By Kevin Henkin
After six tumultuous years and two fully extended series, the Boston Celtics are finally back in the Eastern Conference Finals. Paul Pierce is the only remaining Celtic from the 2002 Boston sqaud who lost to the Nets that year. Ironically enough, it was on Pierce’s back that the Celtics rode again to reach the third round of the playoffs.
Kevin Garnett and Rajon Rondo both had strong games but it was Paul Pierce that stepped up large and became the story. This is the game that Boston fans have been waiting for from their Captain in this 2008 playoff season. Fittingly, Pierce delivered it at the most crucial moment because on the other end, LeBron James likewise submitted his own anticipated monster effort. James outscored Pierce 45 to 41 but he needed five more shots from the floor as well as from the free throw line to accomplish the margin.
If you consider the gun-slinger’s duel between Pierce and James to have been a draw, then the difference in the game could otherwise be attributed to the performance of an unlikely hero. P.J. Brown scored 10 points on 4-4 shooting and also collected 6 rebounds and a steal in twenty minutes of immense play. In fourth quarter crunch time, he successfully kept several loose balls alive, waged war on the glass and knocked down key jumpers and put-backs. Also, in one of the crucial defensive plays of the contest, it was Brown who prevented LeBron James from converting on a drive that would have brought Cleveland within 1 point with 25 seconds remaining in the game. After Boston collected the rebound from the James miss, Cleveland was forced to foul and the remainder of the game essentially became a formality.
Aside from the classic Pierce/James showdown, there were two other notable subplots within the game.
Wally Szczerbiak, who otherwise had his share of surprisingly gutsy performances throughput the series, designated himself as the invisible man in Game 7, finishing with zero points on 0-2 shooting with 2 turnovers. His counterpart Ray Allen had an almost equally dismal afternoon, finishing with 4 points (2 of which were desperation foul free throws) on 1 of 6 shooting from the field, including two missed wide open threes. On two other occasions, Allen actually worked himself free from Szczerbiak, only to miss the hard-earned open jumpers. His only basket was an admittedly nifty lay-up in traffic, but that only meant that all of Allen’s other shots from more than two feet away were misses. This is just more of the same bad news for a player who depends so heavily on his shooting to provide value. In summation, an aged Ray Allen without a hint of his stroke is barely worth playing. Doc Rivers must have finally agreed with that sentiment because he sat Allen in favor of James Posey through most of the fourth quarter while his team’s season was on the line.
Which leads us directly into the other storyline: The game management by Doc Rivers, specific to his rotations and continued curious allocation of playing time. It’s become clear by now that Rivers is coaching by feel rather than on the basis of matchups, granting temporary favor to the perceived hot hand and thus continuously experimenting with combinations.
In the series clincher, Sam Cassell remained on the bench behind Eddie House, who has been reinstated as the backup point guard. There was also an unexpected Leon Powe sighting for six plus minutes in the middle quarters. Meanwhile, Big Baby Davis, who had played some regular minutes in recent games, was sent back to the pine with a DNP-CD. Of greater significance, Kendrick Perkins also remained on the bench for the entire fourth quarter with his 4 fouls while P.J. Brown kept himself in the game by killing the Cavaliers softly with his song.
In the second quarter, a line-up of Perkins, Garnett, Posey, Pierce and House delivered what was probably Boston’s strongest stretch of play, during which they gained a 7 point advantage during their seven or so minutes together on the floor. The lineup worked largely because Pierce was allowed to roam at shooting guard for the entire quarter, with Posey designated as LeBron’s shadow and Pierce freed up to focus on his offense and attack against weaker, smaller defenders on switches. With Ray Allen out of the game and Pierce in his place at the 2 guard, the switch worked mightily to Boston’s advantage, which is probably why Rivers returned to it in the fourth.
That said, one has to wonder, after a full preseason, 82 regular season games and 13 other playoff games leading up to today, why the Head Coach was still wildly experimenting with the specific roles within his eleven player rotation. In short, this is the kind of seat-of-your pants game management philosophy that works right up until the point that it decidedly doesn’t. Stay tuned for how Rivers manages this situation against the Pistons, against whom there will be an even smaller margin for error than with the Cavaliers.
Is this nitpicking on the evening of a monumental Game 7 win? Absolutely. That doesn’t mean the issues noted above aren’t worthy of note or concern going forward, though. Just food for thought over the next forty-eight hours as we gratefully shed the Cavaliers from our consciousness and look toward an even more formidable opponent. One last thought on Cleveland: I was impressed with what I saw from them. They were tough in ways that I didn’t expect, especially on defense. They were essentially a one man show with some complimentary role players and yet they still very easily could have walked away with this series save for a couple of very close road games that didn’t fall their way.
Next come the Detroit Pistons, the regular residents of the Eastern Conference Finals with a core of players deeply familiar with one another. It feels like this series has been in the works since late last summer, and now it’s finally here. Seven games, anyone?