Ten Thoughts from Game 6 as we wait to see if Pau Gasol or Robin Lopez will be the most hated man in Boston one week from today.
1. We all know that it's not supposed to work like this. Teams that go 27-27 to finish the regular season do not make the NBA finals. Teams can't simply declare that it's time to turn on the switch then actually turn on the switch. And what about the laws of NBA playoff regression? You know, older teams that are a couple seasons removed from a title almost never get back to the finals. The window was supposed to be closed. Wasn't it just yesterday that Ray Allen was going to be traded and no one cared if Doc Rivers was coming back next year?
Whatever happened to the season of apathy?
I'm not sure that this is the most improbable playoff run I've ever seen, but it's in the top two or three. Put it this way: I think more people around here are going to pick the Celtics to beat the Lakers or Suns in the NBA finals than they did to beat the Heat in the first round.
2. Rajon Rondo was the MVP of the regular season for the Celtics, and was by about the length of Secretariat's win at the Belmont. Same goes for the first-round win over the Heat and the Cavs series. But for the Eastern Conference finals it was Paul Pierce that earns the gold star. When the series began Pierce was coming off a rough six-gamer vs. the Cavs (34 percent shooting) and his matchup against Vince Carter was looked at as maybe a slight edge to the Celtics. Don't forget, there was a slew of "What is wrong with Pierce?" stories a couple of weeks ago.
Well, six games later?
Pierce: 24.3 points, 8.3 rebounds, 52 percent shooting
Carter: 13.7 points, 3.8 rebonds, 36.7 percent shooting
Here's the stat that jumped out at me: Pierce attempted 56 free throws in the series, Carter 24. All you need to know about who played with more aggression in the six games. Bottom line, Carter would rather take an 18-footer than have to deal with taking the ball to the basket. And that lack of desire to get his hands dirty also comes alive (can a lack of desire come alive?) on defense, where he simply refuses to mix it up. Just not in his DNA to be a tough guy, and that's why he'll finish his career with an incomprehensible amount of money, millions of All-Star votes and as many NBA titles as you and me.
3. Here's what I wrote about Pierce a year ago, when trying to make a case for his eventual inclusion in Springfield (At the time he was all but in. Now he's of course a lock for the Hall of Fame.)
I’m going to look at his playoff career as a whole here. I count five moments (so far) that I’d put in the “Larry Legend” category (no small praise, as I spent the first 20 years of my life in full Bird worship, complete with an attempted twang and near mullet. If puberty and I hadn’t avoided each other until I was 25 or so you would’ve seen the wispy mustache).
1. 2002, Game 5, first round vs. Sixers: Drops 46 in the deciding game, including eight 3's as the Celtics win by 43. That game is also famous for Greg Dickerson (then the P.A. guy) announcing second-round ticket information WITH THE GAME STILL IN PROGRESS. Eric Snow nearly attacked Dickerson, which, if it had happened, would have been one of the five greatest moments of my life.
2. 2002, Game 3, Eastern Conference finals vs. Nets: The Comeback, Part I. And, I think, the first time we really thought that Pierce might become an all-timer.
3. 2008, Game 7, Eastern Conference semifinals vs. Cavs: Every bit as good as Lebron in this one.
4. 2008, Game 4, NBA finals vs. Lakers: The Comeback, Part II. You know, when you look at the box score for this one Pierce doesn’t really stand out. But when you watch that second half he is far and away the best player on the floor in a game that meant everything and included three Hall of Famers. He could win another five NBA titles and Game 4 will still be the defining moment of his career and the end of any argument about his place in Celtics history.
5. 2009, Game 5, first round vs. Chicago: This is the weakest entry, but I’ll allow it. Three big shots to help the Celtics survive in what will be seen 20 years from now as the best series Pierce ever played in.
Now we can add the buzzer-beater vs. the Heat and his Game 6 work against the Magic. Not buying these as legit "Larry Legend" moments? The Celtics were already up 2-0 vs. the Heat and the game was only tied? And Game 6 vs. the Magic was essentially a blowout? OK, how about half a moment each? That still gets me to six, which is a lot more than many of Pierce's contemporaries. How many great playoff moments can you count for Garnett? How about Jason Kidd? Or Carter? Other than Kobe and Duncan, is there another active player with as many big postseason moments? I can't think of one.
4. I went into Game 1 thinking that this would be the defining series in the career of Vince Carter. And it sure was. But I'll say this in his defense: If I'm down 20 points with nine minutes left in the second quarter there is no player I'd rather have with the ball than Vince Carter. There's a quote you'll never see on a Hall of Fame plaque.
5. As we all expected, the story of Game 6 was Nate Robinson. If I had given you 100-1 odds that Li'l Nate was going to be the the halftime interview with Doris Burke would you have put 20 bucks on the table?
How about Rondo and Nate in the first half? The two point guards combined for 25 points, four assists and ZERO turnovers. Oh, plus the kind of defense that took an All-Star completely out of his comfort level. As good a 24 minutes as you'll ever see from that position.
Robinson was part Vinnie Johnson, part Allen Iverson and part (yup) Eddie House on Thursday. In a little under nine minutes in the second quarter he scored 13 points, helping the Celtics increase its lead from 11 points at the start of the quarter (when he entered the game) to 16 points when Rondo checked back in with 3:27 left in the half. Great stuff from Nate, who I didn't think was going to score 13 more points in his Celtics career. Remember, Doc had so little faith in Robinson that he had Tony Allen playing over him as the backup point guard.
Nate. Well, even in this game, which is easily his finest NBA moment not involving jumping over a chair, you could see why he's tough to trust. A super-emotional kind of player, and he lets the moment control him. Worked great in Game 6, but he was starting to force the issue a little too much at the end. Nice job by Doc to recognize that and get Rondo back in the game late in the second quarter.
Who knows if Robinson can help the Celtics in the finals, but I suspect he's moved into a "Let's give him two or three minutes and see if he's got something" role. But he'll be on the shortest of leashes. Doc isn't giving Nate any time to find his rhythm. in the NBA Finals, not if that means that Rondo is on the bench.
6. Maybe, after all the analysis about the two teams it really is as simple as this: The Magic hit at least 10 3-pointers in two games in the series. They won both. Jameer Nelson played well in two games in the series. They won both.
7. OK, maybe not that simple. But as much as Dwight Howard means to the Magic, after watching them for six games is there any doubt that they sink or swim on the back of Jameer Nelson? When he's at his best-- attacking the defense to set up the 3-point shooters or Howard for a dunk -- you can see why the Magic won 28-of-31 games heading into this series (just look at Game 5. That was a 60-win team on the floor.) But when Nelson is slowed down -- and he has some long spans where he is strangely passive-- the Magic aren't good enough to compete with the Celtics. If you went into the series thinking the two key matchups were Pierce-Carter and Rondo-Nelson, it should come as no shock that that the Magic are going home.
8. In case you were wondering, the only Magic player I can honestly put in the "This guy is better than I thought he was before the series started" category is J.J. Redick. That's it. But, in fairness to Howard, I thought he was one of the seven or eight best (maybe not best -- how about most valuable) players in league two weeks ago, and after watching him in this series I still feel that way. He acquitted himself very well in these six games. Ask Garnett -- I've never seen KG so overmatched as he was when he needed to guard Howard.
9. Lakers-Suns has been a lot of fun to watch, has a real 80s feel to it (and I don't mean that in a Bananarama kind of way.) Game 5, though, is why Phoenix will never get over the hump. Steve Nash is killing the Lakers in the fourth quarter, hitting jumpers from all the place, using his speed to get past Derek Fisher (who has no shot to stop Rondo should the Lakers advance) and score as well as set up Amare Stoudemire for easy hoops. So what do the Suns come up with out of both the timeouts they used in the last 2:20 of the game? Three-point shots for Channing Frye. Nice role player, good shooter, fits well in the system. All true. But you cannot put your season in his hands, not when a two-time MVP is making everything. You remember all those plays the Celtics used to run for Jerry Sichting down the stretch of playoff games in 1986? Exactly. And that's why I never fully buy into the Suns. I do think the home teams each win in the next two games. I don't get the vibe from the Lakers that they feel the need to close out Phoenix on Friday. And Kobe will not lose Game 7 at home. So it'll be the Celtics in LA on Thursday night for Game 1.
10. And the Celtics will fall down 1-0 after a 98-92 Lakers win.