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June 6, 2012
Playoff Prospectus
Every Play Counts

by Kevin Pelton

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Boston 94, at Miami 90 (Boston leads 3-2)
Pace: 92.6
Offensive Ratings: Boston 101.1, Miami 97.7

During the playoffs, coaches love to repeat the mantra that every possession (or play) counts. Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals is the kind of moment they have in mind. In a four-point game that wasn't decided until the final eight seconds, the Boston Celtics put more value on each individual play than the Miami Heat, and that made all the difference.

Witness the Celtics' response after Dwyane Wade tied the game with an impossible, hanging bank shot with 1:39 to play. Boston quickly made the transition from defense to offense while the Heat casually headed back downcourt. Miami wasn't matched up and there was little help for Shane Battier against Pierce in the paint. A Udonis Haslem shooting foul led to two Pierce free throws to give the Celtics back the lead. You can talk all you want about Erik Spoelstra's coaching. (Maybe he forgot to tell his players that every possession counted?) There's simply no excuse for not getting back on defense in the last two minutes of a crucial game in the conference finals.

A similar story played out throughout the fourth quarter. While the Heat threw away points (the free throw Ray Allen hit after a dubious Mario Chalmers technical loomed large when Boston led by four, not three, down the stretch), the Celtics kept on playing hard. All season, Miami has thrived on creating chaos by forcing turnovers and getting out on transition. On Tuesday, Boston was better in chaotic situations. Wade's stunning block on Brandon Bass at the rim turned into a Mickael Pietrus three-pointer when the Celtics rebounded and found the open play. Another scramble for a loose ball turned into another Pietrus triple to take the lead with 2:11 remaining. The Heat did nothing wrong on these plays, but Boston went above and beyond.

In the early going, it didn't appear this game would be decided in the closing seconds. The Celtics struggled to score while Miami came out energized, with Wade and LeBron James leading an early onslaught. The Heat's sloppy play (Miami turned the ball over seven times in the first quarter) and typically tough defense helped Boston hang around. By halftime, the Celtics had nearly come all the way back.

Though this was the fastest game of the series to date, it was played in a defensive style that suited Boston. The Celtics were able to grind things out on poor shooting nights for both Rajon Rondo (3-of-15) and Paul Pierce (6-of-19), This was a classic Rondo performance that married missed shots with breathtaking playmaking. Rondo controlled the game offensively and handed out 13 assists, as many as the Heat has a team. Many of them went to Kevin Garnett, who carried the scoring load with a series of midrange jumpers. Boston also got important buckets from Pietrus, who tied his high for these playoffs with 13 points.

The Heat could have used such scoring from someone besides James and Wade. No other Miami player reached double figures. Udonis Haslem was terrific on the glass, coming up with 14 rebounds as the Heat controlled the backboards, but made just one of his five shot attempts. The Miami bench, meanwhile, was a combined 5-of-19 from the field.

During his first game back after an absence of a little more than three weeks, Bosh wasn't healthy enough to make a difference. He started out strong, putting up nine points and six rebounds before halftime, but his third-quarter stint was a disaster. Bosh missed his only shot attempt as the Celtics went on a 11-0 run to take the lead. That was the end of Bosh's night. Since Joel Anthony never got off the bench in the latest incarnation of Erik Spoelstra's ever-changing rotation, the Heat went small for the entire fourth quarter. That strategy worked at first as Miami reclaimed the lead between the duo of James and Wade, but the Heat seemed to run out of gas late--particularly James, who was quiet down the stretch after playing the entire second half.

While Miami struggled to score against Boston's airtight half-court defense, the Celtics couldn't be stopped. The Heat only came away with one stop in the last three minutes--Rondo's miss with 17 seconds remaining. By that point, it was already too late. Boston made its free throws, and came up with the first road win of this series. The margin was far too close to call this series over as the Celtics head home with a chance to close out, but if Miami is to force Game 7 the Heat will have to do a much better job of valuing possessions down the stretch.

Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.

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