Despite the big second-half lead, the late big-shot acumen and the epic performance of Rajon Rondo on the road, Game 2 was a damning indictment of the Celtics and their hopes of toppling the Miami Heat to win these Eastern Conference finals. Rondo had combined with Boston's veteran trio of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen for 96 points, the most they'd ever scored in a game together, and it still wasn't enough. The C's lost in overtime, and they fell behind 2-0.
They needed to try something different.
Something like, say, a complete team effort rather than a batch of gaudy stat lines from the team's four All-Stars. A couple of stops here, a couple of loose balls there, and maybe a bench point or two, and the Celtics are a totally different team. That was the mindset going into Game 3 -- it had to be.
"We are who we are," Celtics coach Doc Rivers had said before his team took the TD Garden floor. "That's not going to change. Our defense from our second unit has to be great. The offense is whatever happens, but our second unit is a defensive unit. We don't have a guy coming off our bench that's going to score 30, but we can keep the other team from doing that."
Early on, it looked like keeping an opposing star from scoring 30 was precisely the Celtics' problem. LeBron James was a man possessed in the first quarter of Game 3, blasting the Celtics for 16 points in a span of seven minutes to give Miami a 28-22 lead late in the first. The Heat had all the momentum, and the C's were in desperate need of a jolt.
That's right about when Marquis Daniels, Keyon Dooling and Mickael Pietrus entered the game and immediately made their presence felt, on the defensive end of the floor especially. Whereas LeBron and Dwyane Wade had dominated early by running the floor and getting easy buckets in transition -- even after made baskets on the Celtics' end! -- Daniels gave them an athletic body that could get back and hinder the Heat's aerial attack. Dooling gave the Celtics a ball-hawking guard in the mold of Avery Bradley, admirably filling the void left by the injured second-year star. Pietrus quickly established his presence as a physical wing defender, forcing LeBron and Wade to meet a little resistance when they chose to attack the basket.
The Celtics' reserves also provided a little offense, believe it or not. Nine points from Daniels, seven from Dooling and two from Pietrus doesn't look earth-shattering on paper, but it was just enough for the Celtics to fill in the cracks when their starters needed a little bump.
"Gravy," Rivers said of the bench points. "M.P. missed a couple of 3's early and he was really down. I said listen: Your defense is what's going to get us this win. You can make 10 or miss 10, but you won't see any emotion come out of me. It's got to be through our defense. I thought what the second unit did was they came in with a defensive energy that changed the game.
"That's who they are. They're not going to put up great numbers offensively, but they know exactly who they are, they accept that, and they're comfortable with that."
Daniels in particular was huge on the defensive end. His five assists and one steal are far from telling the whole story -- his efforts to get back in transition and keep the Heat's perimeter players out of the paint were tremendous, as Wade's 9-for-20 shooting with zero free throws demonstrated. The Celtics' bench play made a big difference, and the Heat took notice.
"I thought Marquis and Keyon Dooling did a great job of coming in and making sure there wasn't a dropoff from an energy standpoint when their starters sat down," Wade said. "That's all you can ask for, and they did a great job."
Daniels' emergence came as a surprise, as the nine-year veteran swingman had scarcely played significant minutes all season, with most of his run coming in garbage time this year. With Bradley out and the team needing a little jolt of athleticism, though, Rivers turned to Daniels in Game 3 and let him do his thing.
"It's kind of funny," Daniels said. "[Rivers] told me the last two games, 'Be ready, you're going to play tonight.' He didn't say nothing to me tonight. Hopefully he doesn't say anything to me next game."
Daniels has been buried on the Celtics' bench all season, a contingency plan available whenever needed, but he hadn't really come in handy before tonight. After months of irrelevance, he's now emerged as a big reason the Celtics are back in these Eastern Conference finals. All the Celtics needed was a few little things.
"Whatever the coach asks me to do," Daniels said. "Whether it's rebound, defend, whatever he needs, I go in to bring energy and bring some intensity."
The Celtics needed that intensity.
We all know that superstar performances alone can't win playoff games. If they could, the Celtics would have won Game 2 behind Rondo's gaudy 44-10-8 stat line, and LeBron would have already piled up four championship rings in Cleveland. But rather, season-saving wins are often fueled by collaborative efforts, and the Celtics got one tonight.
If they can get another on Sunday, we've got ourselves a series.