In the end, it doesn’t really matter how they got there. It doesn’t matter that the Celtics ended their series by TKO rather than the big haymaker finish that looked imminent early in the second half.
The Celtics finished off the Miami Heat with a 96-86 victory in Game 5 at the Garden Tuesday night (click here for the full recap), and now moving on to play the Cavaliers — who also got past their first-round series Tuesday.
That series will start on Saturday, and there will be ample time to digest all the ins and outs of that challenge. But for now, the Celtics are content with taking care of their business. It was the first time in the Kevin Garnett era that the Celtics actually put a team away in less than six games and it afforded them a little break, which never hurts anyone, particularly them.
“I’m not used to this,” Boston coach Doc Rivers said. “I just know it’s nice to get a day off [Wednesday] because we need one. Only I was a little disappointed in us in the end of the third, fourth, because I thought it was our focus. And we can’t do that. It’s very dangerous. We got away with it tonight.”
Maybe so, but the Celtics afforded themselves some breathing room with their Game 1 comeback, their Game 2 blowout without Garnett and, of course, with their great escape in Game 3.
The Celtics are moving on, but have they answered the questions that nagged them throughout the regular season? The Heat presented a decent enough challenge with a tough, defensive mindset and a true superstar in Dwyane Wade. But their supporting cast left much to be desired.
Now that they are moving on, that question seems like a good place to begin:
ARE THE CELTICS BACK?
At times in this series it seemed that way. Their defensive effort in Game 2 was superb and they showed resiliency in rallying in their Game 1 comeback. Even their not-quite-enough Game 4 effort had some positive vibes to it.
Rivers, for one, appears to still have some doubt.
“I don’t know if it’s the one I thought I would see or hoped to see,” Rivers said. “I’m not sure. But I did feel good about our team because I thought we had good rest going into the playoffs and we were healthy.”
Ah, the health question. Heat coach Erik Spoelstra has maintained that the Celtics problems have been overstated. He cited their record with their starting five intact — 38-18 — and their veteran presence.
“They understand what the moment is,” Spoelstra said. “They’ve had injuries. Everyone discounts that and that’s a big part of the NBA season. So they got healthy at the right time and, again, they’re a veteran team that’s well-coached, and they’re unselfish. They put aside their personal agendas.”
The Celtics maintained great offensive balance throughout the series. Ray Allen and Paul Pierce each had huge individual games at various point, but neither player dominated the ball. The bench, which was up and down, at least seems to be settled with Tony Allen and Glen Davis settling into important roles.
The defense was also there. At times.
“The first two games, I thought it was the old Celtics,” Rivers said. “It was absolutely wonderful to see. I was upset after Game 3. I kept saying we can’t do that again, and we did it again and lost Game 4. So we’re getting there. We’re really close, and you could see it defensively. That’s who we have to be though.”
There was one other element of this series that was a positive for the Celtics. After the Game 1 incident, the public perception outside of Boston turned completely against the Celtics in general, and Pierce and Garnett in particular. But they held it together, winning without Garnett, and brushing aside any further silliness with Quentin Richardson, who continued trying to bait Garnett throughout Game 5.
“I understand,” Garnett said. “I’ve been around a lot of dirty or cheap-shot guys so I understand the game. I’ve been here for 15 years so he wasn’t anything to kill on the block.”
Look, the Celtics understand that they were underwhelming in the regular season. They may have snapped back from time to time at the criticism, but they know.
“You definitely had your doubts at times because of the inconsistent play,” Pierce said. “But the thing I credit this team about is the mental toughness. Even when we lost three, or four games, lose seven out of 10, we stuck together. It’s a great time of the year now that we are coming together like we are because we never point the finger and we always stuck it out through the good and bad times. We are seeing the resolve right now here in the playoffs.”
The Celtics can’t apologize for their regular season anymore, and it wouldn’t really matter if they did. This is who they are now, and while we don’t know yet if it’s championship timber, we do know that it’s better than it was two weeks ago.
RAJON RONDO, AGAIN
The quiet man of the Celtics didn’t talk after the Game 5 win. That’s just as well, because Rondo tends to not be the most forthcoming player on the team. He lets his play speak for him and in this series, from the first game to the last, he was the best player on the floor not named Dwyane Wade.
Also, he was sick.
“Before the game he said he felt awful,” Rivers said. “So whenever he does that I just play him the whole game. We just needed him on the floor. You know, when they made their run and they tried to go zone, we put shooters on the floor, but then we didn’t have a facilitator. So that’s when we went back to Rondo and he got guys the ball in the right spot.”
Rondo played almost 45 minutes and scored 16 points to go with 12 assists (and two turnovers), eight rebounds. He also knocked down all four of his free throws. Tony Allen has emerged as the sort-of backup point guard — and no offense to Allen, who has resurrected his career during the last two months of the season — but that means that, once again, the Celtics don’t really have a backup point guard.
The Heat started the game with Wade guarding Rondo, as expected, but it didn’t last. Rondo will continue to see gimmick defenses, probably forever, but he has enough savvy to deal with it now. That’s not an accident either.
“He’s a good player but what I like about him is he’s a student of the game,” veteran sage Michael Finley said. “He studies film as much as anybody. He knows their plays as well as anyone. He’s a basketball junkie. He truly loves the game. His knowledge of the game transfers to the court and I think that’s what makes him one of the better point guards in this game.”
What’s interesting about that is that Rondo is not by any stretch a student of the game’s history. He has almost no frame of reference for anyone who played before he entered the league and that may not be a bad thing.
“He has no clue of the history of the game,” Finley said. “He’s just focused on the time that affects him. Because of that I guess he doesn’t get burnt out from watching basketball. He said he never saw me play. I told him he didn’t have that channel. Our games were only on cable. In my heyday he was more focused on trying to get to where I was instead of admiring who I was.”
Rondo does not get overwhelmed by the moment. In fact he doesn’t seem to get overwhelmed by much that happens on the court. There were moments in Game 5 when things were starting to get ragged, and always it was Rondo who asked for calm.
“He’s the point guard,” Finley said. “You have to be the calm. If you’re hectic and you don’t have control of the offense than everything is going to be hectic. With the point guard position comes his responsibility. He’s been in big games. He was there when they won the championship. This stage is no big deal for him.”
Finley credits Rondo’s film study for his ability to rebound like a forward and also his uncanny feel for creating havoc with his steals.
“He has a knack for rebounding and a knack for the game,” Finley said. “I’ve met a couple of my people in my career who watch as much basketball as me. His life is based around basketball. His knowledge of game situations is what helps him get rebounds and steals and puts the team in offensive situations.”
Rondo indicated that he’ll talk on Thursday when the team gathers again for practice, but what else is there left to say? He is no longer coming into his own. His time is now.
AND NOW, CLEVELAND
It had to be sometime. The Cavaliers had the best record in the league and the best player on the planet. This won’t be a Wade situation for the Celtics. LeBron James has help and lots of it, and his team also has homecourt.
If there are still lingering questions about the Celtics, they will be answered in the next round.
“They are the team to beat right now,” Pierce said. “They showed it through the course of the season. The way they are playing right now, we have our work cut out for us. If we are going to win this series we have to get some games in Cleveland, possibly more than one, and defend our homecourt. We know this is going to be a tough series. A really, really tough series.” It’s a huge mountain we’re going to have to climb, but I think this team is ready to face this test.”
Is it the right time to play Cleveland? Maybe. The Celtics will have the benefit of a few days of rest and they did spilt the season series with the Cavs, winning in Cleveland on opening night and surviving an Easter Sunday matchup when they built a huge lead and withstood a vintage LeBron attack.
The Cavs were also without Anderson Varejao and Shaquille O’Neal, and they are both back. The East may not have the depth that exists in the West where every series is a life or death struggle, but the teams at the top are a good anyone.
We’ll find out a lot about the Celtics very shortly, but for now they will be more confident, rested and healthier then they have been since November. In beating the Heat, the Celtics did what they have to do. Now, the true test is about to begin.