A Letter to the Boston Celtics

To the Big 3 and the rest of the Boston Celtics: thank you for fighting unceasingly until the final buzzer of Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals. (Globe Staff Photo/Jim Davis)

Dear Boston Celtics,

Thank you.

Thank you for the 2012 NBA Playoffs. Thank you for fighting from the opening jump to the final seconds of Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals. Thank you for keeping us riveted to our seats night in and night out.

I know how easy it would’ve been to check out during these playoffs. No one really ever believed you could win a championship. And when Avery Bradley‘s shoulder injury against the 76ers cost the team its only perimeter defender young enough to hang with the Heat, you could’ve basically thrown in the towel.

But that wouldn’t be the Celtics’ way. It wouldn’t be how Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen have approached their entire careers. It wouldn’t have been “ubuntu.”

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The “Maybes” Make Sports Great

When it comes to predictions, sports reporters need to show conviction to be taken seriously. An “expert” might suggest how both teams could win a game, but ultimately he or she has to pick a team, then stick to it. There’s no room for “maybe.”

Saying “it will be interesting to see” can buy a play-by-play or color commentator time, but that’s quickly become an all-but-meaningless expression. I try my hardest never to use it.

I predicted before the Eastern Conference Finals that the Heat would beat the Celtics in six games. The voice of the analytical, objective observer that lives in the left side of my brain still argues the Heat will win in six, and for the same reasons: the Heat are too fast, too young, too strong and too deep.

But as I watched the Celtics pull out an edge-of-the-couch overtime victory over the Heat in Game 4, I could hear another voice in my head. It didn’t come from the part of my brain that thinks – no, it came from some deeper, rawer, part of my brain. A part that just “feels.”

And everything that voice said started with one word: “Maybe.”

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Celtics Fall in OT Despite Rondo’s 44

Dwyane Wade drives past Kevin Garnett, Brandon Bass and Mickael Pietrus during overtime in Wednesday's Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals in Miami. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

The Boston Celtics threw everything they had at the Miami Heat in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals Wednesday night. They overcame two second-half Heat leads, played their Big 4 for 43-plus minutes each, and even got a career-best 44 points from Rajon Rondo, who played the entire game.

They did all that, and it still wasn’t enough.

LeBron James and Dwyane Wade combined for 57 points, including 12 of the Heat’s 16 in overtime, powering the Heat to a 115-111 overtime victory over the Celtics. The series heads to Boston for Game 3 Friday with the Heat up 2-0.

Celtics Comeback Twice in Fourth

Miami reserve Mike Miller‘s three-pointer – one of Miami’s 10 – put his team up 84-77 with just under a minute gone in the fourth. Two Kevin Garnett (18 points, eight rebounds in 45 minutes) free throws and a three-pointer from Mickael Pietrus cut the deficit to one, then went up 86-85 when Rondo picked off a pass and sprinted for the fast-break layup.

The Celtics built that lead as high as five, going up 92-87 on one of 10 mid- to long-range jumpers by Rondo. He shot 16-for-24 and went 10-for-12 from the free throw line, fueling nearly all of his team’s offense Wednesday.

James kept the Heat from crumbling late, however, earning and scoring six free throws in the final four minutes. His last two put the Heat up 96-94, and Udonis Haslem‘s 18-footer pushed the lead to four. Haslem led all reserves with 13 points and 11 rebounds.

The Celtics had another comeback in them, however, with Garnett’s alley-oop from Rondo (10 assists) cutting the deficit to 98-96. Following Wade going 1-for-2 at the line, Keyon Dooling drew four Heat defenders to him under the basket before finding Ray Allen behind the arc. Allen, who rebounded nicely with 13 points after a horrific Game 1, knocked it down to tie the game 99-99.

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NBA Conference Finals Preview

Expect the Miami Heat to win the East and the San Antonio Spurs to win the West. The Heat won their one match-up against each other this season, 120-98. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

A similar story runs through both the Eastern Conference and Western Conference Finals. Both series will match athletic, physically strong youngsters against experienced, cagey veterans. The brash and burly Miami Heat play the ancient and venerated Boston Celtics in the East, while the run-and-gun Oklahoma City Thunder play the super-synchronized San Antonio Spurs in the West.

Each teams stands just four wins away from a trip to the NBA Finals. A Celtics championship would write the perfect ending to the likely final year for their New Big Three, while a Heat championship would do away with all the criticisms LeBron James has endured about his lack of big-game effectiveness.

The Spurs would love to milk one more championship out of Tim Duncan, who’s already won it all four times since 1999. And a trophy by the Thunder would provide some hardware to match Kevin Durant‘s considerable skills.

Do brains conquer brawn in basketball? Do teams win in the playoffs by scoring or preventing scoring? Here’s my preview of the third round.

Celtics vs. Heat

Celtics fans desperate to believe their team can beat the Heat will no doubt look at the Celtics’ 3-1 record against them this season. You know who started all three wins? Avery Bradley. You know who won’t play basketball again this season? Avery Bradley. And without him, the Celtics don’t have enough perimeter defense to contain Dwyane Wade, especially with Ray Allen hurtin’ and the bench nonexistent.

The Celtics struggled with the 76ers’ strength and athleticism throughout their series. Doc Rivers even called them “Atlanta on steroids.” Well, the Heat are the 76ers on steroids: even stronger, even faster, even more durable. And they’ve had two extra days off.

Kevin Garnett won’t be able to dominate in the post as he did against the 76ers, and an injured Paul Pierce won’t be able to hang with James. Rajon Rondo is an infinitely better point guard than Mario Chalmers, but both perform best as facilitators, not scorers. And Chalmers just has better offensive options than Rondo.

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Celtics Implode in Second Half of Game 4; Series Tied 2-2

Andre Iguodala dunks against Kevin Garnett in Friday's Game Four of the Eastern Conference Semifinals at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia. (Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images)

The Boston Celtics built a big lead Friday night in Philadelphia, then quit.

The Philadelphia 76ers, on the other hand, never quit. And once they pulled back into the game, that sustained effort translated into unstoppable momentum, a 92-83 victory over the Celtics in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals, and a 2-2 series tie.

Game 5 takes place Monday back in Boston.

Bad Third for Celtics Keys Comeback Fourth for 76ers

The Celtics built a 17-point lead on a Paul Pierce (game-high 24 points) technical just over two minutes into the third quarter. Elton Brand picked up the technical, but his physicality ignited the previously lazy 76er defense. Over the first seven minutes of the third, the Celtics didn’t score a field goal. The 76ers, meanwhile scored 10 unanswered to cut the Celtics’ lead to 50-43.

Pierce’s three-pointer (one of four) built Boston’s lead back to 54-46 with five minutes left, but Philadelphia played the rest of the game fully confident they could win. Boston held just a 63-59 lead after three, and Philadelphia tied the game on back-to-back buckets from Thaddeus Young to start the fourth.

The two teams traded baskets throughout most the final quarter, with neither team building too big a lead. Pierce’s free throws put the Celtics up 74-72, but Young tied it again, then backup point guard Lou Williams hit a jumper for a 76-74 76er lead.

Ray Allen‘s three-pointer – his only field goal of the night – put the Celtics back up by one, and Kevin Garnett‘s free throws stretched the lead to 79-76. But the 76ers answered again, with Andre Iguodala tying the game with a three. Iguodala scored eight of his 16 total points in the closing 3:11, combining a jumper with a three-pointer to break an 83-83 tie and put the 76ers up five.

The Celtics couldn’t answer the 76ers again, and the 76ers finished the game on a 9-0 stretch. They out-rebounded the Celtics 52-38 Friday, using a 17-5 advantage on the offensive glass to extend possessions and exhaust a Celtics defense that had held them to 23 percent shooting in the first half.

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Garnett Powers Celtics Past Hawks in Clinching Game 6

Kevin Garnett shoots against Josh Smith during Game Six of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals between the Celtics and the Hawks, played Thursday night at TD Garden. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

The Boston Celtics have asked so much of Kevin Garnett this season. They’ve asked him to play with few days off and even fewer days for practice. They’ve asked him to play center on team without a shred of depth at the big-man positions.

And with the Celtics’ best chance to close out their Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series against the Atlanta Hawks coming in Game 6 Thursday night at TD Garden, they asked him to carry the team home.

The Celtics asked, and as he’s done all season long, Garnett answered. Garnett scored 28 points, grabbed 14 rebounds, blocked five shots and stole three passes, helping the Celtics edge past the Hawks, 83-80, and clinch the series in six games.

Garnett’s turn-around jumper with 8:41 left in the fourth capped a 7-0 fourth-quarter run that pushed the Celtics’ lead to 74-65. Having already played Garnett for 35 minutes, Doc Rivers subbed out Garnett two minutes later.

The decision proved costly, as the Hawks went on a 10-2 over the next 1:42. Now free of Garnett’s pesky defense, center Al Horford fueled the charge with six points. He finished with 15 points and nine rebounds in a Herculean 46 minutes.

Garnett came back in with 3:51 to go, but even that couldn’t halt Atlanta’s run, as Josh Smith (18 points, nine rebounds) and Horford put the Hawks up 79-76 with two more unanswered baskets.

Needing something from someone other than Garnett, Paul Pierce cut the Hawks’ lead to one with a layup with just over two minutes left. Garnett capped two straight Celtics defensive stops with two emphatic rebounds, then put the Celtic back up 80-79 with another turn-around jumper.

The Celtics crushed the Hawks in the paint, out-scoring them 42-30. They also out-rebounded the Hawks by four, recording more offensive and defensive boards.

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Pierce, Rondo Help Celtics Crush Hawks in Game 4

Paul Pierce shoots against Jason Collins during Sunday's Game 4 of the Celtics-Hawks Eastern Conference Quarterfinals at the TD Garden. (Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images)

Atlanta Hawk Joe Johnson drained a jumper 19 seconds into Sunday’s Game 4 against the Boston Celtics at the TD Garden.

The Hawks never led after that. What should have been a basketball game turned out to be a massacre.

Between Paul Pierce‘s lethal shooting and Rajon Rondo‘s mesmerizing passing, the Celtics crushed the Hawks, 101-79, taking a 3-1 series lead in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals.

Pierce Lights Up Hawks Early

Pierce only played about 16 minutes Sunday, but while on the court he couldn’t be stopped. The Hawks put as many as three players in Pierce’s face, and he still knocked down jumpers using his trademark step-back shot.

Doc Rivers didn’t have Pierce waste energy guarding Johnson on defense, and Pierce rewarded Rivers with 24 points on 10-of-13 shooting. He knocked down four three-pointers, grabbed four rebounds and blocked two shots.

Pierce scored 10 first-quarter points, including the Celtics’ first basket on the first of 16 assists from Rondo. Between Pierce’s penetration and Kevin Garnett‘s domination in the low post (13 points on 6-of-8 shooting), the Celtics built a 32-19 lead after one quarter. Pierce continued humiliating the Hawks in the second, hitting two more three-pointers without even noticing defenders around him.

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Pierce and Bradley Carry Celtics Past Magic, Clinch Fifth Straight Atlantic Title

Paul Pierce drives to the basket during Wednesday's Celtics-Magic game at the TD Garden. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

Paul Pierce might be nearing the finish line of a career that will end in the Hall of Fame and a spot in the TD Garden rafters. But if these are Pierce’s last games, The Truth wants to go out in style.

Pierce scored a game-high 29 points and recorded a career-best 14 assists, carrying the Boston Celtics to a 102-98 victory over the Orlando Magic and their fifth consecutive Atlantic Division title Wednesday night at the TD Garden. Avery Bradley backed up Pierce with 23 points, tying his career-high.

With home-court advantage for the first round of the playoffs locked up, the short-handed Celtics can now focus on rest and recovery. Ray Allen hasn’t played in over a week, and Rajon Rondo sat Wednesday with a lower back injury.

Pierce Holds Back Magic in Fourth

Up 79-70 heading into the fourth quarter, Boston built their lead as high as 13, but a combination of outside shooting by Jameer Nelson (21 points, 3-for-6 from downtown) and dominating play inside (54 points in the paint, 17 offensive rebounds without Dwight Howard) kept Orlando in the game. Orlando cut Boston’s lead to 92-90 with three minutes left before Pierce drew a foul and sank one of two.

A Glen Davis (27 points) steal and sprint to the basket – how many times has that ever been written? – made it 98-96 Celtics, setting up the play of the game. Pierce – who split ball-handling duties with Bradley Wednesday – brought the ball to the three-point line, nearly slipping and losing control of the ball.

With the shot-clock winding down, Pierce regained control and penetrated to just outside the foul line, hitting a 17-foot step-back jumper with 7.6 seconds left in the game. He also sank two free throws in the final seconds to maintain the two-possession lead.

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Garnett Leads Celtics Over Warriors in Defenseless Third Game of Road Trip

Kevin Garnett shoots over David Lee during Wednesday's Celtics-Warriors game at Oracle Arena in Oakland, California. (Photo by Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images)

Sometimes in basketball you can win shooting worse than your opponent. You can get beat in the paint, you can turn the ball over too much. You can even do all three and still win.

Because sometimes, all you need is Kevin Garnett.

Garnett scored 24 points on 11-for-15 shooting, including a jumper with the shot-clock expiring and 5.7 seconds left in the game. The Boston Celtics beat the Golden State Warriors, 105-103. The Celtics have now won two in a row on their eight-game road trip.

Garnett’s Jumper Highlights Lights-Out Fourth

Garnett scored 12 of his 24 in the fourth quarter. No Warrior could contain him in the post or on jump-shots: Even when power forward David Lee knocked Garnett to the court early in the fourth, Garnett still sank his shot. The resulting free throw put the Celtics up 89-81 with just over 10 minutes left.

Rookie guard Klay Thompson‘s third three-pointer (part of a career-best 26-point night) helped cut the lead to three, but Garnett then scored the next two Celtics buckets on two passes – one alley-oop – from Rajon Rondo, who finished with a “serviceable” 14 assists.

Still, Warrior reserve Brandon Rush‘s free throw tied the game 95-95 with just over four minutes left. Rondo broke the tie with an offensive rebound and basket, then found Brandon Bass (22 points, nine rebounds) twice for slam dunks (plus two free throws) and a 103-97 lead.

A fired-up Nate Robinson (20 points, 11 assists) helped tie the game 103-103 with 30 seconds left, setting up Garnett’s eventual game-winner. Paul Pierce used up most of the shot-clock, penetrating inside and drawing in several defenders before kicking it out to Garnett.

Garnett had just over a second to beat the buzzed, and he swished his shot from 20 feet away. He didn’t miss a single second-half shot.

The Warriors got off one more shot, but Robinson missed from deep, and Garnett grabbed both it and the game-ending inbound pass.

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Celtics Starters Dominate Bucks, Win Second Straight

Rajon Rondo shoots the ball against Milwaukee Buck Ersan Ilyasova during Wednesday's game at the TD Garden. Rondo finished with his 16th career triple-double. (Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images)

The Boston Celtics have heard the same criticisms over and over this season: Their starters are too old. They can’t put up big scores. They can’t rebound.

Wednesday night at the TD Garden, at least for a night, they silenced their critics.

Every Celtic starter scored in double digits, and the Celtics grabbed a season-high 18 offensive rebounds, beating the Milwaukee Bucks, 102-96. The Celtics scored 100+ points for just the third time in February. They’re now 8-1 historically on Feb. 29, having not lost on Leap Day since 1984.

Dominant Third Carries Celtics

The Celtics came out of halftime down 54-50. The deficit could easily have been worse, but Rajon Rondo hit a layup with eight seconds left in the second quarter and, following a lost ball by Bucks small forward Carlos Delfino, found Keyon Dooling behind the arch for three more points with 0.8 seconds left.

The Bucks maintained their lead through the first three minutes of the third, with point guard Shaun Livingston hitting a jumper to go up 60-55.

The Celtics, led primarily by their starting five, responded with a 22-7 run for the remaining 8+ minutes of the third. Kevin Garnett began the run with two baskets inside the paint to cut the Bucks’ lead to one, and Brandon Bass – who struggled badly in the first half but scored nine of 16 total points in the third – hit a 15-footer to give the Celtics their first lead since the first quarter.

Strong Celtics defense held the Bucks scoreless for nearly four minutes following Livingston’s basket, and the Celtics’ offense missed just two shots during that stretch (one of which led to an offensive rebound). They built their lead to 71-64 on baskets by Rondo (who posted his third triple-double of the season with 15 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists), Ray Allen (15 points, including 29-foot three-point bank-shot with the shot-clock expiring), Paul Pierce (10 points) and Chris Wilcox.

The Celtics took a 77-67 lead into the fourth, building their lead as high 15 points at times. Their best play was a give-and-go between Dooling and Garnett that ended in a Dooling dunk and an 84-71 lead.

The Bucks used a 13-0 run – highlighted by point guard Brandon Jennings‘ only two baskets of the game, both threes – to cut Boston’s lead to 98-96 with under 20 seconds left in the game, but Garnett hit four free throws to put the game away. Garnett finished with a season-high 25 points on 50 percent shooting and 10 rebounds, plus two steals and two blocks. He’s averaged 22 points and 10.3 rebounds over his last three games.

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