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Legendary comeback sends Celtics into postseason with confidence

BOSTON -- When the largest comeback in the NBA this season was complete, Boston Celtics All-Star point guard Isaiah Thomas plopped down in a sideline seat next to 11-time champion Bill Russell and, amid the on-court chaos of Fan Appreciation Night, expressed his own gratitude for what the 82-year-old Russell accomplished during his basketball career.

For most of the first half, Thomas and his teammates could barely look in the direction of Russell or any of the other legends sprinkled courtside on a night when the Celtics celebrated the anniversaries of the 1966, 1976, and 1986 championship teams. Boston was so pathetic over the 24 minutes of play preceding the halftime ceremony to honor those title squads that players were legitimately embarrassed to find themselves down 24 points and being booed off the court at the intermission.

When the Celtics huddled in their locker room, Celtics coach Brad Stevens didn't raise his voice but sent an emphatic message.

"Who do we want to be?" Stevens said he asked his players. "There are guys sitting around this building that hung banners. Like, how do you want to play? How do we want to feel about ourselves? And we just looked different after that."

The Celtics limited the visiting Miami Heat to five third-quarter points in erasing much of what had been as much as a 26-point deficit. TD Garden lost its collective mind in the fourth quarter when Boston surged ahead and held on for a 98-88 triumph.

Despite the win, the Celtics settled for the No. 5 seed in the Eastern Conference by virtue of an improbable four-way tie created when the Atlanta Hawks lost in Washington and the Charlotte Hornets defeated Orlando. Miami won the Southeast Division -- and secured the No. 3 seed -- by virtue of the division tiebreaker, and Atlanta slotted fourth ahead of Boston based on head-to-head performance against the remaining tied teams.

Jae Crowder, recalling his reaction when informed the Celtics didn't emerge with home-court advantage in Round 1 despite the comeback, joked, "We did all that for that? We laid it on the line like that? For nothing? We could have taken the [loss]?"

Alas, a loss wouldn't have given the Celtics' locker room the sort of energy and optimism that bounced off the walls after the monster comeback. Sure, it's absolutely reasonable to wonder if landing the No. 6 seed and playing the Heat on the road might have been a better matchup for Boston, particularly given that it could have meant avoiding the top-seeded Cleveland Cavaliers in the conference semifinals.

But buoyed by two electric quarters, Boston seems content to try its luck against an Atlanta squad that it lost to on the road last week. The Celtics firmly believe they can use Wednesday's effort as a catalyst. As Thomas declared in the aftermath, "We're ready to show the world what we're capable of doing."

Echoed Avery Bradley, "We're just going to play as hard as we can. We have to be that hard-nosed grind team that plays hard every single possession. Crowder said it best: "Our team is one star. We all have to do our part and all have to bring it every single night regardless of anything that's going wrong."

Outmuscled and outhustled in the first half, the Celtics had every reason to roll over and simply start preparing themselves for a first-round matchup with the Heat. But it might have been the presence of the legends that left them unable to accept such an ending.

Thomas and Crowder said that players exchanged loud and sometimes harsh assessments of the first half before Stevens entered the locker room. Though Stevens said he didn't offer anything "otherworldly," his calm demeanor seemed to settle a rattled bunch.

"Brad sat down in the chair and he talked real quiet," Thomas said. "You could tell he was upset, but he was basically like, 'Figure it out. You guys are playing real selfish, not just offensively, but the defensive scheme is real selfish. Everybody is hugging their guy and we need to play as one and get ourselves together and get ourselves out of whatever funk we're in.' And we did that. We kept looking at each other telling ourselves we're going to win this game, we're going to make a comeback and just believe, and that's the special thing about this team."

The Celtics were relentless on defense in the third quarter. The only player on Miami to score in that span was late-season import Joe Johnson (he made both of Miami's field goals in a quarter the team was 2-of-20 shooting).

"From AAU, from [NBA], to elementary [school], that's amazing [defense]," Crowder said. "Five points in the third, if I'm not mistaken. I've never heard of anything like that. Especially with those guys. Those guys hit everything in the first half. They were hitting shot after shot. We just buckled in. All five guys and our bench came in and picked up where the starters left off."

By the fourth quarter, TD Garden was a celebration, with the building rattling when New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick, resplendent in a full suit, was spotlighted on the JumboTron. The camera eventually cut to Kevin McHale and Bill Walton, members of the 1986 title team, smiling wide and mugging for the camera as the cheers grew louder.

"In the second half, I saw a few of [the legends] smiling and it got everybody smiling on the bench," Bradley said. "That's what it is all about -- us going out there and playing Celtic basketball. We are all a family."

Thomas, who Wednesday received the team's 11th annual Red Auerbach Award, which celebrates a player who best represents Celtics basketball, made it a point to seek out Russell in the aftermath.

"I just said, 'It's an honor to play in front of you,' " Thomas said. "I know he lives in the Seattle area, so we've got that little connection there. It was just an honor to play in front of all those guys. Like I said, they paved the way for us to play, and what Celtics basketball really means. It was good to get a win in front of the legends."

These young Celtics are under no delusion that they'll be back here in 30 or 50 years celebrating a 2016 title. But Wednesday's win reminded this group of its potential and Boston is eager to see what it can do in the postseason, particularly if it can bottle up that third-quarter defensive intensity.

The Celtics might want to also consider bringing those legends back courtside if this team needs another boost along the playoff path.