By Kevin Henkin
I confess, I have Phil Jackson on the brain these days.
Maybe it’s because I’m just about to finish reading a book by Jackson called The Last Season: A Team in Search of its Soul. The book is about the Lakers and their journey through their doomed 2003-04 season. If you recall, that was the year that both Karl Malone and Gary Payton jumped on board for their own chance at title glory. Their arrival caused many pundits to laud the Lakers as title favorites. As we now know, of course, the Lakers lost in the Finals that year and it wasn’t even Jackson’s last season at the helm because he returned a mere year later. Although now stale, Jackson’s series of ramblings in that book nonetheless have me thinking quite a bit about the Celtics and their current predicament.
One of the constant themes throughout Jackson’s book is his repeated assertion that the NBA regular season is borderline meaningless. It’s how he justifies allowing his cornerstone big man Shaquille O’Neal to annually show up to camp out of shape and to vacation on the court (and frequently off it) through much of the eighty-two regular season games. Such an attitude may be offensive to basketball purists (including, ironically enough, Jackson’s own Chicago Bulls teams) but there just may be a wise and pragmatic upside to such a belief system. Or, to put it another way, there may be a very real downside to taking abundant success in the regular season too seriously.
Exhibit A: Your own Boston Celtics. If you recall, this was a team that faced its own fair share of doubters entering into their first season together. Then the games began and those doubters were forced back into the shadows, humbled by how wrong they had been proven to be. Sixty-six wins later, the Celtics were considered favorites heading into the playoffs. The first two games of the series against the Hawks showed more of that same success. During those games, one had the sense that the Hawks were cowed by the overwhelming odds that had been laid against them.
Then it happened. The Hawks returned home, unexpectedly became emboldened by their youthful athleticism and their feisty home crowd, and they realized that Boston’s 66 six regular season wins versus their own 37 meant that Boston had earned one more game at home in the best of seven series, and absolutely nothing else besides.
The truth is, the Celtics did take their regular season games more seriously than most of their opponents because their primary players were out to prove something. Consider the fact that all three of the Celtics’ big stars played for very mediocre teams last season. As a result, all three were finding their impressive legacies tarnished. They therefore came into this season seeking redemption and had seemingly been handed it without yet proving a damned thing in the playoffs.
When the Hawks eventually landed their first haymaker on the chin of the Celtics in Game 3, Boston’s players appeared almost stunned, as if to say, “Who do you young upstarts think you are? Don’t you read the papers? We’ve already been unanimously anointed by the media to be the winners of this series. Haven’t you heard? These games are a mere formality. WE WON SIXTY-SIX GAMES!!!”
Now the series stands at two games apiece and the Hawks know exactly what the Golden State Warriors knew last year, namely that playoff games are won in the trenches, not on the pages of a newspaper. That an impressive regular season pedigree means nothing beyond the benefit of that extra game at home. All it takes then is to win one of those vaunted road games and the terrific regular season of your opponent becomes reduced to nothingness or, perhaps more fitting, an embarrassing footnote.
Now here we are heading into Game 5 and the Celtics find themselves, much like the 2004 Lakers, a team in search of its soul. That Lakers team, despite their talented veterans, never found their soul because they never really decided who they were. Was it Kobe’s team or Shaq’s? Were they committed to the Triangle Offense or to Gary Payton’s insistence on being the floor general? Too many questions remained unanswered and they eventually lost despite their lofty expectations.
The Celtics now have some decisions to make, too. Are they really as defense-minded as they’ve established themselves to be during the regular season, because that reputation has suffered considerably over the last two games. Players on defensive-minded teams, after all, don’t stall to watch their own shots fall or complain to officials before racing back to cover their man on the other end. Faced with the challenge of a young, long and athletically superior team, are the Celtics willing to offset that athleticism by banging hard down low and by adding an additional emphasis on rebounding (and that’s wire-to-wire, guys, not in spurts)? Is the coaching staff willing to shift strategies despite what worked so well for them during the regular season? For example, considering that James Posey is the team’s only other consistently effective perimeter defender (and even he looks like he’s lost a step of late), are they finally willing to re-insert Tony Allen back into the rotation?
This truly is gut check time for the New Big Three, especially considering how they’ve largely been abandoned by their supporting cast these past two games. Their respective legacies couldn’t fairly be defined by their losing teams of recent years but all’s fair to throw those stones if they falter now. In short, it’s time for the Celtics to answer those questions in order to find their collective soul, to find out who they really are.