LOS ANGELES — Down to the very last, the Boston Celtics stayed true to themselves. They were a tight-knit emotional group, possibly even a little crazy. “Crazy-close,” that's what Doc Rivers called them with a lump in his throat and the hint of a tear in his eye.
They had to be to continue to believe that they could get to this point after everything it took to get there. They were given up for dead when the playoffs started, old-man roadkill left on the side of the road. Yesterday’s news.
And then suddenly they were alive again. Rejuvenated by a renewed commitment to their old-school values: suffocating team defense and ball movement. Yes, they were old. They were also experienced, tough and wizened, and one by one they took down the nouveau-riche of the NBA: Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, Dwight Howard.
But they also had holes, namely rebounding, and against the best offensive rebounding team in the league it was their inability to control the glass that ultimately sealed their fate.
While Rasheed Wallace and Ron Artest traded 3’s in a fitting climax to a bizarre and surreal series, it was Pau Gasol who made the definitive play, going up and over Rajon Rondo for one final offensive board that saved a Lakers possession and sealed their fate.
It was Gasol’s ninth offensive rebound of the game -- amazingly, the 23rd for the Lakers -- and it was the one that broke the Celtics' back in an 83-79 loss in Game 7 of the NBA finals.
“I don’t know, I thought Rondo boxed him out,” Rivers said. “He went over his back, but they’re not going to call that with the size advantage.”
No. No, they’re not. Maybe if Kendrick Perkins had been available he could have done something to stem the tide inside, but he wasn’t, and the Celtics were left with what they had against the Lakers frontline, and it wasn’t enough.
“It’s the first time all year that you can actually say at the end of the day that we were old, because we didn’t have enough bodies,” Rivers said. “I thought it hurt us.”
When it was all over, Wallace was seen outside the officials’ locker room ready to have his final say with his long-time tormentors. He would get no such satisfaction, and so he walked out of the arena by himself with his game shorts still on, perhaps for the final time, true to himself and his credo.
He has no use for the glitz and glamour of the NBA. All he asks for, all he wants, is a fair shake. He sees the world in black and white, right and wrong. Whether you agree with him or not is hardly his concern, and now it may be all over for the last honest man in the game.
“He was a warrior,” Rivers said. “You know, I don’t know if Rasheed will ever play again. I think he took that on the floor with him. I think he is thinking about retiring and, and I thought you could see that in his play. He was dying out there.”
If this is it for Wallace, he finally delivered on the promise that he brought with him from Detroit when the Celtics made an all-out recruiting pitch to bring him here. He defended, he made tough shots in the post using the glass as his ally, and he did it in pain.
He played through cramps, strains and spasms. In his immortal words, he was “just hooping, man. Just hooping.”
They don’t make them like Sheed anymore, and they don’t make them like this Celtics team anymore, either. These players were, simply, a group of men that came together to play ball.
They fought together, good lord did they fight, but it’s always about ball; rarely about shots or fame or glory. They have all that anyway, and in the end, all they had was each other.
“Tears,” Ray Allen said. “A lot of tears.”
NO SHAME IN THIS GAME
Despite the loss of Perkins and despite the incredible rebounding disadvantage, the Celtics somehow built a 13-point lead early in the third quarter. But it came at a cost.
Rivers had no choice but to wring every ounce of energy from his core players. Pierce, Allen and Rondo played 45 minutes. Garnett clocked in with 38, and by the end they were on fumes.
The Lakers closed it to four points by the end of the third quarter and then scored 30 of their 83 in the final quarter. The Celtics did everything they had to do to win a game like this on the road, but they just couldn’t finish.
“I thought we played so well,” Rivers said outside the team’s locker room. “We played well enough to win the game. It hurt me to watch Rasheed and Kevin. They were dying out there. It was just tough. Kevin was just exhausted because I had to keep him on the court.”
Maybe it was the fatigue or maybe it was the officials, but down the stretch the Celtics couldn’t defend without fouling. The Lakers shot 21 free throws in the fourth quarter and made 16, part of a 37-17 free throw discrepancy that left them with 10 more points at the line than the Celtics.
It was a shame, because the Celtics defended the hell out of the Lakers. Kobe Bryant won the MVP despite shooting 6-for-24 in the final game, and as a team the Lakers shot just 32 percent.
Bryant acknowledged that this was the toughest finals he’s ever played in and that, “Boston was a huge problem for me.”
But all those misses led to all those rebounds and the Celtics never did have an answer for LA's size, particularly Gasol, who almost seemed like an afterthought after collecting 19 points and 18 rebounds.
Aesthetically speaking, Game 7 was not beautiful basketball. It was ugly and hard. But it was a fitting way to end a series in which these two teams beat the crap out of each other for two weeks.
It took its toll on the Celtics, as Pierce and Allen shot a combined 8-for-29 and Allen made only 2-of-7 from 3-point range.
“I wanted it for these guys so bad,” Rivers said. “We had our chances. We just couldn’t make open shots.”
Still, there was one more twist to this series that had the feel of the work of a tortured novelist who couldn’t quite figure out a way to finish a masterwork.
With the C's down six with 90 seconds remaining, Wallace swished a 3-pointer from somewhere in the deep recesses of his memory. At the other end, Ron Artest answered back. Then Allen made one, which set up Gasol’s rebound and a Bryant drive into the teeth of the Celtics defense.
They had been caught trying to trap him, which goes against one of their defining defensive principles, and they were out of position. “Kobe makes you trap, and it’s what we really don’t want to do, because of the mismatches,” Rivers said.
And, still it wasn’t over as Rajon Rondo scooped up a loose ball and nailed a step-back corner 3, but then it ended the way most NBA games end. The Lakers made their free throws and that was that.
“It came down to the last two minutes, man,” Garnett said. “Gritty game, great game. Everything you’d expect out of a Game 7 and we just came up short.”
“I’ll watch the film,” Rivers said. “In about 10 years.”
Whenever they look back on this series they will lament this game. They will also regret their Game 1 performance when they came out flat, and they will have a hard time getting over Game 3 when they did everything right but just couldn’t make enough shots.
It will live with them forever because they came so far and put so much on the line, but that’s sports and that’s why we care so much in the first place. We care because they care, and this group gave a damn.
“You know, it was the craziest, most emotional group I’ve ever coached in my life,” Rivers said. “I told them they made me reach places that I never thought I needed to go. I had to go. But through it all, we were the tightest, most emotional, crazy group that I’ve ever been with in my life. So that’s what makes it tough.”
AND NOW, FOR THE UNCERTIANTY
From the draining emotion of a seven-game series to the cold reality of business, the Celtics have several decisions to make. They have only five players under contract for next season, and one of them seemingly has played his last game.
“Yeah, not a good one,” Garnett said. “Sheed’s situation is very personal because I see a lot of myself in him and we have a lot of the same ties and the same characteristics. Both class of '95. Old heads, if you want to call it that. For him to come in and give his thanks and regards after a game like this, it was difficult. A difficult night.”
It would be so Sheed if he chose to walk away with two guaranteed years left on his contract because it would be on his terms and no one else’s. He doesn’t need the money and he doesn’t need the game for validation.
That leaves Garnett, Perkins, Rondo and Glen Davis, and Perkins’ future also is in doubt. He likely will have surgery on his injured right knee, and that may hold him back next season. Of the four, Rondo obviously is the future of the franchise.
“He’s key,” Rivers said. “His growth has been amazing. Just happy that as a coach I was part of it. It was amazing.”
Read into that comment what you will, but it did not escape notice that Rivers talked about Rondo in the past tense. He has maintained all along that he will disappear for a week or so and make a decision about his future, and there’s no reason to doubt him.
“I don’t know,” Rivers said. “I’m going to wait. I’m going to go and watch my kids play AAU basketball, and I’m going to wait for a little bit.”
There is also no doubt that the Celtics want him to return.
“Doc’s everything,” Garnett said. “Everything. I think everybody wants Doc back. That’s not even an issue. It’s just whether Doc wants to come back and whatever decision he sees for himself and his family.”
Rivers decision holds the key to the Celtics offseason. It would be immensely easier if he did decide to shepherd the franchise through the inevitable transition from Garnett, Pierce and Allen to Rondo, and if he doesn’t there is no immediate successor in place.
If not Rivers, who else would be able to handle this team? Kevin McHale has been mentioned, but that would certainly be something that would have to be discussed with Garnett, who still harbors resentment from his final days in Minnesota.
Tom Thibodeau will take his schemes and his attention to detail to a long-deserved job coaching the Chicago Bulls, and that will also leave a gaping hole in the team’s braintrust.
Pierce has a player option, and whether he chooses to exercise it or not, it’s hard to see him playing anywhere else. Allen is an unrestricted free agent and he will draw interest from a number of teams looking to add his veteran presence and his unmatched shooting touch.
“I’ll deal with that when the time comes,” Allen said. “But it’s obvious that I don’t want to be anywhere else.”
The Celtics have five other free agents, not counting Tony Gaffney and Oliver Lafayette, and most have expressed a desire to return. Tony Allen told WEEI.com that he’s a “Celtic for life,” and Nate Robinson also has expressed his intentions that he wants to stay.
They also will draw attention from teams because both have proven themselves to be terrific role players in the right system. Marquis Daniels, Brian Scalabrine and Shelden Williams also are free agents, and their futures are cloudy at best.
What is certain is that this was the last time we will ever see this current group of Celtics together in one place. The core may stay intact, but 2010 was different from 2008 and it will be different than 2011.
We’ll leave it to the eloquent Rivers to sum up what this whole run meant for this team.
“Well, listen, we had a goal before the year started, and we didn’t say that we weren’t going to go through some trials and tribulations,” Rivers said. “We just had a goal to get here, and that was our goal, to win it. So whatever we had to go through was worth it. The injuries, the chemistry, just everything. It was worth it at the end of the day, and I think every guy would tell you that.”