After yet another game in this increasingly incomprehensible NBA finals, we are left to ask: How?
How can one team shoot 56 percent and the other fail to break 40 and still have the outcome come down to the final minute? How can Kobe Bryant make impossible shot after impossible shot and still not be able to carry his team across the finish line as he has done so many times?
How can the Celtics turn the ball over 16 times — seven alone from Rajon Rondo — and surrender 16 offensive rebounds and still wind up with more assists and points in the paint than the Lakers, let alone a 92-86 victory?
“The beautiful thing about this game, each game plays out a little different,” Paul Pierce said. “Just because one thing happens one game doesn’t mean it’s going to happen the next.”
Actually, the way this series has gone you can basically bet the house nothing will carry over to the next game. The one thing we do know for certain is that the Celtics have a 3-2 series lead heading back to Los Angeles.
Pau Gasol dominates for two games and then Kevin Garnett takes over. Pierce can’t get his offense untracked and then he becomes unstoppable. On and on we’ve gone throughout the finals, veering from one storyline to the next with no regard for recent history or trends.
But through all the ups and downs, this was a game the Celtics had to win. They wouldn’t admit it beforehand, but they wanted no part of going back to Los Angeles down 3-2.
“This was huge for us,” Doc Rivers said. “Let’s just be honest. For us, we had to win this game and that’s the way we felt going into it.”
They survived the “Kobe game” that they knew was coming. They fought with each other at times and the Lakers at others. They got great shots and made them, and they gave away possessions carelessly.
It was frantic, emotional, sloppy, beautiful and ugly and sometimes all of the above in the same possession. Just like this series.
The 2009-10 Celtics won’t be back in the Garden anymore this season, but they left the faithful with optimism and hope that somehow, someway they can pull off this remarkable postseason turnaround.
It won’t be easy, and it probably won’t resemble any of the games that have come before it, but the Celtics now have two chances to win one game and an improbable championship.
It will help them in this twisted pursuit that in many ways they could be classified as clinically insane, which is how we begin to unravel this latest mystery.
LET’S CALL IT CREATIVE TENSION
Toward the end of the first half Rajon Rondo had an idea of what should happen on the final possession and Paul Pierce had another. Pierce didn’t get his way, or the ball, and basically walked away from the play.
“Oh it was nothing,” Pierce said later. “I had a couple of buckets going and I wanted the ball, and he wanted to do something different, and I was a little upset about that.”
“That’s our team,” Rivers said without even bothering to add more to the explanation because there’s about sums it up. Pierce and Rondo talked it over at halftime, and early in the second half, Rondo made a difficult diagonal pass to Pierce in transition that led to a score. Problem solved.
“We’ve got spats with our team all the time,” Pierce said. “We always have spats. But the good thing about it, we always clean it right up.”
It must be noted that this, in a nutshell, is what makes the Celtics so unique. They fight all the time with each other — in practice, in the locker room, during games — and sometimes it does linger. In the Orlando series, Rivers had to call a timeout after Rondo and Ray Allen continued to argue about a set several plays after it was over.
But they almost always figure out a way to make it work. In 2008, they called it Ubuntu, but in 2010 it’s been a season-long feeling-out process of push and pull, give and take. In this sport, perhaps more than the others, players have to be able to work together, especially the way the Celtics play both offensively and defensively.
“It’s very important,” Kevin Garnett said. “A lot of times it ain’t what you say, it’s how you say it. We know how to deal with each other, and obviously when things get heated, I think we do a good job of communicating the right way.”
But it’s not just the saying, it’s also the receiving, and if you are a sensitive soul whose feelings are easily bruised, you won’t last long with the Celtics. This is how they were able to integrate three superstars from different teams with completely different personalities into a cohesive whole.
This is also how they have been able to adapt to Rondo’s emergence, all the while adding subversive characters from other teams into one of the tightest, albeit bizarre, locker rooms in the NBA.
Some nights it’s Rondo’s icy-cool demeanor that brings it all together. Other nights it’s Pierce’s passion that’s the play. It changes from night to night, depending on the game, the opponent and the situation.
It makes perfect sense, in a completely illogical way, that in what might have been the most physical, and chippy, game thus far, it was the Celtics' two most emotional players, Garnett and Tony Allen, who provided the calming influence in Game 5.
“That tells you how screwed up we are,” Rivers said. “Kevin Garnett is calming our team down. It’s funny now, but it was Kevin and Tony Allen in the huddle telling everyone to calm down. I jokingly told Armond [Hill], 'This is a crazy basketball team here.' But that’s who we are. We are an emotional team, and we’re not going to hide from that.”
Garnett didn’t just talk his teammates down, he also delivered with his most complete game of the finals.
KG’S NOT DEAD YET
The raw numbers for Garnett may not have been spectacular — 18 points and 10 rebounds — but in many ways he provided the balance to this schizophrenic game.
The Celtics had been toying with a 10-point lead for most of the second half when things started to go haywire. There were still six minutes to play and the Lakers had cut the lead down to six when Rivers called a timeout and rallied his team.
The first thing the Celtics did when they came back on the court was get the ball to Garnett in the post, where he flicked in a turnaround jumper.
“He’s able to get them for us,” Rivers said. “That’s where early in the year, health-wise, he couldn’t do it, and as the year has gone on, you can see he’s very comfortable down there.”
Garnett has done most of his damage in this series from the block, and while it’s probably unfair to bring up Gasol’s out-of-context comment that KG’s lost a bit of aggressiveness, Rondo couldn’t help slip in a subtle jab.
“I think a couple of guys maybe thought KG lost a step or something,” Rondo said. “But he’s caught his rhythm, doing intangibles on the court. Scoring, rebounding, assisting, blocking shots, he’s changing the game. He may not score 27, 26 points, but he’s happy with his role, and he’s doing it well.”
Rivers felt that this might have been Garnett’s best all-around game of the finals, mainly because he helped hold Gasol to just 12 points on 12 shots.
“He was a great defensive player tonight,” Rivers said. “He just had great energy. We extended his minutes a little more tonight than we thought we would have to. He was sensational. He’s one of those guys that does a lot of stuff for your team, and a lot of it goes unnoticed, but tonight on the stat sheet it doesn’t.”
In addition to the points and rebounds, he also had five steals, three assists and two blocks, and one extremely difficult pass out of a timeout to Pierce that led to a backbreaking Rondo layup that Rivers admitted he didn’t see at the time.
It might not have been vintage KG, but for this season and this series, it was just about perfect.
THE CELTICS SURVIVED THE KOBE GAME
They all knew it going to happen, and anyone who’s ever been around the NBA for more than a hot second figured it would happen in Game 5 after the two previous days had been spent dissecting the Celtics' successful defense against Kobe Bryant.
Bryant scored 38 points on 13-for-27 shooting, and 19 of those came in the third quarter while the Celtics were busy making 12 of 13 shots themselves. In a way, it encapsulated everything that is different about these two teams, because while Bryant was going off, five different Celtics scored baskets to open the quarter.
When the Lakers get in trouble, they look to Bryant. When the Celtics get in trouble, it’s usually because their offensive structure has broken down and someone has tried to do too much.
“He’s the kind of guy you ride a hot hand, that’s for sure,” Phil Jackson said.
The Celtics have faced down Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Dwight Howard, but if you were to take a poll in the locker room of the one player they fear the most, Bryant would come out on top. Fear may be too strong a word with this team, but respect? No question, it’s Kobe.
Bryant was so good, Rivers said, he had to call a timeout to settle everyone down because all of a sudden the Celtics wanted to change the way they were defending him. “It makes you question your defense because he was terrific,” Rivers said. “I love that our guys, for the most part, they held it in. They understood what he was doing, but we defended everyone else, and I thought that was big.”
There are two different ways to look at that, of course. The only other player to score in double figures was Gasol, which proves Rivers' point.
The other way to look at it is that the rest of the Lakers never had much of a chance to get going because Bryant took more than a third of the shots. There’s a fairly simple explanation as to how they ended up with only 12 assists.
But Bryant is, as Rivers called him, the best shotmaker in the game. Pierce said one of his 3’s was “the toughest shot I’ve ever seen somebody hit while I was on the court.”
The Celtics will live with that, provided they make it as tough as possible. You might even say they welcome it because the one question that has never been answered affirmatively when these two teams play is whether Bryant can singlehandedly win a game against the Celtics all by himself.
He’s done it against other teams in his past, and even in this postseason, but he has never done it against Boston, and time is running out. The Celtics may well have to defend themselves against another Kobe outburst, but they’ve lived through his two best offensive games and won both.
What lies ahead no one knows, but the Celtics did what they had to do in Boston, and fittingly they get two chances to win on the road, where they have done their best work throughout the season.