LOS ANGELES — In the Celtics locker room, which ranked on the stifling meter somewhere between sauna and sweat box, it was hard not to think back to another moment in a different, but equally drenching, visitors locker room. It was not so long ago actually, that the Celtics came closest to their 2010 mortality.
The setting was Orlando, and all around them were broken-down basketball players and lamentations. They left that room with the knowledge that they had lost an opportunity to advance and also unsure of whether they would have Kendrick Perkins for the next game after he received his seventh technical foul.
Through the chaos and then the unseemly quiet, Kevin Garnett emerged and spoke about the team rediscovering its identity. Two weeks later the Celtics are faced with that stark reality once more.
Perkins may not be available for Game 7 against the Lakers after what Yahoo’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported were strained MCL and PCL ligaments in his right knee. There were no concussions this time, but in the corner, Rajon Rondo was getting stitches in his chin after catching an elbow from Ron Artest without even the benefit of a foul.
“Another phantom elbow,” one member of the Celtics support staff was heard to utter.
The Celtics blew a golden opportunity to win an NBA championship after getting blown out by the Lakers in Game 6, 89-67 (recap), and now they have to find a way to put the pieces back together one more time.
“We got no choice,” Garnett said. “We come out with the effort we did tonight, we’ll get blown out of here and embarrassed.”
Then he added, “This is for all the marbles. If you can’t get up for this game, then stay home. This is Game 7. This is it. Period, point, blank. This is it.”
This is it for the Celtics and their improbable run for a championship that seemed like such a wild fantasy back when they started this run in April, and they have to do it here, in LA. They now are 3-3 in elimination games, and all three losses have come on the road while all three wins have happened in the Garden.
“In order for us to accomplish what we want, we’ve got to do it here in this building, on this floor, against this team,” Ray Allen said. “And it’s got to be Thursday.”
The Celtics don’t have that luxury of home court -- the last cruel lesson of a regular season that supposedly didn’t matter -- and they might not have Perkins either, whose fate lies in an MRI machine Wednesday and not with the league.
If they are able to claim a title, it will be the Celtics’ greatest accomplishment. It will be greater than knocking out LeBron and the Cavs or the Magic, because the Lakers are better than those teams and it’s looking increasingly likely that Boston’s center may not be with them for Game 7.
Say this for Kendrick Perkins: If there is any way that he can get himself on the floor for Game 7, he will. There’s not even a hint of a question of doubt about that.
But can he? That’s another story.
Perkins went down six minutes into the game and immediately pointed to his right knee. He lay on the floor for several minutes and then had to be helped back to the locker room by Shelden Williams and Brian Scalabrine, never to return.
“I don’t know,” Doc Rivers said of his center’s forecast. “It doesn’t look great, but I don’t know.”
Perkins is scheduled to have an MRI Wednesday, and until that test is performed and the results are released, we simply don’t know whether he’ll be able to play Thursday. When he left the game, the Lakers were starting a run that would take them from a 12-10 deficit to a 28-18 lead by the end of the first quarter.
“Honestly, tonight it wouldn’t have mattered the way things were going, but it would have been nice to have him on the floor,” Rivers said. “I hope he can play. It would be tough if he can’t. Somebody else is just going to have to step forward.”
Rivers is right about all of that. It is highly doubtful that Perkins alone would have been able to stem the Lakers charge, and if he can’t play it will be very tough indeed because the one thing the Lakers have done consistently better than the Celtics is pound the offensive glass.
If Perkins can’t play, it will either be Rasheed Wallace or Glen Davis who starts in his place. Beyond that, the loss of Perkins will reverberate through the Celtics' schemes and rotations. (If there was a bright spot, it was that Wallace avoided that season-ending seventh technical foul.)
Can Wallace’s back hold up to extended minutes, and can he stay out of foul trouble, which he wasn’t able to do at all in Game 6? Can Davis match the Lakers' size with his energy for more than just short bursts of activity? Can Garnett handle a night in which he may have to put in 36-40 minutes of work and remain effective?
Further down the line is Shelden Williams, who has simply failed to give the Celtics much of anything in this series.
The giant X-factor in this series has been the health of Andrew Bynum, but the Lakers have a capable backup plan in Lamar Odom. Now it is Perkins whose knee is the primary concern. We’ll know a lot more in the next 24-48 hours, but right now, it doesn’t look good.
SPEAKING OF X-FACTORS
One of the oldest NBA maxims is that role players perform better at home than on the road. It’s one of those articles of accepted wisdom that would do well to undergo careful scrutiny, but in the white-hot aftermath of Game 6 it’s hard not to come to that conclusion.
Davis, Wallace, Tony Allen and Nate Robinson were phenomenal in Boston, even winning Game 4 with their fourth-quarter outburst. But in Game 6 they were outplayed, outworked and outhustled by Jordan Farmar, Shannon Brown and even Sasha Vujacic.
“Their bench gave unbelievable energy,” Rivers said. “Every single guy. I don’t think there was one guy off the bench that didn’t give them great play.”
The final tally was hideous from the Celtics' perspective. Their first four reserves shot a combined 3-for-22 (1-for-10 from 3-point range) and were outscored 24-0 through three quarters.
While it’s unfair to pin the entire debacle on the second unit, the group failed to provide a spark after the first quarter and then things deteriorated rapidly from there.
If any reserve unit can buck the home/road trend, it’s the Celtics. To call them different would be an understatement. They are all, for various reasons, a strange assemblage of talents that have been overlooked and cast aside by various teams, including even this one at times this season.
“We do have a different cast of players with Rasheed being a veteran and Nate and Baby are so emotional they could possibly play well on the road,” Rivers said prior to the game. “You just never know what you're going to get from them.”
The Celtics don’t need a repeat of Game 4 -- a Shrek-Donkey sequel, if you will -- but they do need some measure of consistency and at the very least a spark from their bench in Game 7. Rivers may not be able to rely on it, but he needs it and so do the Celtics.
On a night when the Big Three played like the Big Three, at least offensively, the glaring hole in the Celtics box score was the one turned in by Rondo: 10 points on 5-for-15 shooting, five rebounds and six assists.
This postseason has belonged to Rondo. He has become the anointed one with the Sports Illustrated cover story to match. Coming into the finals you could make a very good case that he has been the best player in the league during the playoffs.
But aside from Game 2, when he recorded a triple-double, and the second half of Game 5, the Lakers have done a tremendous job of neutralizing him.
We all know by now that Kobe Bryant is giving Rondo huge amounts of space in the halfcourt and daring him to shoot long jumpers, and we also know that if the Celtics don’t rebound effectively Rondo can’t get out and run in transition. Of all the defenses that have been thrown at Rondo, the Lakers’ scheme has been the most difficult for him to figure out.
The Celtics tried to put him in the pick and roll with Garnett, and it was effective enough that Phil Jackson said the Lakers were “fortunate enough to escape a few of them.” Rondo himself noted that he missed some shots that he would normally make.
So there are ways for him to be an impact player even with Kobe giving him all that room and even if the Celtics get bogged down in the halfcourt.
The Celtics are not, and have never been, a one-man show, and Game 7 will be all about of them: Pierce, Allen, Garnett, Sheed, Baby, maybe even Perkins. But if they are going to win, they need Rondo to get his mojo back.
They need that bizarrely gifted, incredibly smart and wonderfully weird Rondo who has owned the postseason. Game 7 will be his chance to put one final stamp on a career-making run.
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