When you have to win, you have to win. With the series tied 2-2, the Boston Celtics and Miami Heat were in desperate need of a Game 5 win that would put them in the driver's seat in their Eastern Conference Finals series, which evolved to a best-of-three series.
LeBron James scored 30, Dwyane Wade had 27, but Paul Pierce had the three big ones.
Pierce, with the series hanging in the balance and the Celtics holding an 87-86 lead, stepped up to the arc for a three-pointer right in the face of LeBron. It was good, and after some intentional fouls and a pair of big free throws from Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett, the Celtics socked the Heat in the gut with a 94-90 win to take a series-shifting 3-2 series lead.
"It's kind of hard to say [what I was thinking]," Pierce said about his big three. "In those situations, things are going so fast, you kind of play on instincts. I saw [LeBron] back up, he gave me a step, I knew it was in my range, the shot clock was winding down and I just took the shot. You know, that's just being in those moments so many times and understanding what your team needs and being able to concentrate and get the best shot for us. I thought that was the best shot. Once I saw him back up, I was able to knock it down."
Pierce finished with 19 points, including eight in the fourth quarter, and Garnett had eight in the final frame to finish with 26 points and 11 rebounds to pace the Boston offensive attack. Ray Allen finished with 13 points, Brandon Bass had 10 points and Rajon Rondo amassed seven points and 13 assists. Mickael Pietrus played by far his best game of the postseason, scoring 13 -- including a monumental corner three in the fourth -- to lead the bench scoring. Boston shot just 40.7 percent and was well under 40 percent at halftime.
"We're just hanging in there," said Celtics head coach Doc Rivers. "Man, I'll tell you -- they jumped on us at the beginning of the game. We just told our guys, just hang in there, just hang in there. Don't overreact, hang in there. The longer we're in the game, the better we'll play. It was really nice. Our guys, I thought our execution down the stretch, defensively and offensively, the different lineups we threw out on the floor, the going back to man and zone with guys that hadn't been in those positions. I've got to say, I asked a lot of our guys -- maybe too much honestly, at times -- and they came through. That was terrific."
Offense didn't come easily for the Celtics in the first quarter, as they shot 30 percent as a team (6-for-20) and fell behind the Heat -- who shot 52.6 percent (10-for-19) in the frame -- 24-16 after one period. James and Wade led Miami with seven points a piece in the quarter, and Chris Bosh was effective with five points in five minutes off the bench. Pierce led the Celtics with six points in the first, but he was 2-for-6 from the field. Rondo played nearly ten minutes in the period, and he didn't score (he missed all five shots) and had only one assist.
Boston didn't play that much better in the second quarter, shooting 36.4 percent, but Miami was even worse, shooting 22.7 percent, and that allowed the Celtics to outscore the Heat, 24-18, to pull within two points at halftime, 42-40. Garnett and Bass each had six points in the quarter to lead Boston, while James did Miami's scoring, tallying 11 points. James had 18 points at halftime to lead all scorers and Bosh amassed nine points and six rebounds (five offensive) in the half. Bass' strong second quarter brought him up to a team-leading 10 points at the break. Rondo had three points, four assists and three turnovers in the half.
It looked like the Heat were about to break away from the Celtics early in the third quarter, going on a 9-0 run that gave them a 59-50 edge at the six minute mark. Finally, the Celtics woke up and closed the quarter out on a 15-1 run after a James free throw run and scored the last 11 points of the quarter to take a 65-60 lead into the final frame. Garnett came up big in the third, scoring 10 on 4-of-6 shooting in seven and a half minutes and Rondo had five assists. Wade scored six, but James had three points on 1-of-7 shooting as the Heat collectively shot 35 percent compared to Boston's 52.6 percent shooting in the quarter.
"It was just a matter of time," Rondo said about the third quarter run. "My teammates told me to keep attacking. I made some mistakes I usually don't make, missed a lot of shots I usually make, but that's irrelevant. We stuck with it, and my teammates believed in me."
What ensued was quite possibly the most dramatic fourth quarter in recent memory, with Boston and Miami going toe to toe all the way through. Gridlocked at 85 after a Wade free throw with 1:39 to play, the Celtics closed out the game on a 9-5 run, filled with plenty of grit and heart. Pierce got to the basket for two free throws with 1:34 left, both of which he sank, but two free throws from Udonis Haslem again brought the game within one, 87-86. Then, Paul Pierce, with 52 seconds to go, hit his three. Boom. Wade would make two free throws and James had a layup, but the free throws from Allen and Garnett sealed the big win.
"Nobody played well, except for KG and Pietrus," said Rondo, who recorded 10 or more assists for the 14th time this postseason but failed to reach 10 points for just the third time in these playoffs. "But other than that, we kept fighting and we found a way to get the win."
Boston will try to punch its ticket to the 2012 NBA Finals in Game 6 on Thursday night.