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Top Stories of 2012, No. 5: Celtics burned by Heat in Eastern Conference finals

12.29.12 at 7:55 pm ET

Over the final week of 2012, will count down the top 10 stories of the year in Boston sports. This entry in the countdown is No. 5: the Celtics‘ loss to the Heat in the Eastern Conference finals.

Check out our previous entries:
No. 10: NHL lockout
No. 9: Wes Welker’s up-and-down year
No. 8: Bruins’ early playoff elimination
No. 7: Ray Allen’s departure from Celtics
No. 6: Tim Thomas’ political controversy and sabbatical

The Celtics were one victory away from advancing to the NBA finals. But what stood in the way, LeBron James and the Miami Heat, turned out to be more than the Big Three and the rest of the Celtics could handle.

A 101-88 defeat in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals put an abrupt end to a playoff run that looked like it had legs after a comeback season from the Celtics, who were under .500 at the All-Star break of a lockout-shortened season.

The C’€™s battled injury issues all season. Jeff Green and Chris Wilcox had season-ending heart ailments. Jermaine O’Neal had his season end early, and Avery Bradley missed the Heat series. Even as the playoffs began, a sprained MCL slowed down Paul Pierce and bone spurs kept Ray Allen off the floor.

After finishing first in the Atlantic Division at 39-27, the Celtics took down the Hawks in six games in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs. They went on to get by the 76ers in a seven-game series and line things up for a big series with the Heat.

In Game 1, Kevin Garnett kept the C’€™s alive early with 23 points, but league MVP LeBron James scored 32 points and snagged 13 rebounds. The Celtics were called for three technical fouls in the first half alone. The game was even at the half, but the C’€™s only mustered 15 points in the third quarter to put them at a deficit heading into the final quarter of play. The C’€™s would never make up the points and dropped Game 1, 93-79.

Game 2 was all Rajon Rondo. The Celtics guard played all 53 minutes, scoring a career-high 44 points, but it wasn’€™t enough as the Celtics lost a heartbreaker in overtime, 115-111. The Big Three put up numbers, too. Pierce scored 21 points. Allen had 13 points, including a game-tying 3-pointer with 34 seconds left in regulation. KG had 18 points and eight rebounds. It just wasn’€™t enough to overcome James, who led Miami with 34 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists. There was some controversy as well. In the final five minutes and overtime, the Celtics were called for 11 fouls to the Heat’€™s two. James took 18 free throws while Wade had six, to the C’€™s two.

Celtics fans were incensed about a missed foul call with under two minutes remaining in overtime and the game even at 105, when Rondo went up for a layup and was knocked in the head by Wade. The referees were silent as Rondo sat on the floor holding his head. The Heat quickly took advantage, finishing a fast break with a dunk and going on to the victory.

‘€œHe was absolutely phenomenal,’€ Rivers said of Rondo. ‘€œHe put the whole team — at times — on his shoulders. It’€™s tough for him to play that way and not win the game, honestly, because he did basically everything right. We had a lot of opportunities to win the game.’€

The C’€™s bounced back in Game 3 and won by 10, 101-91. The Celtics were led by a KG double-double of 24 points and 11 rebounds. Rondo added 21 points, 10 assists and six rebounds. Although James put up 34 points, the C’€™s neutralized Wade and allowed him only 12 points.

‘€œWe’€™re playing at home, we have to give it our all out and it will be out,’€ a fired-up Garnett said following the victory. ‘€œThe jungle was rockin’€™ tonight. I want to thank all the fans who came out. The [expletive] jungle was rockin’€™ tonight! I loved it. [Expletive] loved it.’€

Game 4 brought another overtime, and this time it was the Celtics who were victorious, 93-91, as they evened the series at two apiece. The Celts squeezed it out despite playing most of the overtime without Pierce, who fouled out. James, who also fouled out in OT, led the Heat with 29 points. Wade bricked a 3-point attempt at the buzzer.

Game 5 featured heroics from Pierce, as he hit a clutch 3-pointer in James’ face with 52.9 seconds remaining to give the Celts a 94-90 win in Miami. That trey was part of Pierce’€™s 19 points. The Green were led by KG with 26 points and 11 rebounds. Garnett made some key layups as Rondo fed him the ball down low.

Wade put up an impressive 27 points in the game. Combined with James’€™ 30 points, the two scored more than half of the Heat’€™s total points. It was, as one young Heat fan said, a ‘€œgood job, good effort’€

The real turning point of the game was the C’€™s run at the end of the third quarter. Over the final six minutes of the period, the Celtics turned a 59-50 deficit into a 65-60 lead. This gave them major momentum heading into the final quarter, and they nailed their final nine free throws and took the lead for good with just over 90 seconds remaining. The victory brought them from down 0-2 to a 3-2 series lead.

‘€œIt’€™s just a good team, a close-knit team,’€ coach Doc Rivers said after the win. ‘€œThey talk that way. We have a lot of positive talk in our locker room, a lot. And it fuels from them. And honestly, they believe they can win. And we just have to keep hanging in there.’€

The Celtics took Boston by storm as they headed into Game 6. Even Boston Mayor Tom Menino, who is up to snuff on his Boston sports, had some encouraging words for team leaders ‘€œKJ’€ and ‘€œHondo.’€

Game 6 was the LeBron James show: 45 points, 15 rebounds and five assists silenced the Garden crowd and set the series up for a decisive Game 7. The Celtics suffered biggest loss by either team in the series dropping the game 98-79.

James was on fire in the first half. He owned an 85.7 field goal percentage while the rest of the Heat shot just 36 percent.

Pierce scored just nine points, finishing 4-for-18 from the field, including 0-for-6 from 3-point range. Pierce, Garnett and Rondo were not on the floor in the final minutes of the embarrassing loss.

‘€œIt was tough,’€ Pierce said. ‘€œYou got an opportunity to close out the series on your home floor. For us to come out and play like the way we did, it’€™s very tough. I mean, you’ve got to take your hats off to them. They really had a great game. LeBron got hot, playing like a true MVP. We just didn’€™t recover.’€

Game 7 was a showdown in Miami. The Celtics were much stronger than they were at the conclusion of Game 6 in the first half of this game, opening up a seven-point lead. But a regression to poor play in the second half and what looked like the gas running out, the C’€™s dropped the game 101-88.

After remaining unnoticed (and mostly uncovered) for the series, Brandon Bass had a huge first half, scoring 14 points and shooting 5-for-7.

Rondo came up big throughout the game and ended with a triple-double: 22 points, 14 assists and 10 rebounds.

Again, it came down to the ridiculous play of James. He was on the court for more than 47 minutes and put up 31 points while hauling in 12 rebounds.

While KG was in foul trouble, the Celtics had little options to slow Chris Bosh, who finished with 19 points on 8-for-10 shooting with three crucial corner 3-pointers. Bosh, who missed the first four games of the series with a stomach injury, was a key factor in affecting the C’s defensive matchups.

The Celtics reverted back to a stationary offense in the third quarter and allowed the Heat to overcome a seven-point halftime lead in less than five minutes. The third-quarter was a back-and-forth period, with six ties and four lead changes in the final six minutes.

Boston, which at one point had a double-digit lead, still was ahead with eight minutes to go. The Celtics looked like they ran out of gas while James, Bosh and the rest of the Heat made big plays to run away with the win.

In what would be their final game together, KG, Pierce, Allen and Rondo were taken out by Rivers in the final minute. The C’€™s coach embraced each player, presumably thanking them for their efforts to bring another championship to Boston.

“If we could have gotten this group to the finals, it would have been fantastic for all of us,” Rivers said after the game. “That’s all I thought about today. Somehow let’s see if we can get this group to the finals. They deserve it with their will.”

Ultimately, that wouldn’€™t be a possibility. Mainly because of LeBron James. His line for the series: 33.6 points per game, 11 rebounds per game, 53 percent shooting, six 30-point games, five 30-point/10-rebound games. He had a 45-point elimination game at the Garden. An 11-point fourth quarter in Game 7 wrapped up a 31-point, 12-rebound effort.

Rondo commented on the Celtics’€™ missed opportunities.

‘€œWe had some great looks, Paul, Ray, myself, Kevin, we just didn’€™t knock them down,’€ Rondo said. ‘€œWhat I told them earlier, they got to the loose balls, offensive rebounds and made plays and executed offensively and made great plays.’€

‘€œNope,’€ Rondo said when asked if the C’€™s ran out of gas. ‘€œWe missed shots.’€

Allen, who in the offseason would leave the Celtics to sign with the Heat, expressed his disappointment following the game.

“We’ve been through a lot; we’ve won a lot of games,” Allen said. “At the end of the season, it always feels like it’s it. Up to this point, we fought hard to keep it together. So I think now there’s so many emotions. This one hit me hard. We wanted it so bad.”

Pierce best summed up the season for the Celtics.

“Even though we fell short of our goal, for us to pull together, the way things went all season long, midway point under .500, and then you look here today, we’re one game away from possibly playing for a championship,” Pierce said. “I can’t be any prouder of the guys who came and put the work in every day and grinded it out, sacrificed and did what they need to do.”

Read More: 2012 Stories of the Year, Brandon Bass, Chris Bosh, doc rivers