Celtics stifle Heat with defense

BOSTON -- It started, as coach Doc Rivers deemed it should, with their defense.

It continued, as you knew it would, with gut-check performances from Boston Celtics captain Paul Pierce and the redoubtable Kevin Garnett, the reluctant "go-to'' forward who would rather pass to create ball movement but understood his matchup was the one Boston needed to exploit against the overmatched Chris Bosh.

And, because it appears to be an unwritten rule that nothing can ever be easy for this group of Celtics players, it climaxed when Rajon Rondo, who had to be helped off the court with a gruesome, seemingly season-ending elbow injury, returned in the fourth quarter to push tempo, create havoc defensively and once again insert himself into the argument that he might just be the most important Celtic of all.

You can officially mark down this grueling Eastern Conference semifinal series as rekindled. By throttling the Miami Heat 97-81 in a convincing Game 3 victory, Boston served notice reports of their demise were premature.

"That,'' said Miami coach Erik Spoelstra, "was a championship-caliber response.''

The tone was initially set by Pierce, who harassed LeBron James on one end, then challenged him with an array of jumpers, pull-ups and drives on the other. Pierce scored nine points in the first five minutes of the game.

Included in that opening run was a sequence in which Ray Allen and KG converged on Wade to force a turnover, which was quickly converted into a Pierce drive that rolled off. No matter. Rondo tipped it and Pierce laid it in underneath.

The offensive focus then shifted to Garnett, who submitted a performance worthy of his MVP season with Minnesota in 2004, when coach Flip Saunders forced him to be a dominant offensive player by repeatedly calling his number. Rivers enlisted a similar strategy, and KG responded with a game-high 28 points (on 13-of-20 shooting) and a game-high 18 rebounds. Add his thoroughly demoralizing effect on the anemic Bosh, and Garnett was, as LeBron noted, "playing like a Hall of Famer.''

Spoelstra revealed after the game Bosh was suffering from a pinched nerve in his neck. The slender Heat forward declared he wouldn't use the injury as an excuse for his poor play and then correctly added, "Nobody cares anyway.''

It's hard to dwell on a stiff neck when Rondo was running Miami ragged with one arm dangling helplessly by his side. The injury occurred in the third quarter when he became entangled with a visibly frustrated Wade. As Rondo tumbled to the floor, he stuck out his arm to break his fall. The unnatural way in which his elbow contorted was not for the faint of heart. His elbow was dislocated, and the pain was excruciating.

"Close up, it looked like the bone came out,'' Delonte West reported.

As Rondo struggled to catch some air, the sellout Garden crowd also collectively held its breath.

Speculation immediately centered on a possible broken elbow and the end to Rondo's (and Boston's?) season. The kid was taken to the locker room, had his elbow popped back into place and iced and then told the training staff, "I want back in.''

"He's a tough, young individual,'' Garnett said of Rondo. "I don't know what he'll be like when he's 35, but he's got a lot of heart and a lot of grit.''

Rondo had company. Boston played an aggressive two-way game that was all about a team that knew its season was on the line. Those wide open 3-pointers that James swished in Miami were now contested. When he drove to the basket, there was help waiting in the form of Garnett and Jermaine O'Neal and -- gasp -- even Shaquille O'Neal. The King played like a mere commoner Saturday, missing 10 of his 16 shots and 4 of his 7 free throws. James checked out with 15 points.

Credit Pierce for affecting his rhythm. Resident whipping boy Jeff Green also provided the kind of gritty defense that skeptical Celtics fans have been waiting on since he arrived in a deal for the popular Kendrick Perkins.

Consider the possession with 1:24 left in the third quarter. At the time, Boston had a 12-point lead and the ball was in LeBron's hands. As he sized up his options from the right baseline, Green forced him deeper in the corner and Pierce snuck up from behind and forced James (four turnovers) to cough up the ball.

That defensive energy translated into stellar offensive opportunities. With 8½ minutes left in the game, Green tipped a Heat pass away, and the ball bounced free. Bosh moved to retrieve it, but he hesitated for just a moment, which was long enough for Rondo to swoop in, pickpocket the weakest link of the Heat's Big Three, then wave goodbye as he gently stuffed it home on the other end.

"I think they made us settle a little too much,'' observed Wade (8-for-19), whose shooting woes continue in Boston.

The Celtics' defensive schemes were precisely what Rivers had been requesting from his team: aggressive stops that led to easy offense.

"That's the blueprint,'' Rivers agreed. "It's funny, in the second quarter, they started scoring and we stop scoring. It's no coincidence.''

Although Rivers termed Rondo a "major concern'' going forward because of the injury, the point guard claimed he wasn't wasting time fretting about it. He said he would play on Monday in Game 4.

"We're a no-excuse team,'' Rondo said.

The Heat consider themselves the same. They, too, feed off their defense. They will take another look at the game film and mull over whether KG might require a double-team going forward. They will decide whether Joel Anthony should be moved into the starting lineup.

"Well evaluate everything from A to Z,'' Spoelstra promised.

He might want to focus on the Celtics' D.

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