By Jeremy Gottlieb
Well, that was a huge bummer, eh?
Talk about an anti-climax. The last thing I or pretty much anyone to whom I’ve spoken would have predicted for Game 7 at the Garden the other night was that the weary Celts would be blown out of the gym. The Celtics had history, experience, their home crowd and a seemingly mentally weak opponent all working in their favor and they still managed to drop one of the biggeststinkbombs of the season. So I guess that means it’s time to reflect now that enough time has passed that I can clearly wrap my head around it all. But before we go any further, let me put out one, small disclaimer. This will not be another one of those, “If only KevinGarnett had played, then they may have won it,” columns. So many supposedly shrewd, intelligent writers have mailed in that kind of drivel in the last couple of days, it’s made my eyes bleed. Really, guys? You think ifGarnett had played, the Celtics might have beaten the Magic? Wow, thanks for such astute, expert analysis. Now I know exactly why they lost.
No, here at the BSMW Full Court Press, we don’t believe in insulting our readership with such simplified obviousness. Everyone who has ever watched a sporting event knows that if the team thatlost’s best player didn’t play, that’s probably a huge reason why said losing team went down. Apparently, a lot of our local bastions of basketball knowledge forgot this.
Anyway, let’s not waste any more time discussing such nonsense. I’d prefer to examine how the Celtics got as far as they did and why. The series against Orlando didn’t have nearly the drama or suspense or sheer joy of the first-round series with the Bulls. But there were plenty of twists and turns. On one hand, you could argue that the Celts should have lost in five games. Orlando had both Games 4 and 5 wrapped up before going completely mental and spitting the proverbial bit. On the other hand you could argue that the Celtics should have won in six games. When Paul Pierce stepped to the line with 2:03 left in that game, just after the play of BrianScalabrine’s life (his “in your face” stuffing of Rashard Lewis on the low block that couldn’t possibly happen 99 out of 100 times) the Celtics had a chance to jump ahead after having held the Magic to just four points in the previous four minutes. Pierce, who shot 85 percent from the stripe in the series, missed enough big ones both against the Bulls and the Magic that when he clanked up both attempts, it wasn’t really surprising. What was surprising was that Orlando, which had virtually cornered the market on not being able to capitalize on pretty much anything up to that point, saw an opening, somehow flipped a switch on their collective mental toughness meter (which at that point was hovering around zero) and ran off an 11-2 run to escape with an 83-75 win and force another Game 7.
In hindsight, that was pretty much it. Like several Celtics fans I know, I figured the whole Game 7 at home thing would be enough to carry them. I thought it was a fluke that the Magic had kept their composure and managed to take advantage of such a huge chance at the end of Game 6. They had blown their wad in doing that, it seemed, and there was no way such a fragile group could summon the requisite chutzpah to beat a defending champ on the road in a deciding game, even a defending champ as tired and depleted as the Celtics.
Of course, that wasn’t remotely what happened. Instead of yet another Game 7 triumph, the Celtics completely wilted when it mattered most. I won’t waste too much time belaboring this point, but under the circumstances, considering the losses in personnel and the subsequent alternatives, reaching the ultimate game of the conference semifinals was a major accomplishment. It’s a bit astounding that they got as far as they did. That by no means absolves them of their performance on Sunday, but it is worth noting.
It was awful, really. Even though Ray Allen played by far his best game of the series, everyone else was basically out of it. Pierce was doubled anywhere on the floor at which he touched the ball and had no answer for it. Kendrick Perkins had his worst game in weeks, disappearing on offense and even missing three straight layups on a single possession at one point. Rajon Rondo hit a couple of jumpers but lacked the explosiveness he displayed earlier in the playoffs and was mostly ineffective, not to mention the fact that he was schooled by the not-really-that-good Rafer Alston. I would mention the bench, but there isn’t one, although one particular yokel earlier this week was shouting at me about how Doc Rivers should be ashamed of himself for employing an eight-man rotation, even though pretty much every coach since the beginning of time has done the same come playoff time (including Doc Rivers last year), and that Mikki Moore and Tony Allen should have played more in Game 7. Whatever, it was the worst-case scenario and not too many of us saw it coming.
But even though they absolutely stunk on Sunday, it’s hardly the last or most pertinent thing we should remember about this particular Celtics team. Instead, the focus should be on how admirable their overall performance throughout the last few weeks has been. I’m not a huge fan of trafficking in cliches, but this team showed a massive amount of heart, the heart of a champion. They outlasted Chicago and its Energizer Bunny youngsters and they came within one game (or a couple minutes, going back to Game 6) of bouncing an Orlando team with far more talent and athleticism while using Scalabrine as their sixth man/main backup at center and both forward slots. They were so thin that they had to take Big Baby (who is about to get PAID) out after one foul as opposed to two. They were forced to rely on Stephon Marbury at times, and even though he rewarded them for it in Game 5 and was by all accounts a perfect soldier during his time here, he was still too rusty and out of his element to live up to it.
All that, and they still were this close to winning the right to get swept by LeBron and the Cavs in the Eastern Conference Finals. They were tired and banged up and practically patched together with duct tape, yet they just missed winning two playoff rounds. Not too shabby. Of course, the end was bitter and disappointing. But it was a hell of a ride and for that, this group, the 2008-2009 defending NBA champion Boston Celtics, should be commended.