'Inexcusable' mistakes put C's on brink

BOSTON -- Years from now, when they gather to reminisce about the old days, the 2010-2011 Boston Celtics will trade pleasant memories of spirited comebacks and victories generated by the guile of seasoned veterans -- until someone brings up Game 4 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.

And that's when they'll start choking on their corn dogs.

It is one thing to fall victim, as coach Doc Rivers has termed it, to the "greatness'' of LeBron James, Miami's polarizing star who imprinted his indelible stamp on the outcome of this heated contest.

Yet it is quite another when you literally throw away your chance to offset his brilliance with one poor decision after another at the most critical junctures of the game on your own beloved parquet.

The Celtics have fallen behind 3-1 in their best-of-seven series with the Heat in the wake of an excruciating 98-90 overtime loss, and if their season does end Wednesday in South Beach, they will harken back to the final seconds of regulation in this game as their death knell.

In what can only be described as a mind-numbing lack of execution, the veteran Celtics team emerged from a timeout with 19.5 seconds to go, during which they presumably discussed their strategy, and then completely botched the final shot.

The play was designed for Paul Pierce to hold the ball at the top of the circle while Ray Allen came up to the foul line and fanned out to create a misdirection. At that point Kevin Garnett would step up so he and Pierce could run a pick-and-roll.

But KG never came, even as Pierce began waving desperately for him to move toward him with the clock ticking down. Allen -- confused as to why Garnett was not setting the screen for Pierce -- hesitated, then retreated. As the seconds dwindled to nothing, Pierce was forced to take an off balance fallaway at the buzzer.

"The timing got messed up,'' Garnett explained.

"We're kicking ourselves over that,'' offered Allen.

"Inexcusable,'' Pierce said. "It was bad execution. ... Things you can control, like guys being [at] the right spots. ... So many turnovers. We beat ourselves.''

Not entirely. Miami played a role in forcing the Celtics into 43 percent shooting by showing a number of aggressive defensive schemes that left Boston guessing all night long. They trapped Garnett intermittently, leaving him so flummoxed by their coverages he stopped shooting.

Garnett, who previously had back-to-back games in which he attempted 20 shots, was a woeful 1-for-10 on Monday night.

He was not alone in his futility. Paul Pierce pumped in a team-high 27 points but committed four turnovers, including an ill-advised pass to Rajon Rondo with 1:46 left in the regulation with the score tied. Garnett chose to begin overtime by bouncing a pass to Rondo that jumped so high it looked like a kick ball in a four-squares game. Delonte West, who submitted an otherwise courageous performance with some lock-down defense on Dwayne Wade, bounced a pass into Jeff Green in the post with 2:25 left in overtime that also ended up out of bounds.

Boston checked out with 18 turnovers, some of them forced, some of them unforced, but nearly all of them cropping up at incredibly inopportune moments. You turn the ball over against Miami, you lose. It's that simple.

"You could feel their timing was off,'' confirmed Miami sniper James Jones. "Some of the defensive adjustments we made in the game gave them pause.

"Their whole offensive approach is built on continuity and rhythm, and we tried to distort that as much as we could.''

Mission accomplished. Rondo logged 38 gritty minutes with his injured elbow heavily wrapped, but he labored to find open shots for his teammates and was almost a liability in the offensive sets. Rivers actually turned to Green to sub for Rondo at the 3:41 mark of OT in hopes of generating some scoring.

It simply never materialized. Boston tallied but one field goal in the extra frame -- a Pierce drive with 47 seconds to play. The Celtics' first five possessions of overtime proved to be a sad refrain: turnover, miss, miss, turnover, turnover.

Conversely, LeBron drilled a tough fallaway over Pierce's outstretched arms, fed Chris Bosh for an easy jam underneath, then hustled back to take a charge on Pierce.

"The turnovers killed us,'' Rivers said. "And several of them were on fast breaks, 3-on-1's, stuff like that.''

Boston led by eight (73-65) in the final minute of the third quarter before James found Joel Anthony underneath, then drove through the teeth of the Celtics' defense to cut that lead in half. James had his own share of miscues (five turnovers), but delivered with a killer 3-pointer from the corner with two minutes left in regulation and (temporarily) gave his club the lead with one of his raging-bull drives through the paint with 48 seconds left in the fourth quarter.

He was in attack mode from start to finish, challenging Boston to find a way to stop him with the game on the line. The Celtics, meanwhile, found numerous ways to stop themselves.

"We've been through a lot of pain and heartache to get to a point where we feel confident at the end of games,'' noted Heat coach Erik Spoelstra. "We all know we struggled earlier in the year. We tried to find our identity, tried to find execution, what we can run, what works for us and where guys can be comfortable and where we can use our strengths.''

That was supposed to be Boston's advantage. The Celtics knew each other so well they could throw the ball to an open spot and know their teammate would arrive at the precise moment to retrieve it. They were supposed to be the ones who had the symmetry and the chemistry and the championship pedigree.

But when it mattered in Game 4, it was Miami that converted on the game-changing plays.

Boston will try to regroup, of course. There was plenty of the usual talk about resiliency and mental toughness and playing best when things look the most dire, but that was one of the other problems Monday night.

Asked how the Celtics could have possibly faltered so miserably on that final play of regulation, Rondo answered, "It's a surprise, but it happens. A lot of talking during the huddle and there wasn't enough listening.''

They might be all ears now, but it's very likely too little too late. As Larry Bird always said, "When I'm up 3-1, I know it's over.''

If so, this will be an ending that will dog the 2010-11 Celtics for the rest of their days.

Jackie MacMullan, who has spent nearly 20 years as a beat writer and columnist in Boston, is a columnist for ESPNBoston.com.