Beaten Celtics say they'll be back

MIAMI -- They hung on the ropes like a valiant heavyweight fighter, staggering to their corner after absorbing blow after blow, only to regroup and come out again with some counterpunches of their own.

The Boston Celtics once again proved their resiliency and their guile, but as time ticked away in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinals and the score remained tight, you knew what the outcome would be against a younger, more athletic opponent playing at home that features the player with the best knockout punch in all of basketball.

And, in the end, it was LeBron James who TKO'd their hopes, their dreams, their season.

And, in the end, it was the Miami Heat who advanced to the Eastern Conference finals because they proved to be the better team.

For 45 minutes, the Celtics clung to the slightest of advantages, playing with a lineup of Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett, Jeff Green, Delonte West and, ahem, Nenad Krstic, who didn't even play in Games 3 or 4 of the series.

Rajon Rondo, the point guard who set the Celtics apart for most of the season, was on the bench with a bad shoulder, an aching elbow and a cranky back. Jermaine O'Neal, the defacto starting center, was sidelined with his own back problems. Paul Pierce was in and out of the game with foul trouble.

And still the Celtics held an 81-74 lead with 9:21 to go in the game.

"I thought we were playing great," Green said.

Stop me when you've heard this before. Down the stretch, while Boston turned the ball over and missed wide open shots, the Heat turned it up and completely dominated play. In past games, Miami beat Boston driving into the teeth of its defense.

In this game, the Heat obliterated the Celtics with 3-point shooting.

Three in particular were killers: a James Jones trey with 3:45 to go (which proved to be his only bucket of the night) just after a Kevin Garnett turnaround rolled off; a LeBron fallaway 3-pointer over Pierce in the corner with 2:11 left to push Miami in front 90-87, and another contested LeBron 3-pointer over Pierce's outstretched arms with 40 seconds left to clinch it.

That dagger followed Pierce's pass to Green in the corner that skipped off his hands and out
of bounds.

The numbers were staggering in the final four and a half minutes of the game. Boston was outscored 16-0 and missed five consecutive shots. Conversely LeBron, who again played the entire second half without any rest, made every big plays when his team required it. He scored the final 10 points of the game, each more ferocious than the previous.

Boston's veterans gamely tried to keep pace without success.

"We missed so many open shots down the stretch," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said with a sigh. "Maybe it was fatigue, or maybe we just missed shots.

"They hit two 3s with one second on the shot clock, fading out. It's a make-miss league. It always will be."

Rivers was proactive in trying to stem the inevitable discussion that his Celtics are too old, too worn and too beat-up to continue being a championship contender. He announced following the game he was leaning heavily toward returning next season as the Celtics' coach, and expected his core players to follow suit.

"I don't believe we're done," he declared.

While there are a number of Boston players on the roster who are in the final years of their contract, none of them are named Garnett, Pierce, Rondo or Allen (he has a player option that he made clear he fully intends to exercise).

Glen "Big Baby" Davis is an unrestricted free agent who often clashed with Rivers and completed a dreadful postseason with six points and two rebounds in 16 minutes of play. Boston won't throw a lot of money at him, but since they are over the cap, they are limited in what they can do to change their personnel.

Davis insisted he loved playing for Rivers and wanted to return, but conceded, "You never know. Perk [Kendrick Perkins] wanted to stay too."

Ah yes, the elephant in the green room. If the Celtics hadn't traded Perkins away, would they have been able to beat the Heat? Since Boston's most notable struggles were on the offensive end of the floor, that may be a skewed theory, but there is no denying the chemistry was altered, perhaps irrevocably, once the popular center was shipped to Oklahoma City. Nothing ever seemed right after he was gone.

Perhaps with a full year in the system, Jeff Green will flourish the way Celtics boss Danny Ainge envisioned he would. At 24, he represents a bridge to the future, and it would be almost unfathomable to imagine that Boston will let him go as a restricted free agent.

Boston will likely want to keep Delonte West, whose contract is up, but there would have be a more significant overhaul if this team truly expects to remain among the elite.

Pierce said he thought the team would re-evaluate its roster and make a couple of moves.

"Let's see what happens," he said.

As constituted, the fire power of the energetic, fearless and defensive minded Heat is only going to improve with time, while the passing of days and months and years continues to be the biggest threat to Boston's viability.

Both James and Wade paid proper homage to their elder adversaries, with LeBron admitting one of the reasons he came to Miami was because of the "multiple threat" blueprint the Celtics established in 2008 when KG and Allen joined Pierce and won a title.

"They pushed us every game, every second, every play, every minute on the court," James said, "and if we made a mistake, they made us pay."

The same was true for the Boston Celtics. When they faltered, the Heat pounced. The biggest difference? It seemed to take the Celtics an eternity to score, while Miami proved repeatedly to be a quick-strike attacker.

That's what happens when you are young and talented and hungry.

"Miami is a terrific team, by the way," Rivers said. "Those three guys are tough, and those two guys are monsters when they are making shots."

There was a time when opponents said the same of the Boston Celtics. Rivers and Pierce believe that time will come again, when Rondo and his mates have time to heal and reflect.

You just wonder how that is possible with a new "big three" on the horizon in the East, a trio that is only beginning to realize its own strength.

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