(Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
(Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
As long as you remember that formula, you should be good to go in life.
The best finals shooting performance ever? That would belong to Ray Allen, who made his first 7 three-point attempts before missing one to end the half. 7 threes, which — just in case you were abducted from earth 2 days ago and hadn’t seen this — tied an NBA record for an entire game. Ray, ever the humble minimalist, needed only 1 three-pointer in the second half to break the record and got just that.
Yes, Ray bounced back perfectly from his foul-plagued Game 1, single-handedly keeping the Boston Celtics in the game in the first half. It might be weird to read the words “kept in the game,” given how Boston had a 6-point lead at half time, but make no mistake – without Ray’s ridiculous first half, Boston isn’t close. The Cs had no first-half offense other than good ole Jesus Shuttlesworth, who weighed in at exactly half of their points (27 of 54 after two quarters). None. Zilch. Zero. Nada.
And they paid for it. All game long. They paid for it in the first half, when Ray going nova was just enough for that 6-point advantage, and nothing more; and they paid for it in the second half, when the Lakers suffocated Ray, limiting him to just 5 points, with no other Celtic in enough of a previously established rhythm to count on.
And so it became that, with a bit over five minutes to go in the game, with the greatest three-point shooting performance in NBA Finals history on their side, Boston found itself looking up at a 3-point deficit, on the road, against the defending champs — the same guys who haven’t lost on their home court this postseason. Only this time, Ray was all dried out, and those Los Angeles Lakers came knocking on the Celtics’ door, saying “we’re going to take this game now.”
The only thing LA wasn’t expecting was for Rajon Rondo to answer the door, and say this:
I mean, he probably didn’t call them Dutch, and the crazy part was most likely directed exclusively at Ron Artest, but you get my gist.
Yes, Rajon Rondo took this game over in every which way and drove it home. It wasn’t just the 10 points in the final six minutes (though they surely helped) or the gaudy numbers (19, 12 and 10 – his fifth career postseason triple double). It was the game-long control of the tempo (somebody had to find Ray Allen on those semi-transition three point shots). It was the willingness to have the ball in his hands late in the game, poor free-throw shooting be damned. It was blocking Derek Fisher’s potentially game-tying shot. It was knocking the ball out of Kobe Bryant’s hands to seal the deal with 39 seconds left.
And most of all, it was the ridiculous — yet undeniably true — notion that in a game pitting a team full of savvy, experienced veterans who know how to win against another team full of savvy, experienced veterans who know how to win, the most savvy player, the one who knew best how to win, was the young point guard with arms as long as the Mississippi.
Ironically, the Ray and Rondo show had help from everybody except Boston’s other two stars. Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett were terrible yet again, with Pierce being a nonfactor on offense (2 of 11) and Garnett once again seeing limited action due to foul trouble (24 minutes in which he accumulated 5 fouls to 4 rebounds). In fact, KG’s only meaningful contribution came in a form we haven’t seen from him in a while: absolutely gorgeous passing. Garnett had 6 assists – 3 in the fourth quarter – and repeatedly found his teammates in the lane, taking full advantage of the space created by Allen’s early barrage. Even this comes with a hint of sadness, though, when one remembers that KG used to average 6 assists a game during his peak. Oh well.
The rest of the Celtics, though, were there all night. Nate Robinson had 7 straight points to set up Rondo’s final stretch. Sheed was arguably the best Boston big man on the court before fouls got the best of him. Glen Davis hustled like mad, occasionally getting him a basket. Kendrick Perkins recovered from trying to do too much in the first half, instead settling into a more fitting role of getting the ball near the rim and dunking it/laying it in. Tony Allen managed to play 12 minutes without turning the ball over even once. A fine all-around effort from the green supporting cast.
The Lakers missed that equivalent supporting effort very much. The “other” Lakers were atrocious, ranging from doing nothing (Lamar Odom had 5 fouls in 15 minutes) to taking simply awful shots (Derek Fisher: 2 of 8, JordanShannon BrownFarmar: 3 of 9, Ron Artest: Ron Artest.). Worse than those terrible numbers, they wasted a phenomenal performance by the ever-so-x-factorish Andrew Bynum. Bynum did everything one could ask from him. He scored 21 points without needing the ball in his hands, instead doing his damage off last-second lobs, loose balls and offensive boards. He blocked 7 shots and altered many more. And most importantly, he stayed on the court for an amazing 39 minutes. The Lakers cannot afford to waste games like that from Bynum. With the current state of his knee, you have to fully utilize anything he can possibly give.
Another Laker player who didn’t give his share was Kobe Bryant. Kobe was as out as he’s ever been recently, scoring only 21 points on 20 shots and adding 5 turnovers to boot. And while Laker fans will point to his bogus 3rd and 4th fouls — which clearly weren’t fouls by any stretch of the imagination — the truth is that he just wasn’t there. He didn’t make the shots that he usually makes and didn’t play the smart type of basketball that was there for the entire Phoenix series.
What smart type of basketball? That would be passing the ball to Pau Gasol — and fast.
Pau continued to dominate, scoring 25 points on 10 — TEN!!! — shots, throwing in 8 boards and 6 blocks for good measure. If you’re looking for an explanation as to why the best power forward in the game continues to watch his teammates run their offense without him, there is none. Nothing more to say on this subject.
All in all, you get a series that is much, much closer than it was two days ago — and not just because of the scoreboard. The Lakers have yet again demonstrated a self-sabotaging tendency to waltz away from their optimal game, while 50 percent of Boston’s core stepped up its effort dramatically. This leaves us in a situation where we don’t really know what to expect anymore. The tight officiating, the inconsistent superstars and the wild bench fluctuations mean that this series could go absolutely anywhere.
Last time around, I said that the Celtics need to kick the door open if they don’t want it to close on them. Well, they didn’t kick it, but they applied enough pressure for the Lakers to open it for them. And tough as the 2-3-2 system is for the team hosting those middle 3, the Celts now have homecourt advantage. It’s on the Lakers to play to their strengths and take it back.
If not, they could be left in the dust, wondering why they didn’t give their shaggy Spaniard the damn ball.
Making predictions, breaking down the future and saying things like “this team is done” or “this team is unbeatable” have made a lot of very talented people a lot of money and has given a lot of less talented people a very fun pastime. And in a seven-and-a-half month season, culminating in a two-week NBA Finals, it’s only natural that we look ahead, throwing out bombastic statements, defending them to the death despite their conformation being months away.
But sometimes, we need to remember that the beauty of the game is the game itself, not the conversations around it. And no matter how logical that next step seems, when the basketball is actually played, we always run the risk of getting our socks knocked off.
So allow me to officially apologize to the Boston Celtics for counting them out.
I had plenty of good reasons. The shaky bench. The old age. The effort that just wasn’t their any more. The presence of two (seemingly) far superior teams within their conference
None of it mattered.
None of it mattered because the one, biggest, baddest reason as to why the Boston Celtics were finished turned out to be untrue. For 15 months, it had seemed that Kevin Garnett would never be capable of playing at the level Boston needs to make substantial Playoff noise. And yet, against many people’s (including yours truly’s) favorite for the NBA title, Garnett finally reminded us why he deserved this place in this list , why he is an all-time great even though he was plagued by various Troy Hudsons in his starting line up, and why, when discussing a player of his caliber, you can never count him out until he finally hangs them up.
Overreaction? Tell that to Antawn Jamison. You can probably find him weeping in the corner.
Garnett looked like the KG of old, torching whoever guarded him (though, to be fair, Mike Brown could have been putting random people from the crowd on him and it wouldn’t have been as bad as guarding him with Shaq), consistently banging home that mid-range shot and showing that he is still more than good enough to orchestrate a dominant defense. Throughout the series, Garnett averaged 19 and 8 on 52% shooting – pretty similar to his regular season numbers in 2008 (18 and 9 on 54%). That is nothing near his all-world numbers from earlier in the decade, but it’s just what Boston needed — at just the right time. And that’s before factoring in his effect on defense.
As for the rest of those problems?
Tony Allen played the James Posey offensive spark/defensive stopper role, and combined with Glen Davis’ hustle and Rasheed Wallace coming back to life, the bench wasn’t a concern. Ray Allen continues to ignore the hints he gets from his odometer, Paul Pierce shook off a bad offensive start to the series and came up big in games 5 and 6, while acting as the primary defender on a certain someone whom I shall not name (he’s been named enough already, and if I eventually address his performance this series, it will be a long, thought out process, not half-heartedly thrown-out statements that take the limelight away from the teams who have earned it). And the effort? Apparently, they were just saving that for the postseason. As much as I don’t believe in flipping the switch, Boston proved that they have the championship pedigree needed to do so.
And above all, the masterful Rajon Rondo keeps on blossoming before our eyes, extending the “best PG in the world?!” discussion to, at the very least, a four-man race.
I apologize for focusing so much on the series preceding the one I should be talking about – and, yes, I’ll get to Orlando/Boston in a minute – but this can’t be reiterated enough. Because while the result of Boston’s six-game win over Cleveland was largely attributed to the fallacies of the losing squad (specifically those of a certain someone whom I still shall not name) this couldn’t be further from the truth.
Boston won this. Fair and square. And if their form from the first half of Game 1, Game 2 and Game 4 through Game 6 carries on to this series, they have a heck of a chance to make it back to the NBA Finals.
Of course, to do so, they must stop the team that has been playing the best basketball in the league for quite a while.
For months now, several voices have been ignoring the Magic, giving reasons such as “they’re not as good without Hedo” or “they rely too much on Vince Carter,” while people who actually watched the games half-groaned, half-cried: “Hedo wasn’t that good! They don’t need that much from Vince! STOP IGNORING JAMEER NELSON!!!”
Amazingly, their voices remain unheard in certain circles for reasons I cannot explain. While the Magic’s 8-0 run in the postseason so far is somewhat tarnished by the teams they met – both of which seemed quite content with playing the doormat – it still takes a very good team to capitalize on those “just-happy-to-be-here” feelings. Even though the Hawks’ second-round performance was as apathetic as they come, this was the East’s third-best team. And yet, they were obliterated completely, each and every strength nullified, each and every weakness exposed.
No, don’t let the “we just beat the number one overall seed” hype fool you: these Magic are favorites. And while this series is a whole lot closer than it seemed a few weeks ago, we must still remember that even though Boston’s defense seems to be returning to near-2008 levels, Orlando has been playing a similarly elite defense for two straight years, now — along with far superior offense. In fact, throughout this postseason, the Magic have been number one in both offensive efficiency (a ridiculous 116 points per 100 possessions, which is a full 2.8 points more than the Suns) and defensive efficiency (94.6, which is 2.7 points less than the Celtics).
Then again, these Celtics don’t really give a damn about favorites. That should give us a great match-up in and of itself — a match-up enhanced by the fact that, to my eyes, each team’s weakness is pretty ably countered by the other team’s strengths.
Boston struggles against young, athletic teams? Well, the Magic have their share of oldies, but they don’t get much more athletic than Dwight Howard. With Jameer and Jason Williams running the show, Matt Barnes, Mickael Pietrus and the still-athletic-when-he-wants-to Vince running the wings, and an abundance of three-point shooters trailing, this team should be able to run as much as it wants. Heck, we might even see some Brandon Bass.
The Magic’s weakest positions defensively are point guard and power forward? Well, those two positions are manned by Boston’s two best players, if the Cleveland series is any indication.
Boston has a bench full of question marks? The Magic go a legit 11 deep.
Dwight Howard’s offensive game still tends to be inconsistent (though it’s much, much better than the rep it gets)? Kendrick Perkins is the best Dwight-stopper in the league.
It goes on and on.
And there are so many x-factors. There literally isn’t a single player in the starting lineups that won’t have a crucial role in this series.
For the Celtics: Rondo will have to get to the paint, draw fouls on Dwight, create shots for his teammates, and basically carry Boston’s sometimes struggling offense through those sometimes struggly stretches, while trying to stop the scorching Nelson; Allen and Pierce will be counted on to make shots, whether by creating for themselves and trying – sorry if I sound like a broken record here – to draw fouls on Dwight (mostly Pierce) or by making spot-up outside shots (Ray); KG will need to exploit Rashard Lewis like he exploited Jamison; and Perkins? Well, Perkins is up against Dwight. Good luck with that.
For Orlando: Jameer will have to keep up his ridiculous play, breaking down the Boston defense and generally being unstopable; Vince will have to make sure Pierce doesn’t find a rhythm while fitting in to the offense, scoring when he is needed and deferring when he isn’t; Barnes will need to run through screens after Ray Allen; Lewis will have to make weakside threes and maybe even, god forbid, drive to the hoop against Garnett should he be able to force him out; and Dwight will have to stay out of foul trouble to anchor the defense, while still posing a strong enough offensive threat to shrink in the Boston defense, and maybe even getting Perkins and Garnett into some foul trouble of their own.
And those are just the starters. The series could eventually be decided by the benches or by the coaches or by the refs (hate to bring them up, but this has become an increasingly important factor with Dwight). Anything can happen. Everybody is important.
Which is why I think the Magic win.
When considering everything and anything, they just have more. They are deeper. They are younger. They are healthier. They are just as good, if not better, on defense. They are way better on offense. They have the better coach. They have home-court advantage.
The Celtics made everybody – including me – look like idiots after handing it to the Cavs. They sure could do it again. The difference is that this time, they aren’t facing a team on the brink of a mental meltdown. They are facing the defending Eastern Conference champion. They are facing a team that is playing better basketball — better than last season’s Magic and better than this season’s Celtics.
Magic in 7
Objects in the mirror are closer than they appear.
This series is not.
On paper, this should be a nail biter. The teams split the regular season series. Both won their first round series in 5 games. Both teams are as healthy as they will ever be (and yes, I’m assuming that LeBron’s elbow is fine, because he’s a cyborg and cyborgs don’t feel pain). And while the Cavs are deeper, and had the far superior regular season record, they are also employing a line-up that has played less than 10 games together, including in the playoffs, and lack the championship pedigree of their green opponents. All in all, this evens out.
Until you look at the fine print.
How did Boston got those regular season wins? Well, one was on opening night, against a Cleveland squad playing it’s first game with Shaquille O’Neal in uniform after a shaky training camp, without Delonte West who was battling personal issues. Since then, Cleveland acquired Antawn Jamison, got Delonte back, got Shaq in the mix, and gained two rotation players in J.J. Hickson and Jawad Williams (though the latter might be kind of a stretch), while the Celtics regressed to .500 ball from Christmas Day onward.
The second Boston win came 10 days before the end of the season, after the Cavs clinched the league’s best record, without the aforementioned O’Neal. Cleveland basically rolled over for 3 quarters, allowing Boston to go up 22, before LeBron decided he feels like trying and instantaneously made it a close game, only to lose the game on some questionable decisions – and missed some free throws – in crunch time.
How did Cleveland get their wins?
One was a late February game, one week after Jamison joined the team, which was close for three quarters before the Cavs turned it up in the fourth (notice a trend here?) and won by 20. The other was a mid-March, Shaq-less contest, an 11 point win that wasn’t nearly as close as the score indicated.
“Sure,” you could say, “but how about those first round series? Boston looked much better there!”
Well, the Cavs, playing at first gear, beat a Bulls team despite the Bulls playing two or three of their best games of the season. The Celtics, with extreme motivation, beat a Miami team that consists of Dwyane Wade … and … yeah.
Not to take away from the Boston’s win against Miami – they upped the defensive intensity, and managed to convincingly win a series that many, including yours truly, predicted would be very close. But how does that help them against Cleveland? Letting Wade get his and stopping the likes of Beasley, Chalmers, Haslem and Jermaine O’Neal’s dead body is hardly the same as letting LeBron get his and stopping Jamison, Mo, Shaq and an array of three-point snipers. Besides, just letting LeBron get his could be enough to lose.
Look, I might be selling the Celtics short. I pretty much declared their title chances – for this year – over once Kevin Garnett was ruled out from last season’s playoffs, and my stance didn’t change one bit even when they started the season 23-5. And while I still believe the Celtics as presently constructed to be all but done as far as a title contender, I may be letting that opinion get the better of me.
And yet, the question remains:
When have the Celtics ever given us any indication that they are capable of beating these guys?
Even at full strength, rolling towards a title, a much stronger version of these Celtics needed 7 games and a fourth quarter outburst from P.J. Brown to put Cleveland away. And this was when Cleveland had, maybe, 10% the supporting cast, the Celtics had James Posey (whom they’ve never adequately replaced), and Kevin Garnett was still one of the best players in the league.
So yes, Rajon Rondo will probably have his way with Mo Williams, weaving his way into the paint for numerous floaters and funny looking layups, just like Derrick Rose did before him and Jameer Nelson will do after him. Ray Allen will make some big threes, Paul Pierce will still be Paul Pierce, KG will yell at all sorts of things, be them opposing point guards or stationary objects. Heck, maybe even Rasheed Wallace will get off the bench and show the Cavs that even though he already mailed in a playoff series against them last year, he’s still enough of a bonehead to do it again. You know, all the those Celticy little things we’ve come to know and love.
And after all that is said and done, LeBron will get his ridiculous stat-line, Jamison will get his 18 points without releasing the ball from above his shoulder even once, Anderson Varejao will draw 5 charges and 8 technicals, some kind of dude with an unnecessary J in his name will score a big three and follow it up with a 5 minute hand shake/rain dance, and the Celtics will go home.
I know this sounds bleak, and not very fun. But I promise you, it’s not like that. It will be a fun series. The games themselves should be fairly close – not the defensive slugfest kind of close, but the entertaining kind of close, as these teams have quite regularly produced in the past.
And don’t fool yourself into thinking that this series can’t affect the NBA title. In fact, this is the ultimate Cleveland gut check: for all of Lebron’s greatness, he hasn’t beaten a legit, top tier team in the playoffs since the Pistons in 2007. Unfair as that assessment may be, it’s on him to prove that he can hold up to that pressure. If he doesn’t against Boston, he won’t against Orlando/whoever comes out of the West.
As for the Celtics, this series can dramatically alter their future. If they somehow take this to 7, or even win (which I don’t see happening, at all, but you can never be sure in this league), then maybe they stay course, hope KG’s knee is better after yet another summer off, re-sign Ray Allen, sign another, strong mid-level bench guy (not like Sheed), and take another shot. If they lose in a blowout … well, then maybe it’s time to blow this thing up. (Fun side note: if Allen leaves in free agency, no team is a better fit for him than Cleveland. Nobody.) The whole Ubuntu, heart of a champion mentality of this squad will be put to the test here, even if it seemed like it abandoned them during the season.
And no matter what happens, whether this goes 4 or 7, we’ll get to see two very good teams doing what they do best. You can never go wrong with that. It’s just that at the end of the day, one of these teams is better than the other.
By quite a margin.
And they have Lebron.
Cavs in 5
(Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images)