BOSTON — Ray Allen was out on the perimeter like so many times before during a 16-year career in which he's established himself as the most prolific 3-point shooter in NBA history.
Only this time, he was alone.
The Philadelphia 76ers were sagging off the Celtics guard in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, essentially daring him to shoot another 3; he had already missed five. And when Allen got the ball behind the arc on the left side, near the start of the fourth quarter of a three-point game, he showed a rare moment of hesitation before shooting.
But this one was good.
Allen hit a pair of 3-pointers in the fourth quarter to overcome his early woes, and the Celtics beat the Sixers 85-75 to advance to the Eastern Conference finals against the Miami Heat.
Game 1 is Monday night in Miami.
"I had some great looks tonight, probably the best I've seen so far this postseason. I wish I had some back," said Allen, who scored eight of his 11 points in the fourth. "It's almost like I needed the fourth quarter ... I love to get to that point, you focus a little more. But they go in when they counted."
Rajon Rondo had 18 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists for his ninth career postseason triple-double, and Kevin Garnett scored 18 with 13 rebounds as Boston reached the NBA's round of four for the third time in five years. Paul Pierce had 15 points and nine rebounds, but he picked up four fouls in less than four minutes in the middle of the fourth quarter and fouled out.
Rondo opened the game with a burst — four assists and two rebounds in the first three minutes — but did little over the next two-plus quarters before taking over when Pierce fouled out with 4:16 to play. Rondo had 11 points, four assists and three rebounds in the fourth quarter alone, even drawing up a play during a timeout to get Allen open for a 3.
"To have the trust in Ray, after the way he was shooting the ball, to get it to him for him to make it says a lot about Ray," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "And I think it says a lot about our team: We trust you for 48 minutes. And I thought that was huge."
Allen, 36, has been struggling with bone spurs in his ankle, and he has been visibly slower after missing the last nine games of the regular season and the first two of the playoffs. Rivers said it would be difficult to hide Allen's weaknesses on defense, but that on offense we was still a threat because "if I tell Ray to stand in the corner, someone's going to stand next to him."
Still, Philadelphia took a chance on giving Allen space for large portions of the game, using his defender to help out elsewhere. Sixers coach Doug Collins denied that they had intentionally left Allen open, but it was apparent to anyone in the building that covering him on the perimeter wasn't their top priority.
"We never want to give Ray Allen a clean look at a three," Collins said, calling Allen one of the classiest and hard-working athletes he's ever known. "The one thing about great shooters is that they are going to keep shooting. He knocked down those two 3s and gave them some distance. That's what great players do."
The NBA's all-time leader in regular season 3-pointers — he's 21 behind Reggie Miller in playoff 3s — Allen missed his first five attempts from beyond the arc on Saturday night, some of them quite badly. Boston was 0 for its first 14 as a team, but when Allen passed up back-to-back open jumpers in the middle of the third, Rivers pulled him aside.
"I went over to him and said, 'Hey, listen, we're not going to have that,'" the Celtics coach said. "And I told him again, I said, 'Ray, listen, you don't ever pass up shots.'"
Rondo went over and told Allen the same thing, and then Garnett did, too, "which I thought was great for Ray to hear, confidence-wise," Rivers said. "I thought that was big for him to hear."
Allen checked back into the game near the end of the third quarter, and he found himself open from 3-point range early in the fourth. He dribbled a few steps, realized he was still open, and fired up the shot.
It went in, and the crowd rose to give him a standing ovation.
"Ray is the ultimate gunslinger," Rivers said. "You know, I was a basketball player one day. And I would've never taken that shot late in the game like Ray, after missing my first (five). First of all, I wouldn't have been in. ... It was just impressive. You felt like if he got a shot - I didn't know if he was going to make it, but I knew he was going to take it."