In the five years they have been together, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, Rajon Rondo and Doc Rivers have won almost 70 percent of their games, 11 playoff series, five division titles, two conference championships and one NBA title. In the 15 years before 2008, the Celtics made it out of the first round of the playoffs twice and played in one conference final.
This is Boston and we measure basketball success by the banners that hang in the Garden. There’s no room for anything other than an NBA championship. There will be ample time to write their legacy in full when this whole run is over, whether it happens on Saturday in Miami, later in Oklahoma City or with another banner in the rafters.
It’s not too early to say that Danny Ainge’s bold experiment was a success, however. Bringing Allen and Garnett to Boston, keeping Rondo out of trade packages and retaining Rivers through a disastrous 2007 season all have paid off handsomely. How big a success is ultimately still to be decided, but it was all worth it.
Garnett restored the honor to the franchise, Allen provided a bit of professionalism and Pierce established himself as one of the great players in the team’s history. Rivers is now an elite coach and Rondo became Rondo – a legend in his time and a puzzle still to be solved.
Whatever happens on Saturday, they created an era from nothing. It doesn’t come close to Russell’s – as if anything could – and it’s not on the same level as Bird-McHale-Parish. For the moment it lags behind Cowens and Havlicek, although there’s a great argument to be made, which will also be saved for another time.
They were rarely perfect and lord knows they have gone out of their way to put barriers in their way when there were already enough to deal with, but through it all, they’ve made their mark on one of the most stories franchises in sports.
Here are six more thoughts heading into Game 7:
DOMINANT OVER ‘CLUTCH’
To all those who say LeBron James hasn’t done anything until he’s done it in the fourth quarter, how about 45 minutes when he was the best player on the floor in an elimination game on the road? If 45 points and 15 rebounds under those circumstances isn’t clutch, then we need to find a new definition of the term.
Game 6 was weird. The Celtics started slowly and never found a rhythm. Whenever a run seemed imminent, it was quickly fumbled out of bounds. Credit Miami, whose role players clearly outplayed Boston’s and the Heat played a much-cleaner game in terms of rebounds and turnovers.
But really, this was all LeBron. It may not have been his greatest game, but it was his finest moment. The Celtics say they won’t change up much defensively, and short of double-teaming every time he catches the ball, there’s not much else they can do. He’s a great player and sometimes great players achieve something far beyond what we thought was possible.
“He hit a lot of shots that he hasn’t been hitting all series,” Pierce said. “Sometimes superstars get hot. I’ve had that feeling before and sometimes there’s nothing you can do about it.”
James has played the Celtics four times in the postseason. Taking an underdog Cavs’ team to seven games was an accomplishment, just as winning in five last season was an unqualified success. 2010 will haunt him forever, but after forcing a Game 7, he vowed to have no regrets. There can’t be for LeBron on Saturday. Not after what he did in the Garden and not after everything that has happened over the last two years. This is his moment.
PAUL PIERCE, PLEASE STAND UP
The numbers are brutal: 34 percent from the floor, 8-for-32 from 3-point range. Pierce is averaging just 18 points, five rebounds and three assists in this series, which look a whole lot worse next to LeBron’s 34 and 11 per game. Years ago, Pierce outdueled James in a Game 7 at the Garden, but the gap has grown larger over the last four years.
What made Game 6 so frustrating was that Pierce had shots. They may not have all been great looks, but many of them were makeable. It happens, and if any of the Celtics are capable of shaking things off quickly it’s Pierce.
“He’ll bounce back,” Rivers said. “Paul is a bigÃ¢ÂÂgame player.”
The pressure is on Pierce in Game 7, and that’s fine with him.
“I think we are in the perfect opportunity,” he said. “We’ve been the underdog all year long, going into Game 7 the underdog. We are right where we want to be.”
The great thing about being the underdog is that one game can make up for everything. This is Pierce’s chance and you know he relishes the opportunity.
RONDO AND GARNETT
The Heat went back to an old strategy in Game 6 by having Dwyane Wade drop off Rondo and act as a free safety. With Wade going under screens, the Celtics couldn’t get to that Garnett pick and roll that has been so successful. Rondo, Garnett and Brandon Bass were still able to get to the rim – they made 12-of-16 shots from that distance in Game 6 – but the natural flow of the offense was stunted.
There’s no reason to expect the Heat won’t try to the same tactic in Game 7. It’s the old familiar standby for dealing with Rondo. There’s also no reason to expect that Rivers won’t come up with a few counters to try and help the spacing.
As it’s been throughout the series, the Celtics’ chances rise and fall with Rondo and Garnett. If they are going to pull this off, they need one more great game from both of them. Out of everyone on the roster, Rondo seemed the most unmoved by what had just happened on their home court.
“I wasn’t angry,” Rondo said. “They won one game. Now we have to go down and go to Miami and win a game. We’ve done it before. Put this game in the past, and we have to look forward and not let this linger on too long. I’m fine. I’m ready to get going and play a Game 7.”
If there is another Game 1 in the Celtics’ future, Rondo and Garnett have to take them there.
CELTICS X-FACTORS: CORNER 3’S
Neither team is distinguishing itself from long range, but where the Celtics have an advantage is from the corner when they are making 40 percent of their 3-point shots.
This is where Mickael Pietrus, Keyon Dooling and Allen come into play. Those three have to match Shane Battier, Mario Chalmers and Mike Miller from long range. The team that has shot better from 3-point range has won every game in the series and for the Celtics, those points are huge.
Allen and Pietrus have made just 14-of-47 3-pointers, but they have both run hot and cold. One of them has to have a good night from behind the arc.
MIAMI X-FACTOR: TRANSITION DEFENSE
This isn’t so much an X-factor as it is a need to run hard on defense. For reasons that are inexplicable, the Heat have a terrible habit of not getting back after a turnover or missed shot. (Rondo was right on the money with his in-game comments in Game 3).
The Celtics have such a hard time scoring in the halfcourt offense that generating fast break offense is critical to keeping them in the game. Miami did a better job in Game 6, but the C’s didn’t help themselves with turnovers and poor decisions.
The Celtics have to run and create chaos because a toe-to-toe battle won’t do them any good. Miami is younger, more athletic and now that they have Chris Bosh back, they are just as big. It is within the Heat’s power to restore order, but they have to be willing to do it every time.
There is no reason to pick the Celtics in Game 7 other than belief and hope. Winning Game 7’s on the road is hard. Winning them against the best player in the world at the peak of his abilities is even more difficult.
And that’s just the way they like it. “Let it all hang out,” Garnett said and you should expect nothing less from them on Saturday.
They’ve come this far with an aging, injured roster. There would be no more fitting exclamation point to this five-year than an impossible victory against long odds.