17 for Them … and One for Us
One day long after Russell and the Cooz and Hondo have joined Red, Reggie and D.J. upstairs, one day when Bird too is talked about in the past tense and TD Banknorth Garden is referred to as “the old house”, I’ll look back on this day. Maybe I’ll be bouncing a grandkid on my lap. Maybe I’ll be perched on a park bench talking to anyone who’ll listen. But I’ll have a story. A story worth telling. One worth hearing. And I’ll recount it as if it were yesterday…
If one non-defensive play in Game 6 of the 2008 NBA Finals typified the champs it came in the second quarter with the Celtics leading 32-29. Paul Pierce drove and missed a four-footer; Glen Davis grabbed the rebound and went back up with authority but missed. Pierce beat everyone to the ensuing board and after gaining control of the ball kicked it out to Eddie House for a corner trey, which he struck off the back of the iron. James Posey hustled after the long board, hauled it in and threw it back up top for a reset. He went on to assume his place in the left corner, and on cue, received the ball on a crisp rotation from House and buried a three.
All told it was a 34-second possession for the Celtics, a possession that not only defined their stranglehold on the ’08 Finals but underscored what had been the m.o. of the champs from the word go: An undying total team commitment to hustle. From Player 1 (Pierce) to Player 6 (Posey) to Player 11 (Big Baby) — on coach Doc Rivers’ very loosely interpreted depth chart — the focus and dedication was there from the beginning and was highlighted by one microcosmic play that effectively marked the end. The 35-29 spread that resulted from that play would prove to be the closest the Lakers would ever get in what became the most lopsided clinching game in NBA Finals history.
The Lakers as a team were overmatched, which in light of Game 6 was an understatement. And while it would be difficult to find anyone who would dispute that Pierce was the best player in the series (he was the unanimous MVP on all nine ballots), you need look no further than the end of Game 5 for confirmation of said fact. A day after mounting the greatest comeback in Finals history the Celtics had staged yet another furious rally in the fourth quarter of Game 5, cutting a 14-point LA lead to two in the final minute. Much of the damage had been inflicted by Pierce, who through his trademark herky-jerky drives was getting to the basket with such consistency and ease that he had the entire Lakers team on its heels — literally.
As Paul crossed midcourt, ball in hand with the Celtics trailing 97-95, Kobe Bryant — the best player to lace em up since the best of all-time hung em up — waited in his defensive stance. When Pierce went to make his move Kobe darted behind him and back-tapped the ball away from a stunned Pierce. Lamar Odom scooped up the loose ball and threw a lob to Kobe — whose momentum had carried him into the backcourt — and Bryant threw down a two-handed slam that unofficially sent the series back to Boston for Game 6.
Dig a little deeper and you might be perplexed. For Kobe to make such a calculated gamble (back taps are successful about 25 percent of the time and fatal the other 75 percent because failed ones turn into five-on-four situations) with the lead meant only one thing: He knew he couldn’t stop Pierce.
Kobe couldn’t handle the Truth blowing by him for a game-tying or series-clinching bucket on his floor, in his town.
So he gambled (something, by the way, one Michael Jordan only did recreationally off the court). And while the gamble paid off (think going all in preflop in Texas Hold’Em with a pair of twos), Kobe showed his hand. He, the three-time champ and league MVP, needed one man-em-up defensive stand to seal the game and send the Lakers back to Beantown. But he chose not to man up Pierce, who had already dropped 38 in his house and was sniffing 40, 41, and most significantly, 17. Instead he resorted to a playground maneuver reserved for crafty old guys whose knees no longer permit them to get into a crouch and shuffle their feet.
That was the moment I knew it was over, even if it was actually the moment when we found out it was not. But it didn’t matter because Kobe had already given up. Not on his teammates, he had pretty much given up on them after Game 2. By virtue of that desperation play in a non-desperation situation Kobe essentially made it known he had come as far as he could, that there was a player in green who wanted it more than he did and could back it up on the court. And there wasn’t anything the MVP could do about it except roll the dice.
Of course Paul’s performance in itself was MVP-worthy. But it was validated by the best player in the world when he simply yielded to a colleague performing at a higher level. I never thought I’d view a turnover as a watershed moment in defining the greatness of someone I considered to be one of my heroes, but 40 years from now I’ll remember Game 5 of the ’08 Finals as the night Paul Pierce lost the game yet still owned LA.
I’ll also recall the Posey trey in Game 6, how on that 34-second possession the Celtics threw the final knockout blows by refusing to cede the ball, the game, the opportunity. The series ended then and there. The party began while the game turned into an up and down affair with one team playing its best ball in 22 years and another looking a lot like the Washington Generals. Like all vacations, the one that spanned the last two and a half quarters of the 2008 season didn’t last long enough.
I wasn’t ready for any of it. The score, the green confetti, the chills. But then I watched them react to it, and the crowd in turn to them, and it started to make sense. Nobody was prepared for it. For about an hour after the Celtics won their 17th championship the Garden was an uncensored window into the reactive mechanisms of a delirious team and its loyal followers.
First Pierce — apparently forgetting what sport he was playing — snuck up behind Doc Rivers and emptied a Gatorade cooler over the head of the (genuinely) surprised coach. The result was a few gallons of fruit punch splashing onto a parquet historically known to be covered in cigar ashes in similar moments. That prompted play-by-play guy Mike Breen to let us know that we’d be having “one more timeout.”
Let’s not forget about the crowd, which likely became the first fan contingent to get a “Dee-fense” chant going during the Larry O’Brien trophy presentation. These folks have always known the game of basketball, and when Doc Rivers responded to a question about how the whole thing got started by saying “defense”, they knew it was an appropriate final laudatory chorus for the champs.
Then there was Kevin Garnett. KG. The literal beating heart of the champs. On the verge of collapsing and nearly in convulsions while being propped up by Leon Powe, who assured him, “I got you, I got you”, Garnett had transformed into a half paralyzed, blissful wreck of a man.
When Michele Tafoya pulled him aside — with confetti already starting to dot the floor — and asked him what it meant to finally be an NBA champion, KG was speechless. He stood still for a few seconds, intense as ever, trying to harness millions of thoughts and emotions, before rearing back and bellowing “Anything’s possible!!! Anything’s possibllllllllllllle!!!”. By the time he gathered himself he was foaming at the mouth and letting out an exuberant and passionate train of thought, half screaming, half whimpering, wholly fulfilling.
As soon as he finished he found his mentor waiting for him a few hardwood squares away. Bill Russell embraced Garnett, the greatest champion to ever compete in athletics and one of the most emotionally drained champions you’ll ever see.
One-to-seventeen, they were all accounted for in that embrace.
By the time I’m on that park bench or at a birthday party in outer space for my 10-year old grandkid the Celtics may very well have won another 17 titles. Or perhaps not. Maybe they’ll go into a 22-year drought beginning with the 2037 season. Scores more or zero more, I’ll remember only one like it was yesterday. That’s number 17. The one that connected the old generation to the new. The one that gave life to the tradition after years upon years of retold stories of unseen glories.
Thanks to the 2008 Celtics, one day that job — the duty of adding a personalized link to the most storied basketball chain for the benefit of a younger and possibly less fortunate Green generation — will finally be mine.