Final-play breakdown tells story

BOSTON -- It seemed like an appropriate final scene, even in a game the Celtics seemed desperate to give away.

After spearheading a feverish late-game rally, Boston captain Paul Pierce found himself with the ball and a chance to punctuate a four-game sweep -- a sweep he had alluded to six days earlier on national TV -- with a trademark game-winner.

With the clock winding down, Pierce dribbled right on J.J. Redick and … broom goes the dynamite.

In a perfect microcosm of Boston's night, Pierce lost control of the ball and couldn't recover as the clock ran out. The game spilled into overtime, where the Celtics continued to sputter, allowing Orlando to emerge with a 96-92 triumph in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals that kept its season alive.

"We didn't want to call a timeout," said Pierce, explaining how the final play unfolded. "It was a pick-and-roll, me and Ray Allen. I just pretty much screwed it up, pretty much turned the ball over, and that's all it is. I couldn't get the final shot. Sometimes it happens that way, but that's no excuse. We still had opportunities in overtime and we didn't take advantage of it."

In building a six-game postseason winning streak, the Celtics have excelled by being everything they weren't late in the regular season. Now, on the verge of returning to the NBA Finals, the Green suddenly reverted to the puzzling team that played pedestrian basketball from late December to mid-April.

Monday's loss was eerily reminiscent of an overtime loss to the Houston Rockets in early April, in which Celtics coach Doc Rivers swore that it was still April Fools' Day, considering his team's atrocious execution.

After that game, the Big Three convened for a rare dinner together to discuss the state of the 2009-10 Celtics. Boston rebounded two days later with a win over the Cleveland Cavaliers on Easter Sunday, starting the process by which the Celtics restored their championship hopes.

There's probably no need for the Big Three to break bread before Wednesday's Game 5 in Orlando, but Monday's loss was a subtle reminder of how difficult the Celtics can make their own lives when they're not mentally focused.

"The execution was so bad … I thought we executed poorly throughout the game," Rivers said. "We didn't make the next rotations, we didn't make the next pass. It was amazing how bad we were, execution-wise, and we still had a chance to win that game. That was amazing to me."

The final play of regulation summed up the entire night for a Boston team that couldn't get out of its own way.

"We didn't execute it at all, I can tell you that," Rivers said. "It was supposed to be Paul at the top with a pick-and-roll with Ray. The floor was supposed to be flat and spaced. When you look at it, half our team was standing next to Paul."

Boston spent much of the game playing from behind after a lackluster first half and, despite staring at a seven-point deficit with just 2:24 to go, managed to tie the game while leaning on Pierce and Allen.

When Jameer Nelson missed a 21-footer with 16 seconds to go, Kevin Garnett hauled in the rebound and Boston made the decision to skip the timeout and go for the immediate win.

Stan Van Gundy would later admit he liked that decision -- maybe because the play crumbled -- but noted that Orlando was stuck with a smaller lineup, including Nelson playing with five fouls.

The Celtics couldn't capitalize. Both Redick and Nelson came over to defend Pierce, leaving Rajon Rondo alone on the wing, but with Pierce dribbling toward Rondo, he abandoned the idea of passing given how crowded it became. Pierce then lost the ball dribbling back to his left and stumbled to the court trying desperately to recover it as time expired.

"There were a couple of plays down the stretch, offensively, that we botched. Plain and simple," Allen said. "Going into overtime, we didn't even get a shot up at the basket. We were rushing. It just didn't seem that we had or were in great sync there in the fourth quarter, offensively. We're kicking ourselves because we had great opportunities still."

The final play ended with Pierce hunched over at midcourt in disbelief, while Rondo fumed near the Boston bench, to the point that Rivers called him over to calm him down a bit.

Rondo wouldn't use the muscle spasms that chased him to the locker room in the final minutes of the first half as an excuse for his subpar performance, but it's obvious that when he struggles, so does Boston's offense.

As the floor general, Rondo seemed slightly irked that he didn't get a chance to set up the play, or even get the shot when the defense roamed away from him.

Asked his thoughts on the final play and not calling a timeout to set something up, Rondo noted, "That's what Doc wanted, we just didn't come up with the shot."

And did the play develop as it should have? "Yeah, we wanted [Pierce] with the ball, [but] they made the play."

Orlando was hardly flawless and actually only pulled away in overtime when Nelson made a pair of "Are you serious?" 3-pointers, banking one (he didn't call it) and rainbowing the other, while scoring the first six points of the offensively anemic extra session.

At times neither team seemed like it wanted to win. But the Magic did, and now they've made things a bit more interesting as the series shifts back to Orlando for Game 5.

The Celtics (who lead the series 3-1) know they must clean up their mistakes quickly, because it won't matter how big a series advantage they have if they continue to execute like they did on the final play of regulation.

"It's frustrating because when we look at ourselves, what I remember from the plays, I don't think we executed the way we know how to execute and that really hurt us in the end," Glen Davis said. "I think that really hurt us, we didn't get the plays we wanted, we didn't use the personnel the way they were guarding us, we didn't use that well.

"But the coach is going to see that. Rondo is going to see that, and everyone is going to look at the tape and we are going to try to bounce back and get this game."

Chris Forsberg is the Celtics reporter for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.