When he walked into the post-game press conference, Doc Rivers looked like he had just spent the last 48 minutes trying to guard Ben Gordon coming off multiple screens. “The only comment I have,” Rivers said, “is I pray that Danny Ainge didn’t watch this game.”
Doc could afford to joke after Ray Allen’s 3-pointer at the top of the key with two seconds left (thanks to a masterful little adjustment by the coach on the play call) gave the Celtics a 118-115 win over the Bulls and a 1-1 series tie. Besides, a little gallows humor is always appreciated after watching a season come so close to evaporating. It’s not a stretch to say that after 82 regular season games and 62 victories, the Celtics faced their mortality Monday night at the Garden.
They had everything lined up perfectly—a blitzkrieg start, a hopped up building, and still the Celtics couldn’t put away this Chicago team, even after storming out to an 18-6 lead. They had more injuries (Leon Powe went to a Boston hospital to have an MRI on his knee and Rajon Rondo crumpled in a heap midway through the second quarter), no bench and suddenly the Celtics look old and very thin.
But defeated? Not just yet.
With just over three minutes left, Gordon knocked down a pair of 3-pointers to put the Bulls ahead, 109-104 and things looked bleaker than a marathoner crossing the line at the five-hour mark. Gordon put together one of the more astounding lines in the history of basketball—42 points, one rebound, one steal and zero assists, but it was those 42 points that threatened to derail everything the Celtics have worked for this season.
At halftime, Rivers walked into the locker room. Rondo was lying on a table, his right ankle swollen. Powe was on his way to the hospital. Kevin Garnett and Brian Scalabrine were in street clothes. He looked around the room and he asked for a volunteer. Someone who could carry the Celtics into Chicago with a tied series. He got Ray Allen.
The final play was a bit of a twist from their usual number. “We disguised it,” Rivers said. “We never run it with Ray and Paul (Pierce). We never run it with Rondo having the ball. Usually we have a big.”
Eddie House took the ball inbounds, another twist. Rivers felt that the Bulls had to watch Rondo, and they couldn’t afford to leave House so the play was designed to either get Pierce the ball in the low post, or Allen coming off the curl screen. It went to Allen, but Joakim Noah threatened to blow it up.
“Noah recovered,” Rivers said. “It was unbelievable. I thought, right when I saw Paul curl, I saw their two (guards) get mixed up. I actually thought Ray was going to be wide open. And when he got it, Noah came from nowhere. That was a hell of a recovery by him.”
It was a hell of a recovery, but it was an even better shot by Allen. And so, the Celtics live for another day. They have two days to rest and recover and they’re going to need it in Chicago where the Bulls have won 14 of 16 at home. It’s a series now, and no one really knows how it’s going to turn out.
RAJON RONDO IS STILL THE BEST POINT GUARD IN THE EAST
How did you enjoy the Derrick Rose era? Was it good? Rose is a fantastic player, and quite possibly will one day be the premier lead guard in the East, but for now, Rondo is still the best player at his position in the conference.
Rondo had a triple double halfway through the third quarter, and if he hadn’t sprained his ankle he might have had it in the first half. Before the game, Rondo was full of questions. He had questions about how he should defend Rose, questions about how he needed to play-- was he dribbling too much, not getting the ball to Allen and Pierce enough?
“I told him a bunch of stuff,” Rivers said. “And when he left I got to thinking, ‘That’s too many questions.’”
So Rivers simplified things. He told his young guard that he had the keys, now just go drive. Rondo managed to get both Rose and Kirk Hinrich in foul trouble in the first half, and make or miss, good things happened when he attacked. “I thought the first seven minutes were the best he’s ever played,” Rivers said.
He was so good the Celtics didn’t even run a set play for the first six minutes of the game, and then his ankle ballooned. But Rondo played every minute of the second half, and while he only made two of eight shots, he somehow grabbed six rebounds and handed out eight assists, while holding Rose to four points.
If Rose won Round 1 on points, Rondo scored a decisive knockdown in Round 2.
FIVE MINUTES AND 20 SECONDS
That was the total amount of time the bench played in the second half. Without Powe, and with Tony Allen essentially reduced to spectator, Rivers played Stephon Marbury and Mikki Moore a grand total of 40 seconds and Eddie House a whopping 4:40.
For the first time this year, Rivers deployed the KC Jones circa 1987 strategy—play the starters until they drop.
The most affected was Pierce who shot just 4-for-13 in the second half and looked tired down the stretch. “I just got to be patient,” Pierce said. “Let the game come to me. Sometimes I’m taking shots that aren’t there, but I’ll figure this thing out. At the end of the day it’s not about Paul Pierce. It’s about the Boston Celtics. I’ll do anything I can to help the ballclub win.”
True enough, but Pierce needs help. He forced John Salmons into another bad night on the defensive end, but unless the bench gets its act together it’s going to be a very long playoffs for the Captain, no matter how long, or short, the Celtics run winds up playing out.
BIG BABY GETS HIS FLOW ON
Glen Davis scored 18 points in the opener, but according to his coach they weren’t the right 18 points. Big Baby heard no such complaints after his 26-point, nine-rebound effort.
"I thought tonight, he was terrific,” Rivers said. “I thought he had better focus. He ran guys off their shot defensively. I thought he was a bear on the glass. You know, he played. I just thought he kept the game simple and when he does that he’s really good.”
Davis hit several key jump shots, but he did his best work down low, grabbing four offensive rebounds. The Celtics outscored Chicago, 50-32 in the paint and had a whopping 32-12 edge in second-chance points.
“We just attacked,” Davis said. “We picked our spots for when we crashed the board because we know Derrick Rose wants to run.”
The Celtics hauled in a rather amazing 21 offensive rebounds and held the Bulls to just eight offensive boards, a huge turnaround from Game 1.
“Make sure what we were really trying to accomplish,” is how Davis put it. “Sometimes I get overwhelmed and do things I’m not supposed to do. When I stay within the game plan, make the extra pass and set one more pick, it always comes back to me. That’s what happened tonight.”
There’s an old NBA axiom that says your best three or four players always play the same, home and away, but your next four or five will see their performance fluctuate. The Celtics need Davis to play like one of their top four players in Chicago.
NOW PLAYING THE ROLE OF ZAZA PACHULIA—JOAKIM NOAH
For as good as this series has been it was missing a certain element. It needed a villain, and after Joakim Noah and Kendrick Perkins went toe-to-toe (Perkins gave him the WWE-style posedown after they mixed it up inside), the Boston crowd has found its nemesis.
It’s not surprising, really, given the way Noah plays with all-out energy and his on-court histrionics. (Noah has apparently joined the ranks of Magic Johnson and yes, Kendrick Perkins, in the ranks of having never ever committed a foul in his life.)
Soon after things started getting heated, Noah wandered into the Celtics bench where Kevin Garnett had more than a few choice words for him. It was almost threatening to get out of control, but thankfully, the fourth quarter was just good, hard basketball.
Noah will have the Chicago crowd firmly in his corner on Thursday for Game 3, and the Bulls faithful will surely have their own villain. It will probably be Perkins.
Perk set the tone with a hard foul on John Salmons in the first quarter. Hard enough to bring Brad Miller flying out of his seat on the Bulls bench. How Perkins responds in that environment will be very important for the Celtics' chances of evening the series.
THE KG PRESENCE
In Game 1, Kevin Garnett sat on the bench for the first half and looked like, all things considered, he’d rather be elsewhere. Between games, we had surgery-gate, dribble-gate and all manner of will-he-or-won’t-he questions. So many in fact that it no longer feels like a certainty that KG won’t play, or at least try.
That has the potential to be extremely distracting, and it will be interesting to see how the Celtics manage the news cycle between games as it relates to KG.
But for now, he is just a tall man in a suit and he was into it Monday night. In addition to Noah, he was literally skull-to-skull with Stephon Marbury at one point.
Without Garnett the Celtics are adapting to an entirely new style of play, and it’s a credit to them that they have managed to be so successful without him. But until the team, or the player, says definitively one way or the other whether he’s in or out, his presence will be felt.