For 48 hours, all anyone outside of Boston could talk about was LeBron James, while the Celtics were simply along for the ride in his quasi-public drama. That all ends now.
Oh, they’ll still be talking about LeBron in New York, Cleveland and even Miami, Chicago and Los Angeles, too, because that’s what we do in the NBA. We talk about the future as if the present is merely a formality on the way to something bigger.
But not for the Celtics. The present is all they have, it’s all they’ve ever had since they acquired Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, and somewhat remarkably they are still here. It’s beyond pointless anymore to talk about what happened between November and April because it’s clear that nothing really mattered for them except for health.
The Celtics' future is directly in front of them, and it begins Sunday in Orlando against what is most likely the NBA’s best team right now. But the Magic will have their hands full with the Celtics.
They did what most people said couldn’t be done. They won three straight games against the Cavaliers and four of five to not only win their conference semifinal series but win it convincingly, 94-85 in front of a frenzied Garden crowd.
They left no doubt in a close-out game against the best player in the game on a night when he recorded a triple double with 27 points, 19 rebounds and 10 assists. But James also had nine turnovers and shot 8-for-21, and it must be said that elbow or no elbow, passive or aggressive, the Celtics defense had a very large part in denying the two-time MVP what most saw as his destiny.
“Great players will win a game or two, but a great team will win a series,” Michael Finley said. “In my opinion, we were the better team in this series.”
LeBron James is still the future, as he has been ever since he entered the NBA. The Celtics are still the present, and they are very much still alive in an improbable and compelling story that is not yet finished.
“There’s a lot of people in this room, boy,” Kevin Garnett said playfully to the huge throng of reporters who had mostly gathered to bear witness to James’ last game before free agency. “Man! Lot of people in this room. Haven’t seen this many people in this room since, uh, ’08. Hmmmm.”
It’s crazy, really, that after 15 years in the NBA, an MVP and a championship that Kevin Garnett would still have anything to prove in this league. But there is always that nagging question about his ability, no, make that his willingness, to take over a game offensively from the rugged outpost of the left block.
If he had so chosen, Garnett could have become some insane combination of Hakeem Olajuwon and Bob McAdoo; an unstoppable offensive player on the block with range out to 20 feet. But Garnett always had other ambitions.
He not only wanted to be the best defensive player in the league, he also wanted to be the most unselfish. He wanted to be the best teammate in the NBA and sometimes the two things don’t always go hand in hand. So Garnett did it his way and he never apologized for it.
The Celtics wanted him to be something different in this series, demanded it actually. The minimum number was 20 shots per game, every game, but really they would have been thrilled if he had taken 25 shots. “There aren’t enough shots,” Doc Rivers said the other day after a Celtics practice.
Let it be said that after all he has done in a Boston uniform, Garnett finally left his emphatic signature on a defining game as a member of the Celtics. There was no other way around it. For all of Rajon Rondo’s brilliance, if the Celtics were going to win this series, Kevin Garnett had to be a great offensive player, and he was in Game 6.
Cavs coach Mike Brown continued his run of odd decision-making by opening the game with Shaquille O’Neal on Garnett instead of Antwan Jamison. It didn’t work.
The first time he touched the ball he drained a jumper against Shaq. Then he hit another one. He made his first four shots in the first quarter and made O’Neal look old and slow, which he is. Funny thing, though. This was the one wrinkle the Celtics didn’t want to see.
“That was the one matchup we didn’t want,” Rivers said in a quiet moment.
Garnett, however, was unfazed.
“I really didn’t know what they were going to do,” he said. “I thought that they would probably trap. It is my 15th year and I’ve seen just about everything that you could possibly do in a basketball game, but when they put Shaq on me, my mentality throughout these whole playoffs has been attack, attack, attack. To be the presence. So when they put Shaq on me, my mentality didn’t change. It didn’t change at all.”
Garnett finished with 22 points and 12 rebounds. Just about the only thing he didn’t do to the fullest was get those 20 shots. He ultimately finished with 19, but his performance was airtight.
“It was the key,” Rivers said. “I thought it was coming into the series. You know, hell, we didn’t know if he could do it as much. The number was 20. We kept talking, 20. Twenty attempts a night, 20 attempts a night, and our guys had a count on it. Rondo, every time something went down he looked at me and, you know our punch play – kept throwing the fist for that play. The great thing about Kevin, they know he’s not going to take a lot of bad shots.”
It was hard not to notice the difference, and while this is probably unfair to Mike Brown who was handed a situation in which there could only be one justifiable outcome, Doc Rivers ran circles around his counterpart.
Brown was seemingly forever searching for the right combination of players, and maybe the problem was that he simply had too many options.
“Fortunately, or unfortunately for them, they have the ability to do a lot of different things because of their personnel,” Rivers said before Game 6. “We can’t. We are who we are and we’re not going to change, and in some ways that makes it easier.”
It was an interesting choice of words for Rivers who always empathizes with his coaching colleagues, but there was a lot of truth in that statement. Rivers successfully simplified things for his team and it worked beautifully.
His rotation is tight and he obviously made the right call in elevating Tony Allen and demoting Marquis Daniels. He identified Garnett’s matchup as the key to their offensive success and never backed off. He called timeouts at exactly the right moments and allowed for stretches when his best players were on the bench and the ones on the floor were executing.
He also didn’t panic after the Celtics lost yet another second-half lead in Game 1 and he rallied his team after the humiliating loss in Game 3.
“We didn’t watch much of it honestly,” Rivers said. “We talked about our formula since the playoffs started and all we showed was, that wasn’t it. We just kept telling them all you need is one more win here and then you go to Game 5 and it’s anybody’s series.”
Rivers has shown an unwavering belief in his team, even when it looked like so much madness. But he recognized that the only way his team could compete in the postseason was if they were in one piece physically.
So he forced Paul Pierce to take time off and he kept Garnett’s minutes low. He had Rondo back off even though he was ready to take flight because he felt it was important for Pierce and Ray Allen to find their rhythm. Still, there was so much unknown.
“I didn’t know honestly how we would perform, no one knew that,” Rivers said. “I just knew the only chance we had was to be healthy. Once I saw that I didn’t care what the record was. I was subbing on rest. The only chance we had was health. We were not going to beat anyone not being healthy. It was a gamble, but I had to take it.”
He managed egos and minutes and even on this team of veterans it’s not always easy, but here they are, getting ready to play in the conference finals.
“The remaining coaches in the playoffs are around for a reason,” Finley said. “One, that they have a good team and two, they are able to make it work. Doc has done that utilizing the guys that we have and taking advantage of our strengths. It’s a hard job to coach guys on this team with such strong personalities, but coach Rivers is able to do it and I commend him for it.”
For very different reasons, no one knew exactly what they could expect out of Tony Allen and Rasheed Wallace in this game. Calling Allen an enigma doesn’t even begin to do it justice after his six years in a Celtics uniform and to call Wallace a mystery is to simply state the obvious.
Of all the bizarre things that have happened to the Celtics this season, Allen’s emergence as the most dependable reserve is by far the most strange. And Wallace? Well, Wallace is seemingly the only player alive who can play a first half in which he picks up three fouls and a technical in six minutes and finish the game with 13 points and the crowd chanting his name.
“He was great in this series,” Rivers said. “He got into the series emotionally. That was great for our fans to see. He was more emotional with his teammates and with the basketball game, and not the refs. I think everyone appreciated that.”
The Celtics needed Allen and Wallace because, once again, they spent much of the night in foul trouble. Paul Pierce played only eight minutes in the first half because of fouls but Allen stepped into that void and scored all 10 of his points in the second quarter. In the second half, Kendrick Perkins had to leave with four fouls and Wallace picked up the slack.
“This is why I came here,” Wallace said. “I didn’t come here for the regular season. These last few games we’ve been playing good. Now we just have to keep the chain rolling.”
From Sheed’s lips to our ears, the Celtics are still playing, still rolling.
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