The Top of the World!

June 18, 2008

“This is a dream come true, and I’m going to cherish this forever.”–Captain Clutch.

Beautiful.

That’s the first word that comes to mind in summing up both the Boston Celtics’ game 6 NBA Championship clincher and the season as a whole.  Boston refused to believe the alpha dog theory that has hung in the air like His Airness since MJ established himself as unbeatable.  The best team won last night.  The best player lost.

Crisp passing, dependable defensive rotations, unselfish decisionmaking, accountability: the 2008 Boston bunch personified the definition of Celtic Basketball.

While the Celtics handed in a quintessential performance, Kobe and Krew submitted a virtuoso white flag waving no show.  After a hot start from profundity, Kobe cooled off, and his Laker teammates gave him no reason to believe passing them the ball would result in anything but missed opportunities.  Instead, aided by dominant Boston defense, Kobe missed shots.  The most prolific active scorer in the entire Association ended his season with 22 points on 22 shots, and averaged 25.7 points per game on .405 shooting for the series–by far his worst numbers of the postseason, and this after owning the superior Western Conference.

Meanwhile, Kobe’s counterparts, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce, perfectly played their pivotal roles.  Each scored plenty, and in his own unique way.  Pierce from the line, in the paint, and when the moment called for it, from deep; Allen on fantastic finishes at the rim and raining jumpers that seemed to fall from the heavens.  A point somewhat lost during all the proclamations of “sacrificing” personal stats is this relationship.  Allen and Pierce used to play the same position, and put up similar numbers, but their differences allowed the Celtics a chance at resurgence.

Pierce is a physical beast, country strong.  He maneuvers by defenders almost at will, always awkwardly and at his pace.  He can rebound and score from the post.  And he’s a bit of a wild child, who has matured just in the nick of time.

The man known as Jesus has borderline OCD.  Literally.  He’s meticulous to a fault; but that fault leads to the purest stroke the world of basketball may have ever seen.  He can run the point in a pinch, and prefers the perimeter.

The combination of these two, along with the ever-aquiescent offensive game of The Big Ticket, formed the foundation of an 82-win squad.  Pierce seamlessly slid down the from the shooting guard slot to small forward, and he and Allen responded to Garnett’s dogged defensive determination.

Add a dose of Big Game James Posey and sharpshooting Eddie House, a Cousy wannabe at the point, a physical warrior at the pivot, some scrappy bench players who scoff at adversity, a bit of Ubuntu from Doc Rivers, and Tom Thibodeau’s defensive brilliance, and it would be, in theory, perfect. 

As the rout of a formidable opponent from the NBA’s dominant conference displayed in game 6, it was.

Turn a group of misfits that netted just 24 wins a year ago into an all-time great team capable of raising banner 17?

As KG shouted at the top of his lungs, having just informed legend Bill Russell he wouldn’t be taking up the eleven-time champion’s offer of a championship ring as a gift, “Anything’s possible!”

Light one up from heaven, Red.


From Euphoria to Phew

June 9, 2008

There might be fewer than five games left in the season for the Lakers after this man (apparently/hopefully) has learned to harness his team’s tremendous potential.

For the first three quarters of game 2 on Sunday night, basketball perfection had been acheived. The commitment to team defense, fearsome rebounding, crisp ball movement, and intelligent play that the Celtics exhibited throughout the first three quarters of the season, had returned to the Garden. Thoughts of winning it all well before game 6 or 7 in Boston sometime next week had crept into the minds of fans and players alike–and then the Lakers, themselves a snoozing giant, delivered the best team in the NBA a wake-up call.

Better yet, a slap to the face.

The Lakers put up an incredible 41 fourth-quarter points on the league’s best defense. And Kobe Bryant, who can’t even comprehend the meaning of the word “no,” led the way. The petulant posterboy displayed everything he brings to the table. Streaky shooting, a dominant personality (as seen in showing up teammates and referees–although the officials deserved it), and an impact on the game felt even when up 22 points with 12 measly minutes remaining.

But before we get to the awakening of KB24 and what it means for the (hopefully) now wide-awake Parquet Posse, let’s address the initial 3600 seconds of game 2.

Doc Rivers was nearly spotless. He’s learned how to coach a team with no legitimate weakness, to the point where watching his substitutions and timeouts no longer leads to potential aneurysms. Sam Cassell needs not step on the court, as a perfectly acceptable replacement for the alien warrior waits not sitting on the bench but leading the reserve Celtics a la Cedric Maxwell: Eddie House, the very man Cassell has replaced in the rotation. Otherwise, Doc outcoached Phil Jackson. Think about that.

Leon Powe played meaningful minutes. And dominated. The national media demonstrated its disbelief via the words of Mike Breen, ABC announcer, who called The Show’s performance the game of his life. Not so.

Leon is a talented, but undersized power forward. Given a couple more inches he would have found himself selected in the lottery two years ago. Instead, fortune fell upon the Celtics, who managed to acquire the rebounding, scoring, and charge-taking inspiration for meager portions.

Paul Pierce carried the offense in the first half and late when necessary. Kevin Garnett made up for a slow shooting start by picking up the slack that a less-than-stellar night from Kendrick Perkins on the boards required. Ray Allen gave Kobe fits early on and fired away from deep, demonstrating his deft touch from the corner three. Put simply, the Boston Three Party did what it should do.

Rajon Rondo lived up to expectations. Lofty expectations, the kind the Green Giant, Tommy Heinsohn, placed upon him as a rookie. Maybe Rajon hasn’t reached Cousy comparisons just yet, but an 8:1 assist to turnover ratio ain’t bad. Add 6 rebounds, 2 steals, and a block to his 16 assists and 4 points and you’ve got yourself the true point guard this year’s version of Gang Green requires.

P.J. Brown once again stepped up off the bench for Perk, and James Posey continued his solid season of defense, rebounding, and lethal long-range daggers.

In short, the Celtics were 75% perfect.

Now, on to the other 25%.

The Celtics doubtlessly lost their focus after 36 minutes of beautiful Boston basketball. The Lakers, on the other hand, finally decided to show up. L.A. appeared listless for most of the game, with only an efficient first half from Pau Gasol and a late burst from Kobe and friends in the fourth to contradict the rest of their night’s work. The Lake Show looked like a collection of talent, rather than a team, and a collection that hadn’t yet learned to mesh against a squadron willing to take a charge or play chest-to-chest defense.

But, after a phenomenal fourth quarter from the Lakers, each city can take solace in what it saw from the two best teams in basketball.

The Lakers are not done. It’s always nice to know you’re not D.O.A. when heading home for your season’s final three games in front of season ticket holders.

Conversely, remembering that your opponent is worthy never hurts before flying coast to coast for three games at the Staples Center.

So, it’s now up to each team to prove which part of Sunday night’s game was the anomaly. The majority of the game, or the freak final period?

Down two games to none against the best team the NBA has to offer, Phil Jackson better convince his team that the 7 mediocre quarters his squad put forth in Boston were the outliers, otherwise Red Auerbach will remain alone above the man who made Michael MJ.


The Arrival of Captain Clutch

June 6, 2008

After last night Celtic faithful have something to proud of, regardless of the ultimate result of the NBA Finals.

As Tony Allen carried Celtics captain Paul Pierce off the court, with help from the Human Victory Cigar, Brian Scalabrine, the season was over.  There would be no Green 17.  The NBA Finals would be over within five games.  The ratings bonanza that the NBA had hoped for would pop off like Pierce’s knee had just done after a collision with teammate Kendrick Perkins, and just as bottles would do for the Los Angeles Lakers within a 10 days. 

It was certain.  Until Pierce pulled out his best Willis Reed impression, the one every athlete dreams about in the dark, in time to lead his team to an essential game one victory

Pierce’s performance made his Reed-like comeback even more impressive.  And unlike the Knick legend, who scored only 4 points in his famous game 7 effort, Pierce led the offense in the second half with 11 points after hurting his knee, including back-to-back triples that propelled the Green ahead for good.  Pierce’s return was more than a mere morale boost.

The media have focused on Kevin Garnett primarily as the fuel that fires the Celtic engine, but they have missed with their analysis.  Garnett is the MVP, the man who posts the best numbers and leads the defense, but without Paul Pierce, this team has no shot. 

In an attempt to understand Pierce’s place on his 79-win (and counting) squad you must look first at Boston’s roster.  No other player packs the offensive versatility of Pierce.  Tommy Heinsohn has called Pierce the best offensive player in the history of the franchise–and he’s very nearly seen them all. 

The Truth’s diverse attack and complete game are irreplaceable.  There is literally no other player in the entire world of basketball quite like him.  There are better players, many of them, but none with the ability to play both the 2 and the 3 for full seasons at a time (Pierce was a gunslinging shooting guard during the days of Antoine Walker and Jim O’Brien, but seamlessly shifted to the small forward position with the arrival of Ray Allen), and the rebounding skill to effectively play the 4 at times.

If you look at the PER leaders for each position, Pierce’s talents become more obvious.  He finished with the league’s fourth best Player Efficiency Rating from the small forward spot, a great metric, but one that even fails to accurately measure the Inglewood native’s best defensive season yet.  Essentially, other than LeBron James, Paul Pierce is the best swingman in the entire league.  The problem is there are many more talented scoring and combo guards and big men than most realize, which means that Pierce remains outside the top 15 active players, but is the most irreplaceable player on the Celtic roster.

When Kevin Garnett went down with an abdominal strain earlier this season, the team managed a 7-2 record with the insertion of Leon Powe and Brian Scalabrine into The Big Ticket’s slot.  With Paul Pierce out, James Posey and the still-hobbled Tony Allen will not be able to carry the distinct offensive load that Pierce brings to the table, and the Celtics will wither against their formidable opponents, the Los Angeles Lakers.

He was nearly stabbed to death once, he played through mediocrity and carried his team the way Kobe chose to do prior to the emergence of Andrew Bynum and the fleecing of Chris Wallace begat Pau Gasol, and he’s battled imaturity, sometimes frustratingly so under the spotlight of the playoffs. 

But as last night proved, the time has come to recognize the evolution of Boston’s captain, and give him a new name.

The Truth is now Captain Clutch.


Faith Renewed: Game 5 Features Deliverance of Prodigal Son

May 29, 2008

On Wednesday night the Jumbotron wasn’t necessary.

In a throwback to an age when the crowd knew how to spur its hometown team on to victory without graphic instructions, Wednesday night’s game five victory over the Pistons demonstrated what it truly means to enter the Garden.

A frantic energy pulsed in 360 degrees, from the parquet to the rafters, through 16 World Championship banners and into and out of the mass of green and white that furiously beat its vocal chords for the right to guarantee at least one more home game.

And the prodigal son, he who had derailed this seemingly invincible cruise ship like an Atlantic glacier, turned back the clock. 

There is no sound quite like the collective anticipatory half-breath that comes a short second before the sound of leather stroking nylon.  When the crowd at TD Banknorth Garden places itself in the game, officially as part of the rhythm of the contest, giving the Green an unfair advantage, nothing raises decibals quite like a profound dagger from Ray Allen. 

And after a postseason of futility, he once again failed, this time to play like the scared, ineffective legend on his last legs that we have grown accustomed to, choosing instead to rise to the occassion and nail down Detroit’s coffin with precision accuracy.

Allen’s 29 points on 9 of 15 shooting from the field, including 5-6 from the ABA line and 6-6 from the philanthroper’s half-circle, led the way for Boston.  While he was neither the leading scorer for the Celtics (that was Kevin Garnett with 33 points) or the best all-around player (that was Kendrick Perkins, the creator of a stat sheet filled to the brim with 18 points, 16 boards, 2 blocks and 2 steals), he was the engine that fueled the return of Celtic Basketball. 

Quick passes and deadly shooting mixed with a defensive unit moving as one for the better part of 48 minutes allowed the casual fan to see what all the hoopla was about after 66 regular season wins: Team.

While Jesus set the Garden on fire, Mr. Shuttlesworth did not do so alone.

Allen received aid from another typically strong performance by Paul Pierce, who continues to feel out each game and his teammates’s psyche’s on a given night in order to provide whatever spark proves necessary to burn his opponents.  Pierce’s strong defense shut down Tayshaun Prince, and he added an efficient 16, 5, and 6 in 44 minutes.  Rajon Rondo also joined in, shooting poorly but dominating every other phase of the game with 6 rebounds, 13 assists, 4 steals, and a blocked shot.

Yeah, that happened.

In an atypical moment, Doc Rivers also lived up to the billing that once earned him NBA Coach of the Year honors with an undermanned Orlando Magic squad.

Eschewing his penchant for playing anyone with a Celtic jersey covering his back, be it six big men for 30 seconds each or perhaps the 47-year-old wearing a Robert Parish jersey in the fifth row, Rivers rode his stallions hard, exactly at the right times.  No starter played less than 39 minutes, and Rajon Rondo, whom Doc has jerked around throughout the playoffs, remained on the court for all but two brief 60-second sessions.

Recognizing that the artist formerly known as Sam Cassell and the handleless Eddie House can’t handle the intense pressure supplied by Lindsey Hunter at the point, Doc allowed his energetic youngster to steer the ship nearly the entire game, minimizing a Piston strength and converting it into a Boston opporunity. 

While Leon Powe proved during the regular season that he deserves to play postseason minutes, shrinking the rotation and choosing PJ Brown was an understandable choice by Rivers, one that gave the Celtics rhythm.  The bench combined to play less than 32 minutes, a number that will surely need to climb in Detroit on Friday night, but a correct sum given game five’s working mathematics.

Finally, choosing to foul in the waning seconds of the fourth quarter when the Pistons were down by only three points and had possession was genius.  Demonstrating faith in your own shooters over the opponents’ can be risky, but when you have three potential Hall-of-Famers ready to avoid rim shots like a seasoned drummer and a cast of characters with shooting percentages that would make any shooting coach jealous, you’re on the right track.

Game five elated.  It scared.  It highlighted flaws and featured the game of his life from one young beast

But above all, it renewed the Garden’s faith in the strength of a fading star.


Wake Up Call or Curtain Call for Doc?

May 3, 2008

A win Sunday in Boston means Rivers lives to coach another day.  A loss should mean time to turn the reigns over to top assistant Tom Thibodeau.

Doc Rivers, you’re officially coaching for your job.

Rivers has done two things extraordinarily well this season: unite a roster that could have gone sour, but had every reason to come together, and allow defensive specialist Tom Thibodeau to run the less glamorous side of the ball, a move that would be difficult for most head coaches to stomach–this isn’t the NFL after all, there are no coordinator positions.  His substitution patterns haven’t been perfect–far from it, in fact–but his poor in-game management is nothing new.  While much of the media has given Rivers a break because most of his Celtics squads have had less talent than Paris Hilton, Bill Simmons has led the fire Doc bandwagon for years due to his inability to nail down a rotation or communicate simple strategies and concepts in the waning moments of close games.  The Atlanta Hawks have successfully illuminated all Rivers’s blemishes during the series’s three contests in his former hometown.

Fortunately for Jeremiah Rivers’s father, the former coach of the year’s weaknesses have been sufficiently masked for most of the season.  He was handed a roster tailor-made for him: the starting five set, and few legitimate options off the bench.  However, as the season progressed the team evolved.  A short bench became one of the deepest in the entire association. 

Herein lies the problem.  Given this surplus of talent, Rivers has faltered.  P.J. Brown, a late-season pick up more for his wisdom than ability, has played more than Tony Allen, the team’s best defensive shooting guard, a guy who should have been developed all season for the purpose of guarding someone like Joe Johnson.  For some reason, Brown has been the one on the court in crucial situations laboring to even find energetic, athletic youths like Josh Smith and Al Horford in order to box out.  By the time his failing, elderly vision allows him to locate the high-flying Hawk big men, it’s too late.  He’s a relic. 

Atlanta’s biggest strength thus far has been its ability to convert via the offensive glass, as evidenced by big fourth quarter rebounds Friday night with the game on the line.  Allowing Ludacris’s favorite team second and third chances resulted in the Hawks scoring on an incredible sixteen consecutive possessions in game six.  Banner seventeen will be lifted from right under the Celtics’s noses if they don’t lock down their bedroom window.

The solution?

Play Leon Powe more; in his last two appearances The Show has netted 19 points and grabbed 11 boards in 38 minutes.  Sit P.J. Brown and hope you’ll need his wily, physical play in future matchups with heftier big men.  Utilize Tony Allen’s abilities rather than watch ex-Celtic Joe Johnson abuse Tony’s namesake for 48 minutes.  Play Sam Cassell sparingly–he was brought in as a security blanket, not as the furnace.  Tap Eddie House on the shoulder earlier and more often.  Bibby’s brother-in-law played a pivotal role during the Celtics’ 66 regular season wins, and shouldn’t be forgotten. 

Oh, and while you’re at it, give the team some direction at the end of games.  I’m thinking Rajon Rondo forcing a three at the buzzer wasn’t the plan.  I’m also thinking that playing Rajon when the team was trying to score quick baskets in the final two minutes might have been a good idea, and inserting Eddie House when down by three in the game’s final seconds might have prevented an ill-fated, forced fade away out of the hands of a career 22.9% shooter from profundity.

Many, including Doc Rivers himself, have used officiating as a crutch for Boston.  This is nonsense.

The refs have been questionable.  Paul Pierce’s sixth foul was comedic.  The 47-25 disparity between free throw attempts in Atlanta is discouraging.  But when one squad finishes the season with 29 more victories than its counterpart, none of this should matter.

Go back to the basics, Doc.  Watch tape of the regular season.  Follow those substitution patterns.  Do some thinking during the final moments of game seven.  Because should Sunday afternoon provide us with a finale worthy of such a shocking series, it could be your last at the helm of basketball’s most storied franchise.