BOSTON — Kevin Garnett went hard to the court when he was fouled underneath the basket. He remained on his back, motionless, as his teammates rushed over to check on him and offer a hand to help him up.
The Boston Celtics center ignored them, instead gingerly rolling over onto his stomach before extending his arms to ease himself up off the court. Down and up he went, pushing off the floor on his knuckles eight times for some postseason pushups.
For the first time in the Eastern Conference finals, Boston was having fun with the Miami Heat.
“K.G. plays a lot of mental games with himself – and with others,” Celtics guard Keyon Dooling said Friday night after Boston beat the Heat 101-91 to cut Miami’s lead in the best-of-seven series to 2-1. “K.G. is a very focused individual and he loves these kind of moments.”
Garnett had 24 points and 11 rebounds, Paul Pierce scored 23 points and Rajon Rondo had 21 points with 10 assists to help the Celtics avoid falling into a 3-0 hole in the series.
Game 4 is Sunday night in Boston.
“They defended their home court,” Rondo said. “In a couple of days, we’ll do the same.”
LeBron James scored 34 points, but the NBA MVP and the rest of the Heat went cold during a 7-minute stretch at the end of the first quarter and the beginning of the second, when Boston outscored them 15-0 to turn a six-point deficit into a nine-point lead.
The Celtics extended it to 24 points early in the fourth quarter before Miami came back and cut it to 95-87 with help from three 3-pointers by Mike Miller. But James had a turnover and missed a 3-pointer in the last 2 minutes to squelch the Heat’s hope of a comeback.
“You’re trying to fight back the whole time,” said James, who scored 16 points in the first quarter but just four with one rebound and one assist in the fourth. “We made a run but it was too much.”
Miami still trailed by eight points with the ball when Dwyane Wade missed and Ray Allen grabbed the rebound, sending Rondo on a fast break that made it a 99-89 with 99 seconds to play. James threw the ball away underneath, then missed a 3-point attempt the next time down – one of only four shots he took in the fourth quarter.
Pierce found Garnett for a long jumper at the other end, and the teams began emptying their benches.
Coming off his 44-point effort in the Game 2 loss in Miami, in which he played every second of regulation and overtime, Rondo was 9 for 16 from the field and grabbed six rebounds. Celtics coach Doc Rivers said he had little to tell Rondo on the day off.
“I’m like a pitcher throwing a no-hitter: you stay away from that joker,” Rivers said. “The guy scored 44 points, what can I possibly tell him?”
Mostly: Get the ball to Garnett.
Many of Garnett’s baskets were lobbed to him under the rim. Boston outscored Miami 58-46 on points in the paint, and Garnett was the reason why.
“He (Rivers) kept preaching to just throw it up to him,” Rondo said. “They went small, and no one can jump as high as Kevin. He stood up to the rim, and he went up and got most of them.”
Marquis Daniels led the Boston bench with nine points and five rebounds in 18 minutes.
Wade scored 18 points and Mario Chalmers had 14 points and six assists for Miami. Shane Battier was scoreless, missing all six shots, and Ronny Turiaf had three points while tangling with Garnett under the basket for much of the game.
The Celtics center, who has appeared rejuvenated during these playoffs at the age of 36, got called for another technical foul for a violent elbow but otherwise seemed to be enjoying himself. While waiting to inbound the ball in the second quarter, he high-fived a young child sitting courtside in a No. 5 Celtics jersey.
At the other end, after behind slammed hard to the court by Udonis Haslem, he did a series of crowd-pleasing pushups.
Wade was 9 for 20 from the field and did not shoot a free throw in the game. James, who shot 24 free throws in Game 2, making 18, was 1 for 5 from the line.
James hit seven of his first nine shots, before making one of the next six. That helped Boston score the last eight points of the first quarter and the first seven of the second to turn a six-point deficit into a nine-point lead. Much of it came with Dooling and Daniels on the court for Boston.