misprint). In 48 minutes of play, LeBron James put the ball through the hoop a grand total of seven times, yet scored 34 points. How can this be? Well, he attempted 24 free-throws. Those numbers are probably why Danny Ainge had a nice post-game chat with the NBA’s Vice President of Referee Operations.)
This play didn’t decide the outcome of the game. There was time left, but not all that much. When it’s all said and done, the Celtics missed several opportunities they should’ve taken advantage of. One example coming in the final moments of regulation, when James grabbed his own miss, allowing the Heat to take the game’s final shot. Had the Celtics controlled the ball, as they were in position to do, they would’ve had about 10 seconds to race up the court and get a possible game winning shot off. The way Rondo was playing, I really like those odds.
Games like this one shouldn’t need box scores, as they don’t do justice to describe just how hard every single player worked. From Keyon Dooling to Pierce to Kevin Garnett (a great defensive effort, but couldn’t get things going below the foul line late in the game) to Ray Allen (who managed to climb out of his own grave in Game 2, spryly running around screens for 43 minutes and knocking down some gigantic threes—including Boston’s last bucket of regulation—looking as good as new.)
So it goes. There are no asterisks in the NBA playoffs. Boston just lost a game they probably should’ve won, and are down 0-2 in the Eastern Conference Finals. Despite their shrewd pick and roll adjustments that stifled Wade in the first half, forcing him to lean on isolation jumpers for most of the second half, they lost. If Game 2 were a boxing match, the Celtics had Miami on the ropes, but were cut by an illegal head-butt while the ref’s attention was diverted elsewhere. A large gash opened up, trickling blood into their eye sight. Now their trainer is screaming from the corner to shake it off. To turn back into the ring and fight. To give it everything they’ve got.
On Friday night, the Celtics legs will wobble, but their hearts will not. This proud, resilient bunch will not give up, and they will not falter. When Game 2 appeared to be winding down the same road that Game 1 had unfortunately traveled, and the Heat began to pull away on a barrage of impossible Wade jumpers and authoritative play from James in the middle of the second half, Boston fought back to regain the lead early in the fourth quarter. Their spirit is strong, their will to win contagious. With the 2012 Boston Celtics, the moment you count them out is the second they throw their most powerful punch.