By A.Sherrod Blakely
MIAMI In the first half, Jermaine O'Neal headed to the Boston Celtics locker room so that he had room to stretch his aching back.
He would have done it courtside, but Rajon Rondo, playing with a recently dislocated left elbow, needed some room to stretch his aching back.
And on the bench sat Shaquille O'Neal, whose right Achilles and calf injuries have limited him to 12 minutes played - that's total, not per game - in the playoffs.
Those injuries served as a microcosm of sorts for the kind of season this has been for the Celtics, a season that ended with Wednesday's 97-87 Game 5 loss to the Miami Heat.
Boston once again fought the good fight, but the Heat were too strong and too determined to dethrone the Eastern Conference champions in their weakened state. As a result, Miami advances to the Eastern Conference finals after winning the best-of-seven series with Boston, four games to one.
Throughout the series, the Celtics had problems closing out quarters.
Game 5 was no different, as Miami mounted a 16-0 run to end the game.
After the game, the Celtics locker room was virtual ghost town with most of the players - including Kevin Garnett - heading to the team bus prior to the media being allowed to enter the locker room.
"This is a tough pill to swallow," said captain Paul Pierce, who had just 12 points on 5-for-12 shooting from the field. "We had expectations beginning of the year. Right now, I'm just . . . really upset. I wish I could have played better tonight. Unfortunately, we came up on the short end of the stick."
Similar to Game 4, the Celtics spent most of the game with the lead.
But just like Game 4, things started to unravel for the C's in the final few minutes of play.
After a series of defensive stops by both teams, the Heat finally got a glimmer of hope that they could rally for the win after James Jones nailed a 3-pointer that cut Boston's lead to 87-85 with 3:43 to play.
"That shot was huge," said Heat guard Dwyane Wade, who led all scorers with 34 points. "We were right there on the cusp, but we could not get over the hump. When he shot it, I was like, 'We need this one to go in,' and once it went in you could feel the momentum shift to our side, and then from there LeBron James went off and led us to the win."
James had 33 points, including the final 10 of the game.
Despite winning four of the five games, James praised the Celtics for a series that was a tough series.
"They pushed us every game, every second, every play, and every minute on the court," James said. "If we ever made a mistake, they made us pay for it."
Wednesday's loss not only brought a close to the season, but also raises concerns about the Big Three era in Boston, which began when Garnett and Ray Allen ajoined forces with Pierce prior to the 2007-08 season.
Since they teamed up four years ago, the C's have stood as the benchmark for Eastern Conference supremacy, a crown that will be passed on to the Heat or the Chicago Bulls, who are one victory away from meeting the Heat in the Eastern Conference finals.
Judging by the comments from coach Doc Rivers as well as other key players with the C's, there's a sense they'll try to regroup and make a run at Banner 18 with the same core group.
Rivers told reporters after the game that he's "leaning heavily to coming back" next season.
"I haven't made that decision, but I can tell you I probably will," Rivers said. "I'm a Celtic and I love our guys."
Allen has a player option to return next season, but he made his intentions clear following the loss as well.
"This has been my team," said Allen, who led all Celtics scorers in Game 5 with 18 points. "I have been full steam ahead with this team. I don't have any plans to go anywhere else."