BOSTON — Kevin Garnett, surrounded by three Miami players under the basket, collected himself and rose toward the rim. Udonis Haslem met Garnett, extended his palm to the ball and sent the Boston center to the floor, leaving him writhing on his back.
As Haslem expressed disbelief that a foul had been called, Garnett gathered himself and teammates gathered around him.
But before he rose to shoot free throws, Garnett did something else. He rolled onto his stomach, placed his fists on the wooden floor and began to do pushups.
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One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven. Eight.
The roar of the crowd grew louder with each pushup, providing a soundtrack to accompany the message sent by Garnett — the face, and sometimes a caricature, of the Celtics’ fierce determination.
The Celtics, beaten up and beaten down by fresher, deeper and more talented Miami, will keep getting up, over and over and over again.
They did so Friday night, rising up after their crushing Game 2 overtime loss in Miami and back into the Eastern Conference Final series with a convincing 101-91 victory, pulling within 2-1 in games.
“Desperation game, to be honest, and I think we played like it,” Garnett said. “I felt like we played desperation basketball.”
Desperation was not riding solo. It was accompanied by a smart game plan. The Celtics made a point of going to Garnett more in the post – and he no longer settled for jumpers when the Heat switched their pick-and-rolls, taking the Miami guards to the basket. He finished with 24 points and 11 rebounds – and also led them in pushups, which came in the midst of a second-quarter surge.
“I’m getting crap about my form, but I want people to know it was on the knuckles – that’s old school,” Garnett said to a crowd of reporters in the locker room. “My uncle taught me to do pushups on my knuckles. I don’t know who [does] pushups in here, but there’s very few who do it on their knuckles. That’s some Army-Navy type stuff. Yeah, knuckles.”
How hard is it?
“Try it,” Garnett barked.
Garnett was not the only one to hold up under the weight of a must-win. While it certainly helped to be home – on their familiar parquet floor, underneath the 17 championship banners and in front of their vociferous fans – what buoyed the Celtics even more was discovering some support from their bench.
Boston has lost Jeff Green, Chris Wilcox, Jermaine O’Neal and Avery Bradley from a team that already leaned heavily on its starters. In the first two games of the series, the Celtics had gotten 21 points – and little else – from their bench.
But on Friday, Keyon Dooling and the seldom-seen Marquis Daniels helped turn the game with a second-quarter spark. Dooling pressured Dwyane Wade and Daniels defended LeBron James, and they also got out in transition as Boston’s 24-6 run midway through the first half eased the anxiety in the Garden. At the half, Dooling and Daniels had combined for 11 points, four more than the bench had scored in Game 2.
“The reserves came into the game and really knocked us back on our heels,” Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said. “From that point on we were playing catch-up, it seemed like, the whole night. We couldn’t get over the hump.”
The Heat, for the most part, played like a team that came north with the security blanket of a 2-0 series lead. Other than James, who had 34 points, eight rebounds, five assists, two blocks and two steals, the Heat had little offense until they were down 24 points early in the fourth quarter.
The Celtics, unlike their dispiriting Game 2 overtime loss, when they blew a 15-point lead and rode Rondo, who had 44 points and played all 53 minutes, got contributions across the board.
Supporting Garnett, Paul Pierce continued to shoot poorly (7 of 21), but his deft pump fakes ensured he got to the line and he finished with 23 points. Ray Allen, struggling with bone spurs in his ankle, chipped in 10 points on a pair of 3-pointers and a driving one-handed dunk, which allowed him to declare that his legs felt “great.”
And Rondo was not spectacular, just sublime, with 21 points, 10 assists and six rebounds, making excellent decisions and saving his scoring for when Boston needed it most.
The Heat, who got three 3-pointers in the fourth quarter by Mike Miller, had sliced Boston’s lead to 97-89 when Wade’s leaner near the free-throw line missed with 1:45 left. Wade stayed behind the play to bark at the officials and when he did, Rondo spotted a gaping hole in the defense. He crossed midcourt, bolted for the lane and nobody stepped in to stop him.
The Heat may be the team that drives TV ratings, but in this series the Celtics have emerged as the more compelling team. Aged and thinned by injuries, the core of former champions – perhaps in their last stand together – have imbued the Celtics with a resolve that appears contagious and as inexhaustible as the indefatigable Rondo.
On Friday, that spirit was embodied by a man, much older but with an unwavering purpose who was dropped to the floor, and then pushed himself up – over and over again.
“KG doing things like that makes me want to go out there and run through a wall,” Dooling said. “Listen, as an athlete you’ve got to get yourself going. Especially when you get knocked down, you don’t want your opponent to see you vulnerable. So that was his opportunity to show them that y’all can keep on hitting me. But he loves it. ‘I’m gonna show you that I love it.'”
Dooling was laughing now, just as James laughed at Garnett when he got worked up earlier in the series. It is hard not to laugh, either with or at Garnett.
“KG plays a lot of mental games with himself,” Dooling said, allowing for a dramatic pause. “And with others.”
That was apparent soon after, when he concluded his meeting with reporters with an expletive-laced shout-out to the crowd.
“F***in’ jungle was rockin’ tonight,” Garnett said. “Loved it. F***in’ loved it. F*** it.”
And then he ducked out the door, turned down a hallway and headed into the night, secure that all his work – points and pushups – had done the trick. They had convinced not just one team, but two, that this series, which appeared a foregone conclusion, may be far from over.