All we can do is sit back and marvel at the resilience of both of these teams, who seem to invent new ways to win on a nightly basis.
The Celtics hit upon the wondrous strategy of employing their bench en masse to start the fourth quarter, and Doc Rivers made the calculated but bold decision to ride the group to a frantic 96-89 victory (recap) that tied the series at two games apiece and, yes, ensured a return to Los Angeles next week.
What’s next? A low-post duel between Shelden Williams and D.J. Mbenga?
At some point, both teams are going to play their best for 48 minutes and we might just get a crown jewel of a game that this series seems to need, but until then we are left with the indelible image of Big Baby Davis slobbering more drool than a St. Bernard after an unreal sequence that capped off a surreal fourth quarter.
“Let me tell you something, right quick,” Davis said from the postgame podium where he was flanked by Robinson. “When you’re in the moment, you’re in the moment. If I slobber, spit, please excuse me. Kids, don’t do that. Have manners and things like that.”
“We’re like Shrek and Donkey,” Robinson said.
“You shouldn’t have let us two get up here,” Davis said.
No, probably not. But then, the Lakers probably shouldn’t have let the Celtics bench completely change the energy and tempo of a game that felt like a straight-up street fight right from the opening tip.
Aesthetically pleasing, it was not. The Celtics never could figure out a way to get two of their true big four going at the same time, which generally spells disaster. The Lakers were forced to rely on Kobe Bryant’s individual brilliance to try to save them, but good as he is, he couldn’t top the Celtics bench by himself.
So, raise your hand if you predicted the Celtics bench would be the difference in the game Thursday night. You should probably try your hand at the blackjack table soon, but do yourself a favor and don’t ever play poker with Doc Rivers, because he has way more guts than you will ever have.
DOC’S GAMBLE PAYS OFF
This was the situation. The Celtics were down by two points to start the fourth quarter and the starters look drained.
Ray Allen couldn’t find his offense again. Kevin Garnett was playing his usual brand of hellacious defense but had become an afterthought on the other end of the floor. Rajon Rondo, meanwhile, was having a very un-Rondo like night. Paul Pierce had a good rhythm early, but he had been ignored throughout the third quarter and needed a rest.
As usual, the reserves would be coming into the game, but the question for Rivers was how long would he stick with them, plus Ray Allen, before going back to the well? This was, after all, essentially a make-or-break game for his team.
The bench played through the first timeout and built a six-point lead. Well done fellas, you’ve earned yourself a little more run. A little more became a lot more and the thought spread throughout the Garden, “Doc’s going to stay with them.”
Over the next 5 1/2 minutes or so, the following things happened:
Davis slobbered. Tony Allen completed a three-point play. Wallace drained a 3-pointer, his only make of the night. Robinson got in Lamar Odom’s face and picked up a technical foul. Wallace did an interpretive dance and was also whistled for a technical foul.
And still, Rivers never went back to his starters. He even pulled them back at one point.
“All I was doing was looking at the score,” Rivers said. “Six points was my number. If they get it to a two-possession game, got to go one scorer at a time.”
Let us return briefly to the comedy stylings of Baby and Nate:
Baby: "I was really looking at the clock like, 'When is he going to come get me.' "
Nate: "I was thinking the same thing."
Baby: "We’re playing, but timeout goes by, he don’t sub. I was like, 'Man, he’s letting us roll.' "
Nate: "It was fun."
Baby: "I want to give Doc a hug man. I love Doc."
Nate: "Tell him, 'Thank you.’ "
Baby: "I sure appreciate it."
Two things about this. One, the starters were totally cool with the situation. They were telling Rivers to leave the bench in the game. “It was beautiful to watch, just being a cheerleader on the sideline,” Pierce said.
Two, Rivers has made a number of gutsy tough calls throughout the postseason, but he will be hard-pressed to top the night he let the Celtics season ride with Nate, Baby, Sheed and T.A. on the floor.
Robinson brought the energy and the long-distance shotmaking. Wallace brought the defense on Pau Gasol, which has been excellent. Tony Allen did the same on Kobe Bryant. Davis brought everything else and Ray Allen provided the balance, such as it was, to this insane collection of characters.
Rivers was asked if he was surprised by what they did.
“I was happy,” he said. “I don’t know about surprised, but I was happy.”
Rivers is also not crazy, and so he did return to his starters to close the game and that meant the return of Paul Pierce.
PIERCE HAS HIS NIGHT
It was clear from the outset that Pierce was going to get his game going. He mixed in some aggressive drives to the basket with his sweet mid-range game in the first quarter and scored 10 points in his most productive quarter since the opening of Game 1.
Rivers told him before the game that there were driving lanes to be had as long as he stayed aggressive and he made sure to call the first play for him. Pierce went to the basket hard and got fouled.
“I just wanted to be aggressive,” Pierce said. “I mean, that wasn’t the most important thing for us on the list to get Paul Pierce going coming into the game. I knew once I got in the pick and roll with their big men I got an advantage, that’s all.”
It was a good thing that Pierce took the initiative because the rest of his team was bogged down in what has been a very stingy Laker defense. The Celtics scored only 19 points in the quarter and Garnett, Allen and Rondo were a collective 3-for-12.
Then the Celtics went away from Pierce. He took only two shots in the second quarter, which was two more than he took in the third.
“I was kicking myself in the third quarter,” Rivers said. “I thought we went away from him too much. Everyone who was struggling was trying to get it going themselves and I kept reminding them that Paul has it going, let’s try to get it back to him.”
Pierce had played the entire third quarter and Rivers followed his normal rotation, which is careful to leave either him or Ray Allen on the floor, so it was Allen who started the fourth quarter with the reserves and Pierce sat and cheered.
But there is such a thing as winning time in the NBA, and when the Celtics needed points in the final minutes it was Pierce who delivered them.
“We can’t forget that he is our best scorer, and I think at times we do that,” Rivers said. “I’ve got to a better job there and everyone does.”
Since this was the bench’s night, we’ll let Tony Allen have the last word on Pierce.
“Man, he is Paul Pierce,” Allen said. “He is Paul Pierce, the Truth. Paul Pierce, our captain. And we’re definitely going to need him to be big the whole series.”
DON’T TELL ANYONE, BUT THE C’S ARE DOING A GOOD JOB DEFENDING KOBE
Through four games, Kobe Bryant has been alternately brilliant and forceful. He makes shots other players wouldn’t dream of making and takes shots that would land other players on the bench.
That’s what makes him if not the best player in the world, then perhaps the most feared.
But the Celtics don’t scare too easily. They have already faced down Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Dwight Howard for good measure. Now that we are four games into the finals, is Bryant the next superstar to succumb to the Celtics defense?
Wait, don’t say that too loudly. Don’t want to get him riled up.
“We want to make it tough,” Rivers said. “The guy is Kobe Bryant. He made some unbelievable shots.”
Tony Allen, who has played the role of defensive stopper to the hilt, was asked about his assignment and wouldn’t bite.
“Just listening to Tom Thibodeau,” he said through gritted teeth. “Having faith in my backside guys, my helpside guys, just knowing that if he beats me off the dribble I got Rasheed Wallace and Glen Baby Davis, that pretty much gives me confidence to try to make a steal, make a block, get a hand on the ball. To answer that question, my teammates.”
Bryant scored 33 points, but had to shoot 6-for-11 from 3-point range to get there. Half of his shot attempts were from beyond the arc and another five fell into that dreaded long-two category, where he shot 1-for-5. Only two shots were classified as “at the rim.”
In Game 3, Bryant scored 29 points on 29 shots and 20 of those shots were from beyond 15 feet, and again, only two were at the rim. The Celtics can live with him going off from the perimeter. It’s probable, even likely, that he will have a night where he can’t miss from out there, but them’s the breaks.
“They’re a great scheming team,” Bryant said. “They have a strategy in place and they execute it extremely well. I feel pretty comfortable. Wasn’t pleased with the way I took care of the ball tonight. I thought I did a horrible job of that, but it’s a great defense.”
Bryant has been short with the press since the playoffs started, and his answers have become even more clipped during the finals. If there is anything wrong with him, he’s not going to divulge it.
But, he has averaged almost 40 minutes a game and he is shooting 41 percent and he has turned it over 17 times. That’s by design, as well as execution. But the Celtics are too smart, and have way too much respect for Bryant, to start talking about it.
We still haven’t seen the vintage Kobe game yet, just as we frankly haven’t seen a classic game between these two teams yet. Maybe we will in whatever time we have left in this series, but there appear to be very few other plot points left to hit in this spellbinding novel of a finals we are witnessing.
After what we saw in Game 4, we can only imagine what’s in store for us on Sunday.
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