Boston Â» The chant started in the final minute. Boston Celtics fans could sense the moment, and they know what awaits them this week. "Beat the Heat!" came from one pocket of the crowd before spreading throughout the arena. A sign on the video screen read, "Bring on LeBron." The message was clear. Boston is ready for Goliath.
It took longer than Celtics fans expected when the series started, but Boston will finally have another chance at LeBron James and the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference finals. The Celtics were extended to seven games in the conference semifinals by the eighth-seeded Philadelphia 76ers before holding on for an 85-75 victory in Saturdayâs deciding game.
Miami beat the Celtics in five games in last seasonâs conference semifinals, as the Celticsâ Rajon Rondo sustained a dislocated elbow in the series.
"We feel we can beat Miami," Rondo said. "Obviously, we got to this point, thereâs no doubt in our mind that we can. We got to go down there and take care of business."
The Celtics had a hard enough time doing that against the Sixers. Celtics coach Doc Rivers lauded Philadelphia once the series concluded, insisting that the Sixers received the respect they deserved. But the talent on Philadelphiaâs roster does not compare to that of Miami, and there was a period late in the fourth quarter when the Celticsâ advancing appeared in jeopardy.
With 4:16 remaining in the game and the Celtics clinging to a three-point lead, Paul Pierce was whistled for an offensive foul. It was his sixth, incensing the crowd and forcing Boston to play the rest of the game without their best scorer.
"We thought we had a great chance to win," Sixers coach Doug Collins said. "Then Rondo made some great plays."
Rondo scored seven consecutive points to give the Celtics a 10-point lead, including a 3-pointer and another deep jumper while toeing the 3-point line. The Sixers could never again make it a one-possession game, and Rondo added another defining postseason moment to his resume. He finished with a triple-double: 18 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists.
"Rondo wants to run the team," Rivers said. "But tonight, obviously, with Paul fouling out, he had to take charge of the team. And thatâs good to see, as well."
The closest the Sixers came to taking the lead was in the final minute of the third quarter, when AndreÃÂ Iguodala, Philadelphiaâs scrutinized All-Star, missed two free throws with 20.3 seconds remaining and the Sixers trailing byÃÂ 53-52. In Game 5 in Boston on Monday, Iguodala missed two free throws during another critical third-quarter juncture, and those misses stung after the Celtics took command of the game in the fourth quarter, winning, 101-85.
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On Saturday, the Celtics responded to Iguodalaâs misses with a Kevin Garnett jump shot at the buzzer to take a 55-52 lead into the fourth quarter.
Despite Iguodalaâs leading the Sixers with 18 points, those two missed free throws proved costly. Still, for Iguodala and the Sixers, advancing to seven games against the Celtics can be seen as progress. For the Celtics, Saturdayâs game was critical as the veteran core of Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen continue to add to their legacy.
Those three combined for 44 points, including Garnettâs 18 points and 13 rebounds. Allen, who struggled throughout the series, hit two critical 3-pointers to show that he still has life left during this postseason run.
"Ray is the ultimate gunslinger," Rivers said. "Thatâs what makes great players great. I was a basketball player one day, and I would have never have taken that shot late in the game like Ray."
Collins bristled at the term Big Three, which was popularized when Pierce, Garnett and Allen led the Celtics to the 2008 NBA championship. Collins said he preferred to call the Celtics the Championship Four, including Rondo, so vital to the group.
But Rondo is still an ascending player, while the careers of the other three are waning. And Saturday was especially important because there is no indication of how much longer that core can stay together. Allen and Garnett will be free agents at the end of the season, so they entered the game knowing it could have been the last one they played in a Boston uniform.
The Celtics will not have to worry about that day yet. First, they need to worry about beating the Heat. As of now, they can try to do so with a healthy Rondo.
"We didnât want it to end," Rondo said. "I didnât plan on going home tomorrow, or any exit meetings right now."