Why a Celtics-Heat series Stock Watch?
Well, because this series has now entered the Impossible to Predict zone, so I'm not even going to try to take a Game 5 gander. Wouldn't shock me if the Heat won by 30, wouldn't shock me if the Celtics won by 30, and everything in between for both teams. As usual, I know nothing. All I can write with any confidence is this: I can't remember a team with more pressure on them than the Heat will have on Tuesday night. We'll find out a lot about Erik Spoelstra and LeBron James and the rest of that team, because if they lose to the Celtics I don't think the series gets back to Miami. Oh, and the ESPN pregame and postgame shows will be horrific. These two things we know.
So here we go. Who is up, down or about the same after four games ...
Rajon Rondo: We all realize that Rondo is already one of the great playoff performers of this era, right? He was the best player of the 2010 playoffs -- would've been finals MVP -- and has been the best player in the 2012 playoffs. And in this series he's averaged 46.8 minutes per game, 24.0 points, 10.5 assists, 7.0 rebounds while shooting 54.1 percent from the field. That's legendary stuff. I've written in the past that I don't think Rajon Rondo can be a franchise player, that he's not the kind of player you can build a team around when Pierce/Garnett/Allen are gone. Well, the Rondo of the past couple of weeks is the very definition of a franchise player. If the Celtics look to trade him again during the offseason after what we've seen that tells you a hell of a lot about Rondo's personality, because it sure isn't his established playing level or his contract.
Kevin Garnett: Kevin Garnett has been 36 years old for a couple of weeks and also has been among the, what, half-dozen best players in the NBA playoffs this season? That's really not supposed to happen.
Larry Bird was five months into retirement when he celebrated his 36th birthday (and on Dec. 5, 1992, no living person -- Bird included -- thought a Coach of the Year and Executive of the Year award were in Larry Legend's future). Magic Johnson was 4 1/2 years into his (forced, admittedly) retirement when he turned 36 -- he would come back to the NBA six months later, a 32-game experiment that was important in educating folks on HIV but was basically unforgettable on the court. Michael Jordan was between retirements on Feb. 17, 1999.
That's the thing -- to be the a top two or three player during an NBA postseason, chances are you have to be a great player, a Hall of Famer. Usually the case. History tells us that. And to be that player at age 36 probably means we are talking about guys in rarefied air, the all-timers. And most of those guys were gone or irrelevant by 36. Jerry West was retired, Elgin Baylor played 11 games over two seasons after his 36th birthday, Dr. J was about to begin his final season, one in which he played in a career-low 60 games and set seasonal worsts in points, rebounds and assists per game. Isiah was four years out. My vote for the most underrated player in NBA history? Moses Malone. He won three MVPs in his career and for reasons unknown to me is not historically regarded in the same category of the other three-time (or more) winners. Well, Moses was still playing when he turned 36 and was on a 31-51 Bucks team.
What Garnett is doing has only been equaled historically by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who averaged 23 points and eight boards during the 1984 playoffs (and then won finals MVP the following season and was still a 20-8 guy three years later). That's the list, and that's what we are watching right now with Garnett. And maybe it is motivated by contract and maybe Garnett signs a two-year deal next year and plays just 36 games, but right now he and Rondo have done exactly what they need to do for the Celtics to win this series.
Udonis Haslem: Strange series for Haslem -- in Games 1 and Game 3 he had a total of three points and eight rebonds and in Games 2 and 4 he had a total of 25 points and 28 rebounds. Haslem was terrific in Game 4, coming off the bench to put up a 13-17 in 36 minutes (the entire Celtics bench had 11 points and five rebounds in 56 total minutes). Haslem -- not Dwyane Wade -- was the Heat's second-best player on Sunday night.
LeBron James: Hasn't changed -- unstoppable until it really matters, then he turns into something else. We can debate clutch forever, but I thought Jeff Van Gundy made a fair point on Sunday -- do we just forget the 3-pointer LeBron made with 37 seconds left to tie the game because he passed up a chance to take the game-winner at the end of regulation? But the all-timers are judged by titles and game-winners, that's the standard and it isn't going to change. So, LeBron can put up three more triple-doubles in this series and seven in the next one and it won't matter if the Heat don't win their final game of these playoffs. Those are the rules, he knows that better than anyone. Wade's already got his title -- and Wade didn't promise seven more -- and no one cares about Spoelstra, so the only legacy on the line is LeBron's. He can be great, lose and get killed for it. I'll just say this: Anyone who has watched this series to date and thinks Dwyane Wade is anywhere close to LeBron James as a basketball player is looking at a different game. I understand Wade won a title six years ago and LeBron absolutely has a tendency to melt in big spots, but right now is this zero comparison between the two. LeBron is just operating at a different level.
Paul Pierce: Very quietly shooting only 36.8 percent over the first four games, though you get the feeling that a 30-point game is lurking.
Refs: Do you think LeBron James will attempt more than 15 free throws in Game 5? So do I, and there is the problem with the perception of NBA officials. We think the game means more to the Heat, which means we think David Stern thinks the game means more to the Heat. If you entered the series with the belief that NBA officials are clueless and potentially corrupt, I don't know how that would have changed over the last four games. OK, LeBron fouled out (on a horrible call, by the way, just a stinker). But we all think that has been noted by the Powers That Be and will be corrected in Game 5, right?
Dwyane Wade: What happened? When did Wade turn into a whining, bitching, sulking complementary player? Didn't we all like him a couple of years ago? Is there a single person, free of bias one way or the other, who thinks this is one of the five best players on the planet? Five years ago, sure. Even a year ago, yup. But Wade has regressed, has aged overnight. Maybe he goes for 45 in Game 5 and proves me wrong, but I've been stunned by how passive Wade is when LeBron is on the floor. Remember the endless debate when LeBron arrived -- who would take the last-second shot? It doesn't seem to be an issue -- Wade seems really happy to defer and get out of the way. And when LeBron is out and Wade runs the ship, this is a terrible Miami team, just a series of undisciplined offensive possessions that usually end with Wade going to the basket and throwing anything up in an attempt to force a foul. When the series started I picked the Heat in six largely because I felt they had the two best players. That's not the case -- Rondo is now a better player than Wade.
Doris Burke: I get that she didn't expect Rondo to answer a halftime question with any honesty -- usually it's a buffet of cliches -- but it is her job to listen and then follow up if it actually happens. It seems to me that the sideline reporter at an NBA game has a pretty easy gig, no? But Doris -- who I feel people overpraise as an analyst because they don't want to seem sexist, she's OK but nowhere near as good as some would let you believe -- either didn't know what to do with Rondo's answer or wanted no part of it and raced to the next scripted question. She did follow up in her postgame spot with Rondo, but she looked really uncomfortable doing so. And when she thought the cameras were off after the interview, she half-hugged Rondo and whispered something in his ear. It sure seemed that she was apologizing for having to raise a subject that absolutely needed to be raised. If she's uncomfortable asking a player what the repercussions could be for calling out the other team in a halftime interview, I'd suggest she find another job.
Mickael Pietrus: Yes, he had a couple of crucial offensive rebounds in Game 4. But the Celtics need Pietrus to make some shots off the bench and he simply isn't doing it. He's shooting 11.5 percent in this series and just over 30 percent in the playoffs. Put it another way: In 99 minutes played this series Pietrus has six points and 12 fouls. This is a flawed player, obviously, but this flawed? And could Doc have any less confidence in Sasha Pavlovic?
(Keyon Dooling should've been in the Stock Up category, if only for this: The Celtics do not win Game 4 without his 10 points off the bench, and that is more than anyone expected from Dooling before the series began. He's kind of playing the Eddie House role for this team, but Pietrus has flunked in his portrayal of James Posey.)