This wasn’t supposed to happen, you know. The Celtics were not supposed to do this.
Not just reaching the NBA finals, but reaching the NBA finals by beating Cleveland and Orlando decisively, and without homecourt advantage. Not to mention beating a Miami Heat team in five games that came into the playoffs riding a ridiculous hot streak.
They not only beat the Heat, Cavs and Magic. They also beat teams with Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Dwight Howard and if they get the Lakers they’ll get a shot at knocking off a fourth member of the All-NBA First Team.
Yes, the 1968-69 Boston Celtics are a wonderful story and perhaps even an apt analogy for what this current team has been able to do, but that was a different era and a different time. NBA teams in this day and age simply are not supposed to become something they are not once the calendar turns to April.
But here we are, and here the Celtics are, going back to the finals after dispatching the Magic in Game 6, 96-84 Friday night at the Garden.
“The first thing we said in the locker room is this is where we thought we would be,” Doc Rivers said. “So, don’t be surprised. And you know, we did go through tough times. But as a coach, I believed that I saw what they did and what they had, and we kept saying as a staff, it’s in us.”
By now we all know how Rivers managed this team through the 82-game grind. How he made his stars sit when they would have rather played. How he wouldn’t give Rajon Rondo the keys until he was sure everybody was ready to take them the ride with him. It’s been a masterful performance by Rivers, who along with Rondo, has been the breakout star of the postseason.
What we also know now is that Rivers had a plan all along. In April, he and Danny Ainge sat down with his veterans — Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen and told them how it was going to be.
“We brought all three of them in and I said listen, we’re going to practice harder, you’re going to play less, you’re going to have a minute restriction, and you’re not going to like it,” Rivers said. “Kevin and Paul were the toughest. Ray was easy. Ray understood. But Kevin doesn’t have a sit-down button. We lost leads with him sitting on the bench and he’s looking over at you.”
A scary thought indeed, but they bought in like they have always bought in to this team since it was formed three years ago. They all deserve credit for this: from Rivers to the future Hall of Famers to Rajon Rondo and on down to Nate Robinson, who finally delivered on the promise that his coach made that he would help them win a playoff game.
What we have all witnessed is nothing short of a stunning reversal of time and fate.
“They beat two good teams and made us both look like we weren’t very good teams,” Stan Van Gundy said. “So, Cleveland’s upset with the way they played. We’re certainly upset with the way we played. I think you have to be fair and say a lot of it has to do with them and they’re playing very, very well right now.”
There remains one final test ahead of them, but before we look forward we must look back on a classic close-out game performance, starting with the captain.
PIERCE DELIVERS ANOTHER LEGACY PERFORMANCE
Paul Pierce lives with a particular burden on his shoulders: history.
No one on this Celtics team lives with the ghosts of this franchise more than Pierce. (Rondo might be included in this discussion too at a later date, but not yet). Garnett and Allen own their pasts, but Pierce is living Celtics history in the making.
Let’s say for the sake of argument that Larry Bird had delivered the following stat line in a playoff game that had everyone nervous and on edge: 45 minutes, 31 points, 13 rebounds, five assists. The reaction would fill columns for days.
Pierce came into this series with everyone wondering what was wrong with him. Van Gundy decided before it even started that he would put Vince Carter on him and switch Matt Barnes on to Ray Allen, the obvious implication being that he was more worried about Allen.
As it turned out, he should have been worried about was Pierce. Carter couldn’t guard him and Barnes openly lobbied for the change. Little good it did him, though. No one could stop Pierce in this series. He averaged better than 24 points and eight rebounds and shot over 51 percent from the floor.
What makes Pierce’s performance so memorable, and what makes this Celtics team so unique, is that he never worried about his offense, or complained about his chances. They simply don’t work that way and going into the series, Rivers identified him and Allen as the players who would get it done offensively.
“In the second round we said it would be a Ray-Kevin series,” Rivers said. “Rondo always has the ball in his hands. In this round we thought it would be a Ray-Paul series. Paul’s our best offensive player and when we have matchups, he’s really good.”
But they trust it, and that’s the most important thing.
“The ball is going to either find Paul or myself if we’re playing the right way,” Allen said. “But most of the plays we run through P. We’re going to keep moving and trying to create in his direction.”
Pierce has always said that you can’t be remembered as a Celtic by winning just one championship. He now has his chance at a second title, and we would all do well to remember his performance in Game 6.
“My favorite moment of the game was Paul in a timeout,” Rivers said. “He said, ‘Hey, I’m just cutting for my teammates tonight.’ And that’s Paul Pierce saying that. That was a great moment.”
For different reasons, and under different circumstances, Perkins and Davis had a lot riding on this game.
Perkins was granted a reprieve from the NBA justice system and now must keep himself in check during the Finals because he won’t get another chance. Davis, thankfully, had regained his faculties, not to mention all of his teeth, and it was something of a wonder that either of them took the court in Game 6.
Never one to miss an opportunity, the people who operate the Garden scoreboard played it up to the hilt during the pregame. They flashed messages under the banner of League News that informed the crowd that Perkins had his ill-gotten technical foul rescinded and that Davis had been cleared to play. Both messages brought loud, sustained ovations from the crowd.
Perkins did what he had to do. He played 33 minutes against Dwight Howard and recorded seven rebounds. Davis did what he had to do, bringing energy and toughness off the bench. Together they provided the Celtics with enough up-front muscle and determination to combat a monster game from Howard who finished with 28 points and 12 rebounds.
Ironically, or maybe not so ironically, it was Garnett who lost control after he got called for his second foul four minutes into the game for whacking Howard twice in the arm during an in-bound situation.
“Kevin was a little amped up to start the game,” Rivers said. “He turned into Bruce Lee for a minute with the karate chops. I don’t know what that was all about.”
But Perkins and Davis kept it cool. “I was concerned going into this game, that [it] could get ugly, and it didn’t,” Rivers said.
Credit both of them for that, but particularly credit Perkins. Teams will test him from here on out knowing that one more technical will put him on the sidelines for a game. He will have to be at his very best to avoid such an outcome.
“He definitely stepped up to the challenge and he definitely kept his composure and that’s why I call him Big Perk,” Tony Allen said. “Perk is a beast and I love the way he played. He’s a professional. He knows. But today, he kept his cool.”
AND NOW, A FEW WORDS ABOUT NATE
This wasn’t exactly the situation that Rivers had in mind when he said that Nate Robinson would help win a playoff game.
The Celtics were up by 11 after the first quarter but Rajon Rondo was lying on the floor with ice on his back after he took a hard fall on a drive to the basket. All Robinson had to do was run the team and give them a workable margin for when Rondo returned.
Because he is Nate Robinson, and because he knows no fear, which is both good and bad, he came out firing and a wonderfully brilliant thing began to happen. He couldn’t miss.
An 11-point lead became 15 after what the official running scoreline said was a 26-foot fast break pull-up jump shot, which is so sublimely ridiculous it would have even been frowned upon in the ABA.
But that’s Nate.
“Nate was great tonight, everybody,” Davis said. “Might Mouse, huh? Twitter topic, guys. Make him a Twitter topic tonight.”
#wordaapp and all that.
“It was huge, it was big, I am just speechless right now,” Robinson said who is anything but without speech.
Robinson scored 13 points in a little over eight minutes of action in the second quarter and let it also be said that he threw his body on the ground going after loose balls and he hounded Jameer Nelson fullcourt. Let it also be said that Nate Robinson is tough. You don’t play defensive back in Division 1 college football as a freshman if you’re not tough.
Through all of his trails and tribulations with the Celtics he has endeared himself to the fans who cheered his every improbable 3-pointer and hustle play. He also endeared himself to his coach, but that happened before all this.
“I told him I loved him, and I told him at some point this was going to happen,” Rivers said. “It was all up to him to stay engaged, and he did. I get no credit for this. Nate Robinson stayed focused in 30-straight whatever games without playing. To me that’s more important than anything he’s done tonight.”
They all deserve credit for staying focused through a bizarre and trying regular season and on through this magical playoff run.
It was only a few weeks ago when everyone was writing their obituary after getting blown out by the Cavs in Game 3 of the semifinals. Now everyone is writing about how it all came together and how they defied the closing window of time.
They will tell all these stories again, ad nauseam, over the next few days because what they have done is truly a remarkable tale. Those that have followed them throughout know that there is no secret formula, no specific turning point. There is no a-ha moment where everything clicked and the Celtics got back to being the Celtics again.
It all just happened gradually over time; piece by piece, moment by moment and win by win and there is still more to find out before it can fully be written.
The last word for now belongs to Pierce.
“Man, it’s a great feeling,” he said. “You never take these moments for granted. Especially at this point in my career where it’s winding down. I can see the light at the end of the tunnel. To get back here is a great accomplishment, but even greater if we win another one.”
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