LOS ANGELES – For two days, all the Celtics heard about was how old they were and how badly they played, both of which are true.
But the Celtics have developed a filter about all these things. They have, during the course of the postseason, tuned out whatever may be floating around them in the ether and focused instead on what they can control.
When it gets away from them, as it did in Game 1, they can look very bad indeed. But they have also developed an ability to correct those flaws and return to what has made them successful in the first place.
They don’t do adjustments so much as they do tune-ups, and against the Lakers in Game 2 of the NBA finals, they did all the things that they didn’t do in the opener in getting out of here with a split and a 104-93 victory.
It didn’t hurt matters that Ray Allen had one of the great shooting nights in the history of the game, considering the stakes, or that Rajon Rondo added another pelt to his wall with a masterful triple double performance.
That’s the other thing about this team. You’re never quite sure from game to game whether it’s going to come from Allen or Rondo or Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett or Nate Robinson. That makes the C's difficult to play against, but it also reveals something about their collective maturity.
On a night when Garnett couldn’t answer the challenge of playing Pau Gasol and when Pierce couldn’t get his offense in rhythm, they found their answers elsewhere. The blueprint remained the same — play defense, get stops and rebound — but the details often are a jumble from game to game and night to night. Those are just plot points in an ongoing narrative.
“Simple,” Rondo said. “Just rebounding. I think they missed the same shots they missed in Game 1, but those guys were the aggressive ones and they got those rebounds and loose balls. We got them tonight and we were able to get down on the break and attack.”
Rondo might not get another triple-double in this series and Allen, as great as he is, isn’t likely to have another night where he shoots 8-for-11 from 3-point range. But that’s what it took Sunday night and that’s how they are going back to Boston with what they came here to get.
If they are going to continue on their improbable path to a championship this season the characters will surely change but the character of their team must not. This is how they did it.
RAY ALLEN JUST COULDN’T MISS
Ray Allen has a well-deserved reputation for being thoughtful and introspective. It’s a nice balance to the rest of his teammates whose collective scowls and icy demeanors are as much their signature as their team defense.
But Allen was angry. He was frustrated, ticked off and a whole lot of other more colorful adjectives that aren’t fit for publication.
“Well I was upset,” he said. “So when I went and practiced, I spoke with most of you and I wasn’t in the best of moods because I was ready to practice. I felt like I was in limbo, like I’ve got to hurry up and play another game.”
His mood brightened considerably when he got his first shot, a 20-footer, and he made it. Then he made a couple of 3-pointers and his mood changed from anger to that special place that only shooters like Allen can get themselves into.
“Shooters shoot,” Nate Robinson said. “Ray is, hands down the best shooter in NBA history. He’s a piece of work. He works every day on his shot. He’s true that way. That’s kind of cool, just watching him. Every time he gets the ball we think it’s going in. It’s a beautiful thing man, to run full speed, play defense and still be able to get the shot off.”
It’s sometimes hard to quantify just how great a shooter Allen really is, but it wasn’t difficult to place this performance into context. No one has ever made more 3-pointers in an NBA finals game and the crazy thing was, he did almost all of it in the first half.
Allen took eight 3-pointers in the first half and made seven of them. He made more than half his team’s shots, scored exactly half their points (27) and did it while the rest of his teammates shot 32 percent.
The only thing he didn’t do was shrug his shoulders Michael Jordan-style, but he did have a few choice words for some of the fans in the front row. As noted, he was angry.
“I can’t say enough about what Ray did for us tonight, especially in the first half,” Rondo said. “He carried us the whole way. Guys were in foul trouble from Kevin to Perk, just everyone. We were playing on the edge, but Ray, he held us through it.”
Allen took only two more shots in the third quarter and only four more in the fourth, but in a way he had already done what he needed to do. He made the Lakers adjust, putting Kobe Bryant on him instead of Derek Fisher, which opened up Rondo’s game.
And, he carried the Celtics through a weirdly disjointed first half where they were dominant for about 22 minutes and awful for the last two.
“It’s amazing when you think we had a player that had 27 points in the first half and we were only up six,” Doc Rivers said. “That’s how close this series is going to be.”
Allen had put on a performance for the ages in the first half, but Lakers adjusted and that meant that the second half belonged to Rondo.
RAJON RONDO IS THE COOLEST GUY IN THE ROOM
There’s an interesting dynamic that plays out between players and the media in the finals. For example, the large majority of them have not yet become used to Rondo’s personality.
So, while they wanted him to gush, he demurred. When they wanted him to talk about how great he played, he passed. We’ve all become used to this by now, but in the time-honored tradition of the “talk about” question, he was asked to talk about what it meant for him to come through on this stage with a triple double.
This is what he said:
“Anything I can do to help my team win is big. As far as assists, Ray probably made eight of those assists. Rebounding, just having a knack for the ball, and the points came in the full court and KG set some great picks for us tonight.”
With all that, why wouldn’t he have put up 19 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists? That’s just what he does. Even making that 20 foot jump shot, which put the Celtics up by five with two minutes left.
“Tonight, he was unbelievable,” Rivers said. “He made the big shot. I’m thinking Mark Price is somewhere celebrating. He took a million of those shots this summer and didn’t hesitate. That was my favorite play for him. He’s our quarterback and he does a lot of stuff for us. He was special tonight.”
Rondo was indeed special, but he was positively brilliant in the last six minutes after he finally got a rest. He played every second of the first 36 minutes and Rondo was exhausted. “Yeah, I needed it,” Rondo said.
When he came back the Celtics were down by two, but over the final six minutes he outscored the Lakers by himself, 10-9. He gave the game exactly what was needed, when it was needed, which is the ultimate sign of a great point guard.
Just don’t expect him to be amazed at the things that he does.
“The best part about getting a triple-double is getting a win,” he said. “That’s pretty much it. It would be pointless to get a triple-double and lose the game.”
THE BENCH SAVES THE DAY
There were six minutes left in the third quarter and Kevin Garnett and Kendrick Perkins each had four fouls. At the same time the Laker big men duo of Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum were destroying them in the paint.
Rivers called on Glen Davis and Rasheed Wallace and asked them to hold down the fort. For various reasons Davis and Wallace are not great matchups for Gasol and Bynum. Davis, because of his height and Wallace because of his back. But by the time the third quarter was over the game was tied.
“The bench was huge,” Rivers said. “All of them. We have a certain rotation that we want our bigs to play, and obviously it was blown up within four minutes of the game because of fouls. I thought Rasheed was huge. You could see him struggling with the back, but he gave us as much as he could give. And Baby was huge.”
The Lakers had an astonishing 14 blocked shots in the game, 13 of them coming from Gasol and Bynum and there’s no way of knowing without breaking down the film how many more of them they altered.
Davis shot only 4-for-13, but he kept playing hard and he wound up with eight points, seven rebounds and five offensive boards. Wallace who has had a sneaky-good series so far added seven points and seven rebounds. Tony Allen played another strong defensive game on Bryant without the mind-numbing offensive miscues that unfairly characterized his Game 1 effort.
But the biggest bench contribution may have come from Nate Robinson, who played only six minutes. Robinson got in the game to start the fourth quarter because Rondo was exhausted and the Celtics needed offense.
Robinson responded with seven points, no turnovers and boundless energy.
“Nate played great,” Rondo said. “It’s the second time he’s done that [in the playoffs]. He was ready when his name was called.”
Robinson didn’t force the issue, but when he got his shot he took it and buried it.
“I always feel like I’m hot, no matter how many I miss, how many I make,” he said. “I make one I feel like I make ‘em all, just like Ray. It was the sign of a team man. It was a real team effort. All the way down from the coach to Scal in a suit cheering us on.”
This is how the Celtics win games. The names may change from one day to the next, but the constants remain the same. Play defense, rebound, make the hustle plays and someone will be the hero.
They have put themselves back in the series and now have three games in Boston to try to stake out an advantage. The series has shifted and so have the storylines heading into Game 3, but for the Celtics it’s all part of the same story.