|The Miami Heat escaped with a Game 2 overtime win over the Boston Celtics. (Getty Images)|
MIAMI -- They faltered repeatedly in big moments, struggled at the free throw line, absorbed a legendary Rajon Rondo performance and needed overtime to do it. But they escaped.
The Miami Heat beat the Celtics 115-111 in overtime at AmericanAirlines Arena on Wednesday night to take a 2-0 lead in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
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Boston succeeded in making virtually every one of its desired adjustments from Game 1. Those began with Rondo, who transformed from spectator on Monday night to central force on Wednesday.
"I've been hearing lately that he's the head of the snake on this team," Celtics forward Paul Pierce said before Game 1. "We need him to come out with a vicious bite this series."
Rondo was simply lethal, playing all 53 minutes and turning in a career-high 44 points, 8 rebounds, 10 assists and 3 steals. That particular line hasn't been done in a playoff game in the last 25+ years.
"He was absolutely phenomenal," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "Put the whole team at times on his shoulders. It's tough to have him play that way and not win the game, honestly, because he did basically everything right."
"Rondo was absolutely amazing," Heat forward LeBron James said. "The performance he put on tonight will go down in the record books. He played the whole game, he made all the played and tried to will his team to a victory. He showed tonight why he's an all-pro and one of the superstars in this league."
Rondo found his own scoring by confidently knocking down jumpers -- shooting 16-for-24 from the field -- and he set the tone for a much-improved Boston offense, which was able to score 99 points in regulation, 20 more than in Game 1. Pierce re-emerged as a shot-maker, scoring 21 points before fouling out. An injured Ray Allen resuscitated his shooting stroke, scoring 13 points, including a late 3-pointer that helped force overtime. Defensively, Boston limited Dwyane Wade's effectiveness for long stretches of the game and held James to 7-for-20 shooting from the field, his worst shooting night of the postseason.
"There just can't be any other way with this team," Spoelstra said. "It has to be the hard way."
The Celtics ran out to a double-digit first half lead and never folded, not even when both Pierce and Keyon Dooling both fouled out down the stretch. Rondo got bigger and bigger the longer he played, scoring 18 points on 7-for-10 shooting during fourth quarter and overtime.
"Whatever that team needs he's going to do," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. "Somehow we were able to withstand his incredible game."
As difficult as Rondo and Boston made life for Miami, the Heat eventually proved to be too much, winning by decision rather than knockout after some self-inflicted wounds.
James, always under the microscope, saw his play swing back and forth on a pendulum between beautiful and blunder. The standout number: James got the foul line 24 times, making 18. It was the most free throws he had attempted all season, shattering his previous high of 19 during the Christmas Day season opener against the Dallas Mavericks. James has only attempted more free throws in a game once in his career, when he shot 28 for the Cleveland Cavaliers against the Heat in March 2006.
"LeBron James took 24 free throws tonight and our team took 29," Rivers said incredulously. "It's just tough."
But the attempts -- not to mention the effort expended earning them -- were nearly forgotten because of James' six misses from the foul line. Four of the six came in the fourth quarter and overtime, including a pair to begin the extra period.
Wade, who finished with 23 points but never got going offensively against Boston's swarming defense, missed three other free throws in the fourth quarter and overtime, including a crucial miss with 47 seconds left in regulation that would have given Miami a 4-point lead. On the ensuing possession, Allen knocked down his three to tie the game with 34 seconds left.
That set the stage perfectly for James to deliver a winner. But with the ball in his hands and the chance to win, James missed two shots in the final 20 seconds of regulation. First, a contested lay-up that rimmed out after he set a high screen for Wade and rolled hard to the hoop.
"D-Wade was able to hit me on a pass to the rim, and I missed the lay-up," James explained. "I felt I had a good look at it, but I was kind of off balance."
After saving the possession by securing the offensive rebound, James isolated on Rondo at the top of the key, running out the clock before launching a step-back jumper over the smaller defender. His shot rimmed off as the buzzer sounded.
"I had a great look at it at the end of regulation, it just didn't go down," James said.
The second shot was an opportunity at a signature moment but also a horribly passive decision, especially considering the match-up. There seemed to be some carry-over from the miss into overtime, as James missed his pair of free throws, halted a drive to kick out cross-court to Shane Battier for an errant three, and then found himself tied up with Rondo a few possessions later.
But the miscues alternated with flashes of brilliance, the product of relentless effort on both ends of the court. An on-target pass to Wade for a game-tying dunk. Two possession-ending defensive rebounds. A tip-in putback, his fourth offensive rebound of the game, to tie the game at 105 with 1:50 to play. A dish to forward Udonis Haslem for a go-ahead slam 22 seconds later. One final drawn foul, and two made free throws with 11 seconds remaining, to put the game out of reach, 114-108.
"He made winning plays," Spoelstra said. "He missed a couple of free throws and yet still hand an impact... It's not always going to be about the shot. It's about finding a way to win, especially against a team like this."
James finished with 34 points, 10 rebounds, 7 assists, 1 steal, 1 block and just 1 turnover in 47 minutes. Prodigious, far from perfect, and only the second best performance on the night. But it was a winning one.
"It was a battle," James said. "We never felt like we won the game or lost the game until there were zeroes on the clock... We were able to win this game with so many ups and downs throughout the whole game."
"It's irrelevant," Rondo said, finally, about his own numbers. "We lost. It's as simple as that."
James has been in Rondo's shoes before, sitting at the podium as the best player on the court but in a losing effort. Given how these playoffs have unfolded, he will almost certainly find himself in that spot again, perhaps a number of times.
Just not this night.