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The Boston Garden’s Reborn

You know it was another special night at the Garden when 1) there was a Jesus Shuttlesworth sighting for the first time in these playoffs, 2) Kevin Garnett torched the Pistons for 33 points and wasn’t even the second biggest story of the evening, and 3) the Celtics moved into territory unfamiliar to every Green team since 1987.

In decoded speak, the previous paragraph reads like this: Ray Allen (finally!) became Ray Allen again, Kendrick Perkins went all Bill Russell on us for three quarters, and the Celtics positioned themselves within a win of the NBA Finals for the first time in 21 years.

Phew.

Yes, the Celtics’ 106-102 triumph in Game 5 of the 2008 Eastern Conference finals indeed doubled as a throwback evening in the North Station area of Boston.

Ray Allen emphatically returned with 29 huge points — including 5-for-6 on threes and a cold-blooded dagger with just over a minute left when Detroit had cut a 15-point fourth quarter deficit to one.

The Celtics were on their heels after a Rodney Stuckey trey made it a 100-99 game — the closest it had been since (who else?) Allen had put the Celtics ahead for good, 44-42, way back in the second quarter. On a sideline out of bounds play with precious few seconds on the shot clock, Allen took a pass from James Posey and from deep in the left corner buried the longest-possible two point shot (he had a foot on the line). He would add a couple of clutch free throws to basically ice the game.

Then there was Perkins: 18 points (8-for-11 shooting), 16 rebounds, two blocks and two steals. The line actually doesn’t do the effort justice because Perkins–like many of his teammates–pulled a disappearing act in the fourth quarter. That doesn’t change the impact he had on the game throughout the first three quarters, though.

Perk was unstoppable on both the defensive and offensive glass all night, and when he felt an opportunity to take advantage of a one-on-one, he made decisive moves to the basket, scoring almost at will. In one sequence at the beginning of the third quarter Kevin Garnett missed a long jumper; Perkins positioned himself and hauled in the offensive board, felt single coverage from Antonio McDyess and calmly backed him down before sinking a turnaround shot. A few minutes later he swatted Jason Maxiell’s layup attempt, which led to a shot clock violation for the Pistons. He sported a KG-like scowl running back up the floor as the arena wildly applauded.

Garnett himself was not to be forgotten either. He maintained his standing as best player in the series, dropping that 33 on 11-for-17 shooting, including 10-for-12 from the line and a banked trey at the shot clock buzzer a little before halftime.

However, KG’s performance–like his team’s win–wasn’t perfect. He continued to be determinedly unselfish; on a few occasions he forced an extra pass into the painted area when he could’ve pulled up for his trademark midrange jumper.The Celtics had chances to put the game away late but couldn’t adequately defend the three point line as the Pistons drained four from downtown in the final session.

Of course there’s the venerable but nettling Rajon Rondo. The young point guard made up for his peculiar nonchalance handling the ball (between ill-fated behind the back passes and way-too-slow high-arcing lobs into the paint, Rondo just may send poor Bob Cousy into an early grave) by dishing out 13 assists and recording four steals.

Some may say this isn’t the time for splitting hairs, considering the Boston Celtics sit on the cusp of the franchise’s first Finals appearance since Bird lost to Magic in ’87. But just like those Lakers that beat the Green two decades prior, the ’08 Lakers are a formidable machine run by an all-time great ultimately trying to match his predecessor’s five rings. These Celtics are going to have to find yet another gear if they intend to reach their ultimate goal.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. They still have to get one more from the Pistons. It’s starting to feel like deja vu, basketball’s version of the movie “Groundhog Day”, but the situation is once again the same: The C’s road-tripping to try and vanquish an opponent in a Game 6 with the safety net of a final decisive game in Beantown on a Sunday.

The way they showed up in Detroit for Game 3, you gotta feel good about their chances to break the mold and advance after Game 6. And with the way they’ve played in the Garden (5-0 in Game 5s and 7s, 10-1 overall), you gotta love their chances of pulling into the title round of the NBA playoffs, even if it takes every last possible game to do so.

No matter what, something special has been happening on that parquet these last six weeks and Game 5 against Detroit was another example.

Be it legends on the sidelines, banners hanging in the rafters or mysterious bounces of free throws (from Paul Pierce’s clanker that somehow found nylon to clinch Game 7 against Cleveland to KG’s that finished off the Pistons in Game 5, it’s time to officially stamp the phenomenon “the Red roll”) going the way of the Celtics, there’s an aura that isn’t just a season or a few careers in the making.

It’s generations upon generations. And it’s powerful.

See you for Game 7 or Game 1.

Pierce and Lebron’s Epic Battle

Paul Pierce stood at the free throw line, stoically, mentally preparing for the uncontested shot he was about to take.

The Celtics led 95-92 with seven seconds left in Game 7 against Cleveland, and after the array of jays he had dropped in a for-the-ages showdown with Lebron James, a single point from the charity stripe seemed like a mere footnote on excellence.

The referee bounced the rock to Paul. A chant started to reverberate throughout The Garden, the timing of which was–to say the least–peculiar.

“M-V-P, M-V-P!!, M-V-P!!!!!” sang out the crowd nearly in unison.

Then, as if sensing its visceral reaction was slightly misplaced and maybe premature, the stadium came to a prompt hush as Pierce was about to release the ball.

As he let it go, his face said it all. Long. Way long.

What happened next was a little mysterious, and the rest miraculous. The ball unorthodoxly bounced off the back rim, up and away … then back down again, passing through the nylon on its way.

Paul’s expression went from horror to elation in, well, a single bounce of the ball.

His 40th point gave the Celtics a 96-92 lead. Moments later, his 41st point closed out the scoring of a masterpiece seventh-game.

After a spectacle throughout which–at worst–Paul’s shots deigned to hit the rim, you had to wonder: Did the “MVP” chant momentarily strip Pierce of his focus or did he simply clank a free throw at the most inopportune and unlikely time?

In the postgame press conference, Paul didn’t articulate his thoughts behind the brick, but he seemed sure of how the ball managed to find its way into the cylinder.

“It’s the ghost of Red just looking over us,” he said. “I think he kind of tapped it in the right direction and it went through the net, and it put a smile on my face.”

If it was indeed the restless spirit of Red Auerbach, it’s fitting that the departed Celtics patriarch found a way to make his presence felt in this epic Game 7.

It was the proverbial takes-years-off-your-life cardiac affair, rife with pulsating drama, cascades of emotion, and history in the making. The kind of game that used to take place regularly when Red’s cigar still burned on the sideline.

Staged in tandem by the league’s global icon and one of its underrated superstars, played on its most fabled hardwood beneath 16 championship banners, the underrated superstar–carrying the legacies of many men on his back–simply refused to let the global icon (45 points) write the next chapter of his own legacy.

Paul and Lebron. Lebron and Paul.

The two, playing ostensibly a surreal game of one-on-one, went blow for blow. It was Bird-‘Nique and Ali-Frazier-esque. It brought back memories that any Celtics fan under the age of 30 only has through family anecdotes, ESPN Classic and YouTube.

When it was over and the Celtics had prevailed, survived, escaped–however you want to put it–the clock read 6:31 pm. Afternoon may have turned into evening outside on Causeway Street, but inside TD Banknorth Garden for three hours on a Sunday, time stood still.

Again and again Lebron tormented better than 18,000 rowdy proponents of Celtic pride. Sometimes he exhibited brute power by forcing his way to the basket; others he deftly utilized high screens to bury threes.

Over and over Pierce responded.

“Tonight was basically ‘get the ball to Paul Pierce and get the hell out of the way’,” said a revering Kevin Garnett at the podium next to Pierce. “Ya’ll don’t have to ask any questions, that was the game plan.”

From the opening tip Paul dazzled with his jumpers, dug deep to man up Lebron in key situations defensively, and then delivered the psychological knockout blow, slipping by Lebron in pursuit of a crucial jump ball with the Celtics nursing a 91-88 lead in the last minute. He tipped the ball away from James, raced towards midcourt, dove and secured it before calling a timeout.

The house erupted as Pierce lay on the parquet with the basketball still clenched in his arms, fists pounding, exhausted, soaking in the imminence of victory. Once again, his body language spoke for itself.

Afterwards, Lebron succinctly put the pervasive feeling into words: “Obviously Game 7 in The Garden, I knew this was history. This will go down in history.”

“I look forward to seeing it on [ESPN] Classic in three or four days,” Garnett added.

“Straight up.”

Home is Sweet in NBA’s Second Round

Hedo Turkoglu held the ball as time expired in Game 4 of the Magic-Pistons series. With four seconds left he drove to the left, created separation and tossed up an off-balance floater that came up short. Dwight Howard’s follow also missed. Two good looks. Two misses.

The buzzer sounded and the Pistons won the game, 90-89.

More telling, Detroit became the first team to win on the road in the second round of the 2008 playoffs. Through the first four games of each second round series, home teams are 15-1. After witnessing Turkoglu and Howard’s successive point-blank botches, one can only think how close it has come to a clean-home sweep thus far in the conference semifinals.

That one home “L”, endured by Orlando, enabled the Pistons to carry a comfy 3-1 series lead back to the Motor City. The other three series (Lakers-Jazz, Hornets-Spurs, Celtics-Cavs) are all knotted at home-cooked 2-2 splits.

Historically, it is very tough to come back from an 0-2 deficit — only 13 teams have done it; most recently Cleveland against Detroit in the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals. However, much is made of “momentum swings” in playoff series, and judging from the way Utah, San Antonio and Cleveland have played since going down 0-2, it is safe to say they all have the momentum on their side heading back on the road.

The Lakers, Hornets and Celtics each find themselves in the undesirable position of having squandered a 2-0 lead, and are currently having to answer questions about what went wrong and how they will be affected going forward. The pressure is on them, the perceived favorites.

Here’s where the “momentum swing” argument fails though: In all three of the even-steven matchups, teams have systematically dominated on their home court, and been undressed on the road.

The Lakers beat the Jazz twice at Staples Center, by an average of 10.5 points. They defended, ran the floor, and moved the ball with almost effortless fluidity. Games 3 and 4 in Salt Lake City? Not so much. While the Lakers lost a couple of close games (104-99 and 123-115 in OT), their ability to dictate the pace of the game–and more importantly, prevent Deron Williams from doing so–vanished.

They frequently played from behind, and in Game 4 when Kobe was in pain and trying to do too much, the only reason they forced overtime was because Derek Fisher and Lamar Odom went on simultaneous fourth-quarter tears (10 points a piece).

The Hornets-Spurs series (aka the “third quarter series”) has seen the home team win every game by double digits. Close games have turned into blowouts in the third quarters, with the Hornets holding a 65-35 advantage in third quarter scoring in New Orleans. The Spurs have returned the favor in San Antonio, running the Hornets of out Games 3 and 4 by an aggregate 59-41 in the third period. The games have turned so lopsided it hasn’t even been worth watching the fourth quarters in this series.

Finally, there are the Celtics and Cavs. Boston, the team that began the trend with its head-scratching futility on the road against the Hawks in round one, has ceased to regain the form that won it a league-best 31 games on the road in the regular season. After holding Cleveland to under 74 points in both games at TD Banknorth Garden, the Celtics gave up 108 and 88 at Quicken Loans Arena in Games 3 and 4.

They have been unflappable at home (Kevin Garnett took over Game 1 in the final 90 seconds), and have thoroughly flopped on the road. If there is a silver lining to the Celtics concerning home/road discrepancy, it’s that the other second round matchups combined have become a microcosm of the Celtics entire playoff run. Boston is 6-0 at home, and 0-5 on the road. Not including the Celtics-Cavs series, home teams are 11-1 in the second round.

A case study of these playoffs would indicate that home crowds in general have become louder and more rambunctious, that they have more decisively affected the outcomes of games than ever before. That is false. Just ask Lakers fans who inhabited the LA Forum during their run to four titles in the 80s. Or Celtics fans who deafened opponents in the Boston Garden over three decades and 16 NBA championships.

The real explanation for this peculiarity is parity. All the teams still standing are very good. None are great. The Spurs are the closest thing to a great team, but their most dominant days are behind them. Are they still capable of winning a title? Yes, but they will never again do it with the brutal efficiency of past Tim Duncan teams.

It may appear that the Spurs, along with the Jazz and Cavs, have it all going at the right time. Momentum can be deceiving, though. It obviously frustrates the Hornets, Lakers and Celtics, having given up 2-0 advantages — but they still understand they aren’t going anywhere until someone comes into their house and slams the door shut.

MLB “Cinco de Mayo” Fantasy Points

It’s Cinco de Mayo. 30 games are in the books. You know what that means.

Time to begin critically evaluating your fantasy team.

What is your injury situation? Who has underperformed? Who has exceeded expectations? Do you have good balance between offense and pitching? What’s the greater makeup of the league you are competing in? How are you feeling about your squad?

Unless your team is sitting pretty at the top of the standings, chances are you have concerns; chances are most, if not all of the above stated questions are relevant.

Let’s tackle the most cut and dry topic first: Injuries. They are often unforeseen, and are usually unavoidable. That goes for real and fantasy teams alike. Whenever a blue-chipper goes down, a ripple effect ensues. What’s interesting so far this year is that injuries to big name players (Jimmy Rollins, Alfonso Soriano, Scott Kazmir, John Lackey) have had no negative impact on their clubs.

The Phillies and Angels have withstood the losses of Rollins and Lackey; both lead their respective divisions. The Cubs are two games ahead of their pace from last year (18-13 as opposed to 16-15) despite the loss/abysmal start of Soriano. And the Rays just polished off their best April in team history without the services of their ace, Kazmir. Even predictable injuries to Rich Harden and Pedro Martinez have not slowed down their clubs. The A’s and Mets are each within a game of first place in the loss column.

Fantasy owners haven’t been so lucky. While guys like Pedro and Harden have become mid to late round “high risk/high reward picks”, Rollins and Soriano are first and second rounders; Kazmir and Lackey are frequently among the top 10 or 15 starters chosen. Their absence has been an early critical blow to fantasy teams far and wide, specifically in roto leagues.

Even though Lackey and Rollins are close to coming back (Kazmir and Soriano are already playing again) their roto value is automatically diminished because of the time they missed. Barring a supersonic final five months from these guys, you can expect about a 15 percent drop-off in their 2008 stats. Because every fantasy team is built around a few choice stars like them, that can be the difference between a top-three finish and middle of the pack.

In head to head leagues, as long as your team isn’t buried in the standings today, you’ve got nothing to worry about. Since cumulative stats don’t matter in head to head, it’s of no consequence that Lackey finishes with 14 wins instead of 18 or that Rollins scores 108 runs as opposed to 135. You will still maximize their production from here on out.

The next major issue confronting fantasy owners is trying to diagnose the poor starts of established blue-chippers. Jose Reyes, David Ortiz, Ryan Howard, Justin Verlander and Travis Hafner headline this category. With the exception of Hafner–who seems to have lost his craft–roto owners should not be sweating the paltry numbers put up by those perennial fantasy catalysts. Play them everyday; when all is said and done the numbers will be there.

This time it’s the head to head owners who must start rethinking strategy. Since stats are only accrued on a weekly basis, consistently starting a slumping-Ortiz (.216/5/24) or Howard (.167/6/14 and 45 K’s) can be detrimental. They currently carry too much baggage to warrant putting them out there everyday. Of course there’s always the chance they’ll go off for multiple home runs on any given night, but so goes the double edged sword that is head to head fantasy management.

Be it head to head or roto, it is frustrating to managers that the Howards and Verlanders have been so unproductive, but baseball is a long season. The players we have talked about are too good at what they do to fizzle for longer than what equates to a small sample size (again, with the exception of Hafner).

Looking at the other end of that spectrum is important as well. That’s right; role players who have far exceeded expectations to the point of becoming overvalued. Xavier Nady (.347/4/30). Nate McLouth (.323/7/25). Josh Willingham (.341/6/16). Ryan Church (.318/4/22).

All are on ridiculous, career defining paces at the moment, but all will come back to earth sooner or later. This can be a delicate situation in roto leagues. Ideally for each fantasy manager employing a Nady, that manager also has a Howard. That way when the sample size becomes larger (ie when Howard turns it up and Nady levels off), the players will continue to offset one another and the overall team quality will be sustained.

However, if Nady is carrying your team and you’ve suffered no major injuries or slumps, it might be time to make a move. Maximize his selling value now and see if you can’t shore up a weakness (this is a good time to address bullpen issues). Of course, making deals requires having a feel for the climate of the league — are the managers generally tight, therefore hesitant to make deals (designated NBFT: Need Based Fantasy Trader)? Or are they ready and wanting to trade at will (designated CFT: Compulsive Fantasy Trader)?

If you’re in a league with primarily CFTs, don’t hesitate and wait for the other shoe to drop. Now is the time to sell high. If there are predominately NBFTs in your league, keep an eye on the waiver wire, maintain faith in the players you drafted, and wait another month or so before pondering deals. That’s what the real GMs do.

Celtics Back on Planet Earth

It is the series that wasn’t supposed to be. The series that still is.

The Celtics-Hawks … series??

Just a bit embarrassing for a 66-win team that expected to win four games on cruise control — especially in light of the thrashings administered in Games 1 and 2. But sometime after Game 2 in Boston and somewhere below the Mason Dixon Line, the Celtics lost their mojo. They were clearly without it when they arrived at Phillips Arena in Atlanta for Game 3.

They definitely didn’t find it again until they got back to Beantown for Game 5.

Now, with the Green set for a return to the deep south for Game 6–a game that until Monday was supposed to be permanently tagged “if necessary” on the schedule–I can’t help but think: Maybe this was a good thing.

Maybe the Celtics needed a jolt of life. Maybe they needed to hear the words “greatest choke in Boston sports history” tossed around the city between fans and writers in a karmic game of catch. Maybe they needed to wake up and smell the playoffs.

The Celtics played an entire 82-game season on a higher plateau than the rest of the league — in terms of both intensity and performance. Their critics (who also happen to be Kevin Garnett’s critics) have been saying it all along — that once the playoffs begin and the intensity level rises, teams will be able to close the gap on KG and the Celtics.

The numbers are there to back up the theory. Going back to 2001, the only team to win a title after posting the best regular season record in the league was the 2003 Spurs (and Dallas matched San Antonio’s 60 wins that year). Recent notable unforeseen playoff exits by regular season giants include the 62-win Suns in ’05, and the 64-win Pistons in ’06.

Who can forget last year, when Dallas won 67 games before winning all of two in the playoffs against Golden State.

Thus the theory is sound.

The theory being that it is tough to sustain such a consistently elite performance level when the slate is wiped clean and the competition becomes tougher. For those regular season juggernauts, the record next to the name served to reinforce that air of invincibility for the better part of six months. However, once the playoffs begin and that record disappears, opponents use it as fuel.

What’s more intimidating? The 66-16 Celtics or the 0-0 Celtics?

That’s just it; perception is reality. Obviously the Celtics know how good they are, and with such an apparent round one mismatch on their hands, those 66 wins swelled up their heads when in fact they should have been relegated to the recesses of their collective consciousness.

The Hawks on the other hand, heading back home, saw 2-0. It may sound simplistic but a 2-0 team is eminently more beatable than a 66-16 team. And what happened? The older and cockier Celtics got beaten down by the younger and more exuberant Hawks. Not once, but twice.

Were they panicking when they left Atlanta tied (or better yet, down) 2-2? No. But they were perplexed. They were forced to reevaluate, forced to reflect — not on 66 wins, but on two losses.

What they learned as a result of that reevaluation was that for two games against Atlanta they got away from the traits that had truly defined them all season: defense and hustle.

They didn’t contest shots. They did a miserable job of containing the penetration of Joe Johnson. They allowed Josh Smith to run circles around them.

Most importantly, they got outplayed by a team that showed more grit and simply wanted it more than they did (see: Al Horford and Zaza Pachulia).

So how can all that be construed in a positive way? Because the Hawks were never going to beat the Celtics, even they know that deep down. But the Celtics were inevitably going to suffer a lapse. That’s what happens when you’re wearing a bullseye on your back. Usually in the playoffs, a lapse equates to elimination. Against any other team, particularly the team (Cleveland) likely greeting Boston in the second round, such a lapse would have been fatal.

Consider it a get-out-of-jail-free card.

Now the question becomes can the Celtics channel this infusion of life the feisty Hawks have given them? Can they now re-begin the playoffs in the same fashion they began the regular season?

The answer will come in a Game 6 nobody ever thought was going to happen in the first place.