“We played good enough to give ourselves a chance to win. That’s all you can ask for.”
-- LeBron James after Game 5
Please file under: Things never said by Larry Bird after a loss.
With that, here's five questions for Game 6 as the Celtics try to keep LeBron's eighth NBA title celebration delayed until 2020, Erik Spoelstra coaches for the right not to work for ESPN and I continue to wonder what happens first -- Mickael Pietrus passing up an open 3-pointer or a Jenny Dell live spot on NESN ...
1. Is it really as simple as grit and balls vs. spayed and neutered?
Well, no. Of course not. I don't think Kevin Garnett and Rajon Rondo are any mentally tougher than they were when they walked off the court in Miami after losing Game 5 (and the series) a year ago -- but they are healthier. That's the difference. This Celtics team very obviously has an established mental toughness that is a serious factor in this series, but it would mean nothing if Rondo dislocated his elbow and Garnett was slowed down by a bum knee.
2. But it means something, right?
If everything is equal talent-wise -- and I think it is basically a wash in this series -- mental toughness plays a huge role, and here it's not even close. The Celtics are a team, the Heat are three guys that decided to play together because they thought it would be fun and, more importantly, because they thought it would be easy. Why did they think that, you might ask? Well, because everyone told them it would be. That's how life goes when you never hear the word "no." And sometimes it works -- see the 2008-12 Celtics -- and sometimes it doesn't. Now, it helped a hell of a lot that Garnett-Allen-Pierce were in (we thought) the early autumn of their careers and had won exactly zero titles, but you know what might've meant more? Doc Rivers and Rajon Rondo. It all just clicked, and it hasn't for the Heat. Erik Spoelstra is no Doc Rivers (we'll get to that) and there is no Rondo in that supporting cast. Great coaching and a potential Hall of Fame point guard goes a long way in creating chemistry. The Celtics have proved over the last five years that they can take a punch in the mouth and will not stop fighting. LeBron James still has not shown that ability in a playoff series during his career. Just look at his history vs. the Celtics and even last year vs. the Mavericks. And if you buy into the idea that this is LeBron's team -- and I do, if you've watched this series it's hard to think otherwise -- there is more than a sneaking suspicion that this team will fold when the temperature gets a little uncomfortable.
3. Is 13.5 a fair over/under for Rondo's assist total?
I'd probably go under, but it's a coin flip. Rondo has 203 assists in the postseason -- 116 more than any other player (Chris Paul). And Rondo was suspended for a game. In this series, Rondo has 55 assists and 17 turnovers. In the last two games the Heat have 33 assists and Rondo has 28. Look, his flaws are still obvious and won't change, but the guy has played at an absurd level throughout the playoffs. If the Celtics win Game 6 or 7 it's fair to at least ask if no player (other than LeBron James, maybe) is more responsible for LeBron James still looking for his ring than Rondo. And there aren't five players I've watched in my life who make that tip pass to Mickael Pietrus; that would have fit perfectly in a best of Bird or Magic montage.
4. Are we overrating the coaching edge?
See the answer to question No. 1. I don't think Doc Rivers has become a genius in a year, and I don't think Spoelstra is suddenly a tumbling halfwit. The Heat did beat the Celtics in five games last year, and the coaches are still around. But guess what? A healthy Garnett and a healthy Rondo and Doc is really smart again. We know it's a players' league, and one look at Doc's record in Boston proves that. But there is a talent in winning with talent, and Doc is as good as anyone in the NBA today. He's just become a terrific coach on the job, and we're not talking about balancing egos or handling the media or all the usual stuff Rivers is (correctly) often praised for. As an in-game coach he's developed into a master -- we know about the plays out of timeouts (that's probably the calling card of Doc as an in-game coach, and it is astounding how much success they have had with Rondo-to-Garnett in those spots over the years) and the adjustments. And he's done this without Tom Thibodeau, so we can drop that angle. Doc's made mistakes during this postseason, but overall this at least matches his work in 2008 and 2010. And Doc looks like he's in charge of his team, where Spoelstra looks like he's in charge of making sure he doesn't piss off Wade or James. Spoelstra's an easy target and his late-game plays have been horrific in this series (unless you are really fond of Udonis Haslem taking off-balance jumpers), but this isn't on him. LeBron James and Dwyane Wade are two of the six or seven best players in the league, both in their prime. If LeBron wanted to take the ball to the basket at the end of regulation in Game 2 or Game 4, he could've tried. If Wade makes his jumper at the end of OT in Game 4 this series could already be over. Spoelstra isn't Pat Riley, but this is about the failures of James and Wade when it counts most.
5. What's going to happen?
I thought the Game 5 winner was going to win the series in six games, and that's what will happen. Forget all the other stuff that has its place in the discussion -- the historic pressure on LeBron, who will referee and what does that mean, the impact of a potential increased role for Chris Bosh -- and it comes down to this: The Celtics are a better basketball team than the Miami Heat, plain and simple. They smell blood, they are home, and the Heat remind me an awful lot of the 2008 Lakers and 2010 Cavaliers, a couple of teams that couldn't get out of Boston fast enough once they realized they couldn't win. And if this group -- this is Year 5, remember, of a two-, maybe three-year plan -- can stop LeBron and the Heat from getting to the NBA finals, the level of satisfaction from the fans will be pretty close to how they would feel when winning a championship (think 2004 ALCS vs. World Series). Don't know if this will be the last game Spoelstra coaches for the Heat, but I think it will be the last game Dwyane Wade plays in a Heat uniform -- he's just not built to be a 1A and there is zero chance the Heat are moving LeBron.
I've been torched by the Celtics before -- I almost picked the 76ers and picked the Heat in six -- but I think this is the last series they will win this postseason. The Thunder have the best player in the world (yup, I've bumped LeBron down to No. 2) playing at a position where the Celtics have no one to guard him, a very real point guard matchup for Rondo, James Harden and plenty of depth up front. And I'm not sure how anyone can point to experience as a roadblock when they just dusted off a team with more experience than the Celtics.
But that's a preview for another day. Game 6 will look an awful lot like the other three Celtics win in this series -- Rondo will do whatever he wants, Garnett will finish with something close to 20-10, Pierce will struggle to get in a rhythm vs. LeBron but will have his moments (though I can't imagine one bigger than the 3-pointer in LeBron's face at the end of Game 5 -- when his career is done I suspect, given the moment and the guy guarding him, that will rank as Pierce's personal favorite) and someone else (Ray Allen, Pietrus, Dooling) will make a couple of key baskets. And the defense, which is why they won a title in 2008 and why they almost did in 2010, will again be the true difference. The Heat have had amazingly long stretches in this series where they can't get close to the basket and wind up with forced jumpers as the shot clock winds down. I don't think that's going to change on Thursday night.