Saturday, August 17, 2013

A farewell to Paul Pierce

This post originally ran on CelticsTown.com.
Last night as rumors of the trade that sent Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to Brooklyn broke, I had kind of a selfish thought: “What am I going to do about my wedding cake topper?”
I’m getting married in about four weeks, and my fiancee — a very understanding person — ordered me a Paul Pierce cake topper, knowing that to keep me interested in the wedding proceedings, she needed to cater to my basketball needs. Now I’m debating whether or not I should keep the topper and risk the pangs at my reception, especially if someone who doesn’t watch sports as much comes up to me and asks “Hey, didn’t he get traded?” Violence might ensue.
Sports get tied up in our lives in weird ways. If it wasn’t for basketball, I probably wouldn’t have a Twitter account. If I didn’t have a Twitter, there would be at least 20 people who I interact with on a regular basis (and many, many more who I interact with less frequently) who I never would have met. Sports brought us together. It creates families.
But it’s not just fellow sports fans. We end up adopting the players into our families as well, even if sometimes that relationship is a little bit one-sided. You want to know why it hurt Cleveland so badly when LeBron James left? It was because he was rejecting their family. He told them, in essence, their family wasn’t good enough.
But sometimes, the relationship isn’t one-sided. Sometimes, the player adopts the fans into his family as well, if not individually, then as a collective. The fans support and uplift a player like a family would, supporting and cheering for him unconditionally while chiding his mistakes. In return, the player loves a city. It becomes symbiotic, and at its best (Duncan in San Antonio, Dirk in Dallas, and — of course — Pierce in Boston), it becomes the kind of relationship where a fan base actually appreciates the player’s importance to the city more than anything. More than wins, more than losses, more than future assets.
Paul Pierce was that kind of player. There’s a reason no one can quite process the prospect of seeing him in another uniform — he started here, and it was pretty widely assumed that he would finish here after he inked his last deal. Many fans (and “fans” is the important distinction, since it’s GM Danny Ainge’s job to make the franchise better emotionlessly) cared more about Pierce than the Celtics in a lot of ways, wanting him to retire with the team because…well…he’s family.
So really, no one is wrong here. The fans should be engaged with and supportive of their superstars. The franchise should be looking to improve whenever possible. But sometimes, those visions clash, and when they do, it can make for an extremely bittersweet goodbye.
Boston fans have a tendency to romanticize players’ connections to the city, in part because of the long history of excellence within the franchise. But it’s not exaggerating to say Paul Pierce is one of the greatest Celtics in the team’s history. Since the postseason, my dad has been saying that he wanted the Celtics to run it back again. I’ll admit: I disagreed with him, because I want the team to be in a good place for the future, and I know that the quickest way to do that is to gather trade assets and get bad for the 2014 draft. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that blowing things up meant saying goodbye to family — family, what’s more, with whom we have had an unbelievable stretch of years. My dad was right. How do you say goodbye to that?
I know, intellectually, that the Celtics did extremely will in this trade. But family isn’t about being intellectual, and this trade is about family. How are we supposed to support a draft pick, at least right now? A draft pick is an asset, not a player. Hopefully, someday, that pick will become a player, and if that player becomes a Celtic (not a “Celtics player,” mind you, but a “Celtic” like Pierce), then he will join the family as well. It’s happened before. But that doesn’t make it any easier right now.
Fifteen years ago on draft night, my dad and I watched disbelieving as Pierce’s name slipped further and further down the draft chart, and we yelled, high-fived and celebrated when the Mavericks took Dirk Nowitzki, acting like we had just won a championship.
And, as it turned out, we had.
Thanks for everything, Paul. You will be sorely missed.
Follow Tom on Twitter: @Tom_NBA, where he will be sad for days.

Little Victories: A farewell to the Boston Celtics’ 2012-13 season

Legends.
This originally ran on CelticsTown.com.
I can’t stop listening to one specific song. It’s my go-to whenever I’m sad, and as Boston’s playoff run has drawn to a close, I am sad. All of the sads, in fact.
Actually, no. “Sad” isn’t the right word. I feel intensely bittersweet. I would have been sad if the Knicks/Celtics series had ended after Game 3. But it didn’t. The series ended as it should have: with a valiant effort capped by a heroic one that ultimately fell just short.
So I feel bittersweet. I invite you to play this song as you read this post. It’s not the kind of music I usually listen to, but if you are anything like me, it will help make you as sad and happy and depressed and grateful and nostalgic and…well…proud as I am.

This time/I’ll be sailing/No more bailing boats for me

In 2010, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce all decided to come back to the Celtics to make one more run. Since then, every season has felt potentially like the last one as flurries of injuries and roster changes have made the team that won a championship in 2008 nearly unrecognizable. For years, it seemed like Boston was constantly plugging leaks. This season, as Rondo and Sullinger went down and the carousel of patchwork fixes paraded through Beantown, the Celtics were bailing boats.
We probably need to accept the fact that Paul Pierce will not be a Celtic next year. Greg Dickerson tweeted after the game that he has played his last game as a Celtic. Pierce wouldn’t commit to coming back to Boston in his post-game. Ainge has told CSNNE that people should be ready for some painful changes as fans.
And, of course, as Paul Pierce goes, so goes Kevin Garnett. The two players who dragged this squad back from being a shamefully bad squad and made them not only relevant, but PROUD will probably be gone next year.
I don’t think we properly appreciate how amazing it is to cheer for a proud team. “Celtic Pride” has become a bit of a buzzword, but it’s an appropriate one. Being a Celtic used to mean something. You may have heard the story of how, after winning a championship once, Bill Russell kicked all reporters out of the locker room so he could have a quiet moment with his teammates? That spirit lived on in these Celtics, and it lived on as a result of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. Pierce doesn’t seem to mind the spotlight, but Kevin Garnett is an intensely private person. There will be a jersey-retirement, and then — I suspect — we won’t hear from him for a long time.
He’ll be sailing. After this offseason, the Ubuntu Celtics will be sailing. No more bailing boats.

I’ll be awful sometimes/Weakened to my knees

Over the next few days, there will be a ton of fawning over Boston’s potentially-departing old guard, but we would be remiss if we said that this season was perfect.
It wasn’t.
In fact, at times, it was awful. You remember the moments, so I don’t need to go into detail. There were a thousand missed defensive rebounds. There were a thousand small injuries and a few really big ones. There was that one afternoon in late January in which we all heard the ACL news and collectively stopped breathing. There was Paul Pierce’s face when Doris Burke accidentally broke it to him that Rondo was done. There were the trade deadline rumors, and the Sullinger and Barbosa injuries. Hell, there were Games 2 and 3 of the Knicks series. In a lot of ways, this season, frankly, sucked.
So it’s a testament, then, that when a friend on Twitter asked me “Decent season?” I replied that, while I was (and still am) sad, I couldn’t (and still can’t) ask for more.

I’ll be standing strong and tall/Turn my back towards them all

It’s difficult not to compare the Celtics to the Los Angeles Lakers, but it’s especially difficult now. After all, the Lakers are also aging. The Lakers were also injury-riddled. The Lakers were also in the Finals in 2008 (and 2010).
As such, it’s pretty difficult not to be pleased with how the Celtics went out. They were down 3-0. They made it 3-2. They were down by 20+. They made it four. They made it a series, and they made Game 6 competitive. What a team.
Much of how I measure that Celtics is in relation to the Lakers, and you know what? The Lakers were what the Celtics COULD have been in a painful alternate universe. The Lakers were glitzy and showy, but when their best players went down with injuries, they folded like a perforated piece of paper and bowed out in an ignominious defeat. When Boston’s best player went down, they COULD have folded. They could have melted down. They could have been ejected in a series-deciding Game 4. But that’s not how these Celtics have ever acted. Instead, they dug down deep and made one last final stand. And then another. And then another that came up just short.
My point isn’t that we should be clowning the Lakers (ok, my point is, at most, 15% that we should clown the Lakers). My real point is that we should, once again, be proud. The Celtics left the court defeated, but they have always stood strong and tall, backs toward them all.

I’ll learn to get by/On the little victories

Let’s list some little victories, shall we?
  • We begin with Jeff Green. Remember in the offseason, when everyone declared Green’s contract a gigantic failure before the season even started? Remember the first time you saw him open that Superman thing on his chest and pound his repaired heart? Remember when he destroyed Al Jefferson? And Jermaine O’Neal? And a whole bunch of other teams? Remember when you first realized “Hey, this guy is really freaking good?” I do too. Little victory.
  • This game. Little victory.
  • Jared Sullinger, pre-surgery. Sully, passed over by every other team, was EXACTLY what Boston needed this year. Little victory.
  • This play and this comeback. Little victory.
Since 2008, much has been made of why the Celtics didn’t win another title. In 2009, it was because KG was hurt. In 2010, it was Perk. In 2011, it was the Perk trade. In 2012, it was the Bradley injury. This year, it was Rondo.
I would suggest that perhaps we have been emphasizing the wrong things. Instead of looking at excuses, we should have been looking at the little victories. “Celtic Pride” is a real thing. It’s what drove this team to battle. It’s what defined the KG/Paul Pierce era. It’s what extended this team’s shelf-life by at least three years.
And at the end of the day, it’s what made all of the little victories seem not very little at all.
Follow Tom on Twitter: @Tom_NBA.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Winning Ugly: On Memphis/San Antonio

Now it's a mighty long way down the dusty trail
And the sun burns hot on the cold steel rails
And I look like a bum, and I crawl like a snail
All the way from Memphis


-"All the Way From Memphis" by Mott the Hoople

At some point, the commentary about the Memphis/San Antonio series is going to become repetitive and extremely polarizing. That will be a damn shame. So before everyone splits up into pro and anti Grizzly camps, let's just take a second and process what we just witnessed.

I refuse to apologize for being generic...pictures of grizzlies are too cool to not post if you are given the opportunity.
Before we really get into things here, it would be a discredit not to mention the Spurs' sportsmanship after the game; a gesture that I realize feels patronizing, though nothing could be further from my intent. San Antonio, who for years have been one of the classiest, most respectable teams in the league, realized how young Memphis is and how much closing out this series in front of their home fans meant for them as a franchise. So instead of storming off the court in a huff without shaking hands, they all went over to tell the Grizzlies they had done well, and to wish them luck in the next round. Ginobili was forced to endure a short homily from Tony Allen, which, when he related it back to Doris Burke later, was revealed to have been equal parts homage to Manu and inane crazy person babble (to the surprise of absolutely no one who knows anything about Tony Allen). Greg Popovich was quick to compliment Lionel Hollins in his postgame press conference. Everything about San Antonio last night was saturated in class, which is why the media's treatment of them over the next few days is going to be insufferable.

There will be an abundance of people discussing the end of the Spurs dynasty, which is ridiculous; the Spurs dynasty ended in 2008 when Pau Gasol was traded to Los Angeles from (ironically) Memphis. Whoever gets to be the first person discussing the game on Around the Horn will gain 5 or 6 points from Tony Reali when they make the 3,000th "Grizzlies beat the grizzled vets" joke of the day on ESPN. It's all so damn predictable these days.

I'm old.

But instead of following the stream of negativity, let's instead spend some time dedicating Zach Randolph his due, and discuss one of the strangest feel-good stories in NBA history.

I'm not sure how many casual NBA fans remember this, but Randolph was a member of the infamous Jail Blazers, one of the most reviled groups of players in NBA history, and with good reason. Each member of that particular Portland team (which included headcases like Bonzi Wells, Rasheed Wallace, Damon Stoudemire, and probably the worst of the bunch, Ruben Patterson) was arrested multiple times, mostly for marijuana-related offenses, with a couple of sexual assault cases sprinkled in for good measure. Even when he came to Memphis, Randolph was rumored to be running a dope dealing ring within the city.

Now, I say this not to taint what he has done, but rather to point out how far he has risen.

Randolph has turned himself around, won over an entire city (who, it should be noted, were one of the best crowds of the playoffs so far last night), and is currently achieving his highest potential as a basketball player. His back to the basket talents are pure gold. He has 5 or 6 gorgeous post moves, and a beautiful set shot when he's open anywhere from 10-18 feet. He has great hands, and he's very smart when he's rebounding the basketball. Similar to Kevin Love of the Timberwolves, he doesn't leap over everyone else to pull down the ball, but instead boxes out correctly, and seems to have Super Glue on his hands at all times.

Also, can we put this myth to death? Zach Lowe of The Point Forward blog correctly pointed out last night that Z-Bo takes a curious amount of flack for being un-athletic, despite the fact that strength, footwork, and endurance are all part of being athletic. Apparently NBA writers don't consider you an athletic player unless you are built like Amar'e and you jump like a kangaroo.

And since this is the debate all the popular kids want to talk about this postseason, the record should note that Randolph is the very definition of clutch. The Grizzlies in Game 6 were fumbling. They couldn't get their offense rolling, nobody was getting to the basket, and the Spurs were looking as they though might get an opportunity to close out Memphis in Game 7 at home, in a game where they would have all the confidence, momentum, and home court advantages that the best regular season record in the Western Conference could buy.

Randolph was having none of it. Dropping 17 points in the 4th quarter alone, en route to a 31 point close-out game, he was THE offensive option for Memphis. In Lionel Hollins final timeouts, apparently his instructions were "Mike, you bring the ball up the floor. Zach, you get to your favorite spot. Mike, you get Zach the ball. Everyone else, clear the hell out of the way." And the craziest thing? It worked. Not because of any kind of expert planning or execution, but because Zach Randolph was far and away the best player on the floor, and he was not about to be denied.

One could count on two hands the players in the NBA who, when playing at their best and most determined, are truly unstoppable. Durant. Dirk. Manu. LeBron. A few others...and Zach Randolph.

Yeah. He has arrived there. The Spurs couldn't contain him with Duncan, one of the most fundamental defenders of all time at the 4. They couldn't contain him with double teams. Late in the game, with the shot clock running down, Randolph actually managed to split a TRIPLE team, bull his way ungainly to the middle of the paint, and sink a floating, left-handed dagger to put the Grizz up by 9.

Everything about Randolph's game is a bit ungainly, which fits the Grizzlies perfectly. They are not a pretty team; at least, not in the way that Rose makes Chicago a pretty team, which seems to be the golden standard for beautiful basketball these days. The word "finesse" hasn't been uttered within 100 miles of Memphis, Tennessee when it comes to basketball in several years. But if your definition of beautiful basketball includes old school post-moves, a team full of role players doing their job, athletic, harassing defenders, and one superstar entering his own, then the Grizzlies must-see TV, and it's a shame that either the Grizz or their next round opponent, the Thunder, have to lose in the next round, because watching both teams this season has been a pleasure, if for very differing reasons.

But Round 2 doesn't start until Sunday. And until then, I'm going to sit back and enjoy everything I just saw.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Kevin Durant: Slayer of Everything

Earlier this season, I saw Kevin Durant in person for the first time and watched him light up a badly overmatched Minnesota team for 47 points. No surprises there, right? The thing was, throughout most of the game, Durant was guarded by then-Timberwolves' forward Corey Brewer, an excellent long, athletic one-on-one defender. Durant was unaffected. He scored at will. As he fired away, and it seemed that every jumper that left his hands was destined to find the bottom of the net, I remember thinking to myself "Durant could conceivably become the single most unstoppable player in the NBA sometime in the next few years."

Despite the fact that I recently wrote an article that ridiculed sports writers who are so prone to hyperbole in their analysis, I feel as though I just witnessed a turning point. That time might be now. Playoff Durant is here, and he just made damn sure the Thunder moved on. 

(A quick tangent: tonight we nearly saw the utter demise of one of the most decorated dynasties in the NBA, the Tim Duncan era Spurs, at the hands of the 8th seeded Grizzlies, only to see rookie guard Gary Neal save their season and championship hopes at the buzzer with a long three to send the game into overtime. Despite all this drama, the Spurs/Grizzlies game was the second most fascinating game of the night. Is there anything in the world better than the NBA playoffs? Aside from Starburst jellybeans...? No. No there really isn't.)

I am squirming as I write this down.

On some nights, players are described as having scored a "quiet" 20 points. This usually means they hit some shots and contributed sufficiently to the game, but essentially just added points to the final box score; points that were necessary to get the win, but that didn't change the course of the contest.

This is the complete antithesis of what just occurred in Oklahoma City.
Yeah. Don't act like you didn't hear him.
Kevin Durant's 41 points were jet-engine-screaming, 11-year-old-girls-at-a-Justin-Bieber concert loud. With his team down 9, and the 4th quarter winding past the halfway point, Durant saw the situation was calling for a hero, and he took over.

A long two pointer. A big three. A falling, floating, off balance leaner which he sank as he was fouled on the way down. Another jumper. The closing free throws. And then blocking Aaron Afflalo's three point attempt out of bounds with 9 seconds left.

One thing he made abundantly clear: Durant was NOT about to let this series stretch to a Game 6.

What was so special about tonight's performance wasn't the 41 points, or even the 4th quarter explosion itself. It was seeing Durant demonstrating himself as a wise, mature-beyond-his-years player before our very eyes. He was aware of the stakes: if Denver won tonight, the Nuggets would have an opportunity to play at home in Game 6, and they would be dangerous molotov of confidence and desperation. Oklahoma City's confidence was visibly wavering. They had collapsed in the final seconds of Game 3. They weren't clicking for the first three quarters of Game 4. All the statistics and questions about teams who had never won a playoff series were swirling around their heads and it was starting to get to the young team.

So Durant made like Woody Harrelson.

He nutted up, demonstrating a sense of the Moment, the killer instinct, all the over-used cliches that are so deservedly bestowed upon Kobe Bryant. One has to wonder how much good leading the USA national team to a World Basketball Championship over the summer did for Durant's maturation, because as he took an entire franchise upon his slender, 22 year old shoulders, it felt as natural as breathing. Durant started elevating for jumpshot after unguardable jumpshot, pumping his fist after every basket, and gifting energy and confidence into the young Thunder, who followed his lead on offense, and chipped in an incredible six minute effort on defense, propelling themselves into the second round for the first time since the move to Oklahoma City.

The contrast between Games 3 and 4 is so obvious, it barely deserves mentioning, but I'll do it anyway. If there was any doubt (and there shouldn't have been) who the best player/alpha dog of this team is, consider it settled. When the Thunder need big plays late in the game on offense, Westbrook cannot be allowed to blunder the ball away; the offense needs to be in Durant's hands. Everyone knows he is going up with the shot, and it doesn't matter. He's supremely talented, impossible to guard, and now he has proven himself as winner. Oklahoma City is his team. Westbrook is nothing more than a very talented Robin, but as long as he embraces that role, the Thunder might be the best team in the playoffs.

In 2006, LeBron James had one of the greatest individual playoff performances in NBA history, dropping 48 points including 29 of his team's final 30 to drag the Cavaliers past the Detroit Pistons in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals. Durant's Game 5 doesn't touch LeBron's in terms of pure single-handed dominance, or even in postseason significance, since it was just a first round victory. But if the Thunder can make a push to the Finals, it certainly doesn't seem ridiculous to say that tonight's performance, the first playoff series victory in Durant's career and certainly a defining moment of the postseason so far, was a similar first step.

Welcome to the postseason, Mr. Durant. We've been expecting you.

How Westbrook Made Me Appreciate Rondo...Even More


Some days, I like to take a step back from my daily life and reflect on what I'm thankful for. You know, life, love, family, Starburst Jellybeans, the usual. I'm a fairly normal guy. But on days like today, I'm unspeakably thankful for Rajon Rondo.
Like so many other Celtics' fans, I adopted Oklahoma City as my Western Conference playoff team for two reasons: they now have Perk, and with his acquisition, they look like the toughest matchup out West for the Lakers (or at least, the toughest matchup that isn't 6'1 and wearing the name "Paul" on the back of his jersey). So while watching a very tight Game 4 between the Nuggets and Thunder on Monday night, I was rooting for OKC to come back and win. And, given that the Thunder were down by three, that Kevin Durant is one of the toughest three point shooters to guard in the NBA, and that at that point in the game, he was hotter than a high fever in summer from beyond the arc, I automatically assumed that Durant would be the one shooting for the tie.
I was wrong.
Russell Westbrook got the ball off a miss by Denver, pushed the ball up the court, and slowed to a stop just behind the three point line. He continued dribbling, and seemed to survey his other offensive options rather half-heartedly for a second before stepping into a three pointer. Airball.
Upon witnessing this abomination of human endeavour, the Denver crowd seemed momentarily stunned with relief before exploding into cheers. Viewers at home could practically hear Charles Barkley back in the TNT studio foaming at the mouth at Westbrook's decision making. But Westbrook wasn't done. After Felton clanked a free throw that allowed the Thunder one final heave to send the game into overtime, Westbrook again played antihero-ball, dribbling up the court in a mad dash, and heaving a desperate attempt to draw a foul at the basket. Clang. Ball game.
All the while, I was thinking just one thing: Rondo would not have taken those shots.

Now, Westbrook is a fantastic player. He developed into an All Star this year, and his selection to the squad was well deserved. His bull-in-a-china-shop routine consistently gets him to the free throw line, where he knocks down a very respectable 85%. Combine this with his speed, strength, and freakish aggressiveness, and he has made himself one of the most difficult players to guard in the NBA. 
But in close games, the teams who win consistently are teams whose players know EXACTLY what their role is, and how best to perform that role. A point guard's job throughout the game, but especially in crunch time, is to find the best shot available, whether that's for themselves, or for a teammate; a role with which young stud point guards often struggle. Another good example is Derrick Rose, who has hoisted a shudder-inducing 29 three pointers in four playoff games so far (three more than the greatest three point shooter of all time, Ray Allen...hey, I'm just the messenger), and has made just 5 of them. Derrick, your shot selection...woof.
But Rondo, despite being one of the most confident young players in the league, doesn't take stupid shots. For whatever reason, they really aren't a part of his repertoire. He knows his limits, he knows his strengths, he knows the pieces he has around him, and plays within these parameters as well as (if not better than) anybody else in the NBA. He doesn't think of himself as a three point threat (thank goodness) or as his team's number one scoring option (unless he's being guarded by Tony Douglas). He knows all of the dangerous options the Celtics have on offense, he knows where they need the ball, and he knows when to get it to them. He knows that if he waits a split second, Ray Allen will be coming off a curl, his defender will have just received a bone-jarring pick from Kevin Garnett, and Allen will likely have an open jumpshot. Not just that, he also knows the spot on Ray's body that makes it easiest for him to catch, elevate, and shoot in that perfect, sweet motion. 
But more importantly, at the end of the game, Rondo knows who has the hot hand, and he knows how Doc Rivers' plays are drawn up. Doc's plays out of timeouts almost always have four scoring options and Rondo memorizes them flawlessly. He improvises when necessary, but does so intelligently, which leads to many easy baskets coming out of timeouts for the Celtics. 
Obviously, I'm not under the impression that Rondo is a perfect player; he's far from it. But he might be the perfect point guard for this particular team. We all know his flaws, and, honestly, we've all rehashed them so many times that sometimes I'm afraid we forget to appreciate the beautiful, cerebral brand of basketball that he plays when he is at his best, which he seems to save for the playoffs. So after watching several other young point guards struggle with their roles and identities in Round 1, it seems entirely appropriate that we take a moment and remember to appreciate how lucky we are to have Rondo. 
And while we are at it, we can drool over the fact that he will be facing Mike Bibby's corpse next round. Bring on the Heat!

Monday, April 25, 2011

Tony Allen Has All Your Reckless Quotes

He ain't playing like his arm is hurt. I think that's all for the birds right there. I don't think there's anything wrong with him. Everybody's banged up...I don't go to the media saying what's wrong with me. I don't go to my P.R. guy and say "put this out". I just fight through.
-Tony Allen

Tony. Buddy. I love the attitude, I love the swagger. I love the chip on your shoulder. It's what has made you such an entertaining player this season, and it's one of the things that makes your Grizzlies such a likable team.

*Smack!* BUT WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING?!

The Grizzlies have put themselves in a great situation, up 2-1 over the Spurs, the top seed out West. San Antonio has looked old and undersized against a young, hungry Grizzlies team. Now, Celtics fans from last year can attest to the fact that Tony Allen is, to say the least, a strange young man. But this particular quote is playing with a very dangerous fire.

If there's anything we know about playoff basketball these past couple years, it's that the vets don't go down easily, and sometimes all they need is a little motivation. Last year, the Celtics were being counted out before Quentin Richardson through an elbow at Garnett and both teams got into each other's faces on the sideline. Richardson followed up the altercation with a comment to the media calling Pierce and Garnett "actresses" and saying "I don't like them and they know it." 

This situation ended about as well for Q-Rich as throwing a rock at a hornet's nest. Boston went on a chainsaw-like tear, knocked off the Heat in 5, and blew through the Eastern Conference like a tornado through a trailer park before Kendrick Perkin's injury cost the Celtics the title in Game 7.

For the record, I still think Memphis holds the advantage in this series. I think they should be able to win tonight and go back to San Antonio with a commanding 3-1 series lead, especially if the Spurs front line is sporting a hobbled Antonio McDyess from his neck injury. But if San Antonio has been kickstarted, if they come back and win the series, and if Manu Ginobili plays pissed off, destroying everything in his path, this writer for one won't be incredibly surprised. And I'm pretty sure I'll know where to point my finger.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Brooms in Beantown

A case could be made that the Celtics just ripped through their ideal first round series, after polishing off the New York Knicks on Sunday afternoon at Madison Square Garden.

New York never really bothered to adjust to this. Miami might want to to take notes. (Actually, what am I saying? Hey Spoelstra, leave Ray open. Total choke artist. Jesus Bricksworth, we call him in Boston.)
To recap:
  • In Game 1, the Celtics were tested early, overcame a monster game from Amar'e Stoudemire, battled back from a double digit halftime lead, and ended up winning on a super clutch shot from Jesus Shuttlesworth himself.
  • In a second straight wake up game for Boston, Game 2 saw the Celtics up against one of the premier athletes/scorers in the NBA on a career night, and refusing to fold, pulling out the tough win.
  • In Game 3, Boston led wire-to-wire, and showed the kind of play on both offense and defense that could propel them to an 18th banner, if sustained.
  • And in Game 4, Boston started off with the defense and the offense to destroy the Knicks. They then (predictably) let their guard down, watched the lead slip away, and ultimately demonstrated their ability to shut down inferior teams.
Individually:
  • Most importantly, Rajon Rondo just submitted a vintage Playoff Rondo performance, averaging 18 points, 12 assists, and 8 rebounds against much inferior Knicks point guards. Best of all? Next round, he faces Mike Bibby's corpse. I'm currently drooling like my dog faced with a prime rib.
  • Ray Allen was...well, out of this world. 75% from three point range for the rest of the playoffs isn't going to continue, but late in the regular season, Boston was having trouble keeping Ray-Ray involved. From the looks of things, Boston's offense seems to have straightened out this particular rather inexplicable flaw.
  • Pierce is still a killer. Every time New York really threatened to come back, Pierce was able to knock down a big jumper to kill the rally. Plus he submitted a flashback performance in Game 3, dropping 38 points. 
  • KG continues to put forward performances that smell much more like 2008 than 2010. And believe me, the 2008 product was a much better fragrance.
  • Jermaine O'Neal has been the most pleasant surprise of the playoffs so far for Boston. Nobody really expected him to come back this season, so to see him moving so freely on defensive rotations and hitting jumpers over shorter post players is enough to make Celtic fans cautiously optimistic that he could be an impact player on both ends of the floor as well. Pardon me while I shake my head a little to clear it.
  • The bench mob of the Celtics was terrible in Games 1-3, but Game 4 saw some encouraging signs from Baby Davis, who seemed to get his jumper back on track in the first half, Nenad Krstic hustling on defense and on the offensive boards, and Delonte West striking up some combative swagger that he desperately needs to perform at a high level.
In other series:
  • Chicago is getting exposed as a one-trick horse on offense in a tough series against the Pacers. Admittedly, their one trick is Derrick Rose, which is a bit like saying that Secretariat was a one trick horse, but still...
  • Miami is facing a tough test from an inferior team and, after losing Sunday afternoon, has given Boston's aging stars one of the things they covet most: a few more days of rest. 
  • Atlanta has positioned themselves very well to knock off Dwight Howard's Magic, and Howard is the one player who could single-handedly hurt the Celtics the most.
I'm not saying the Celtics are by any means the prohibitive favorites to come out of the East; they spluttered their way through the end of the regular season a little too much to claim that status after four straight wins against a hobbled, out-of-sorts Knicks' team.

But it never hurts a championship contender to be tested and woken up a bit in the first round, especially a team full of vets like Boston. And with Shaq likely to come back against Miami, adding to a frontline that includes Jermaine and Krstic, as well as a baaad mismatch at point guard, and over a week's worth of rest before the series starts, Boston has to be encouraged by what it has seen so far in the postseason.

Now join me for a second...