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Posts from the ‘NBA 2008’ Category

Redeem Team Does US Proud

Anyone who watched Kobe Bryant get thoroughly handled by Paul Pierce and the Boston Celtics in the 2008 NBA Finals knew the other shoe would drop soon enough.

The guy has never been able to stomach losing — from growing up in Italy challenging his dad’s teammates to games of one-on-one as a tyke to rounding into the force that has competed for five NBA championships, it’s always been win or bust for the Black Mamba.

That said, the spanking his Lakers took in June at the hands of an old rival registered a full 11 on the Kobe revenge-o-meter. If there hadn’t been a certain hardwood redemption project in the works, you could’ve probably found him busting guys up on the Venice Beach courts all summer. A reassertion of the MVP’s supremacy was not only necessary, it was imminent. The only question was who would draw the short straw.

To describe the Beijing Olympics as timely would be to understate the urgency of Kobe’s desire to restore the basketball order.

Thus it was fitting that Spain — and not a wannabe And One Mixtape contingent from Inglewood — fell victim to the Mamba’s wrath. It was also revealing — considering that until the waning minutes of the final game the (no longer “so-called”) Redeem Team was able to thrive with the world’s best player serving as an auxiliary.

Kobe the role player? On this team he was, they all were. Which is why it was downright inspiring to see a group of the game’s greatest check their egos at customs, band together as a unit and take back what has always been rightfully America’s: title of best balling nation on the planet.

It was a spectacle to behold from the beginning of the eight-game run to redemption. Assembled by Jerry Colangelo and spurred on by Mike Krzyzewski, Team USA played suffocating defense, exhibited sincere unselfishness, finished quarters strong, refused to respond to the pugnacious ploys of other countries, and visibly relished representing their homeland.

Fluid and flawless as their performance was on the court (average margin of victory: 27.9 points), so too was their work as ambassadors off it. As opposed to the bad taste USA Basketball left in the mouths of most everyone associated with the 2004 Athens Games, the players this time around embraced their status as representatives of their nation.

In a country where Kobe Bryant and Lebron James are as popular as Yao Ming, 12 tall gentlemen were crucial to shaping the American image in China. If accessibility and amiability were tallied in points, the score would’ve been in the thousands for the Redeem Team.

Again, with the reclusive and moody Athens squad as the most recent basis for comparison, the 2008 team registered a PR blowout. They kicked it in the Olympic Village, dined out, signed countless autographs, attended other events in different venues, soaked up the vast cultural and touristic offerings of the host country — all the while living a kind of existence only the Beatles could relate to. Which is to say the experience was equal parts thrilling and daunting.

Overwhelming as the reception may have been at times, they were in it together, a team united as much off the court as on, which not only bolstered the image of their sport and country but demonstrated how they’ve all caught up to the game the world has caught up to. A team game.

From Carmelo Anthony’s rugged international style to smooth Chris Paul’s million dollar smile, from Lebron’s vocal leadership to Jason Kidd’s experience, Dwyane Wade’s panache and Kobe’s competitiveness, these 12 men came to embody everything we as Americans could’ve hoped for: charming, witty, classy winners.

So I found myself nodding my head when Kobe took over the gold-medal game late, having a hand in 18 of Team USA’s final 27 points in a thrilling fourth quarter that tested the resolve of Team Redeem. His time had come after all, the time to reaffirm his place as the best player in the world. He hadn’t forced it though, hadn’t once unleashed the revenge-seeking Black Mamba just because he could. There was something far greater at stake, and he knew it. They all did.

That was the spirit of this squad. All for one.

For that reason USA Basketball has respectfully regained it’s throne atop the basketball world. And they did it on the world’s terms, not their own. They did it the right way.

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…

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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.

Celtics 131

Lakers 92

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.

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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.

 

 

 

 

It’s a Tough Road in the Finals

Just when it seemed like Lakers-Celtics would be the revival act for David Stern’s league, old friend (as in: seedy scumbag) Tim Donaghy had to resurface and cast a dark shadow over the whole shebang. Donaghy — from whatever hole he’s in awaiting sentencing for fixing NBA games — issued a statement before Game 3 of the Finals, alleging that Game 6 of the 2002 Western Conference finals between LA and Sacramento was handed to the Lakers by corrupt officials via an inordinate free throw discrepancy at the end of the game (LA shot 27 free throws in an unequivocally fishy fourth quarter).

This came, of course, after the Celtics took Game 2 from LA at least partly because of a 38-10 advantage in free throw attempts, and before the tables were turned in Game 3, when the Lakers prevailed after being awarded 12 more freebies than Boston.

The ensuing tempest had the talking heads crying foul and the conspiracy theorists filling up their think tank with pointed skepticism. I’m not about to dispute them; some shady stuff has gone down in the NBA playoffs over the last five-plus years and there’s at least one guy who has tainted the entire game. The problem may or may not be systemic. But let’s be realistic. Donaghy is a weak and desperate man. And while at this point it’s nearly impossible to determine the validity of his claims, they are irrelevant to the matter at hand. The Celtics and Lakers were the two best teams in the NBA this year and are playing for the title. There is no fix.

Although I must say I’ve never seen anything like Game 2. It’s really quite simple: The Lakers got no calls; the Celtics got them all. From afar the disparity could be construed as illegitimate, when in fact it was merely a product of contrasting styles of play, and more significantly, the environment.

Lots has been written over the years (particularly by ESPN’s Sportsguy) about how crowds can adversely affect the outcomes of NBA playoff games. That when 18,000 people are united in cause and armed with mighty vocal cords they can succeed in fueling the home team, fazing the opponent and at times, freezing the refs. As an under-25 Celtics fan, this was one of the many truths I held to be self-evident, but never experienced.

Well, after an almost unfathomable act of generosity by my friend’s parents — yes, a ticket to Game 2 of Lakers-Celtics — I was given the opportunity to taste it for myself (and from row 12 no less). Now I may still be a relative newbie in the grand scheme of the sports spectrum, but over the years I’ve found ways to attend sporting events of great magnitude: Yanks-Sox in the 1999 and 2003 ALCS, LSU-Auburn with BCS title implications in 2007, and Game 6 of the 2002 Eastern Conference finals, to name a few.

None of them matched the vibe inside the Garden on Sunday night. From the second the lights went down and the lineups were introduced the place became a force unto itself. With 18,000-plus unified, the building felt like it was taking on a life of its own. There was always a sustained level of clamor. It would subside slightly when the Celtics had the ball and rise to spine-tingling crescendos when the Lakers did.

Moreover, watching the wide-eyed Los Angeles subs get eaten alive by the fierce, ball-hawking Celtics bench was like an intravenous shot of adrenaline into a mass of fans whose blood was already boiling. Leon Powe (21 points off the bench) had a lot to do with it as he emerged from the Celtics bench-by-committee and immediately started taking passes in the post and making strong, often bullish yet agile moves into the heart of the soft interior defense of the Lakers. Led by Powe, the Celtics dared LA to match them physically, and LA succumbed.

Everyone in the stands, in turn, time and again rose up with such wild fervor that nothing could be done to curb what was taking place on the parquet below. That a single man with a whistle could foil the unrelenting will of the faithful and tame the swarming Celtics was pure malarkey. The way they played in the second and third quarter and the way the crowd rabidly pulsated throughout it all made it next to impossible for the refs to impact the game. They could’ve swapped their whistles for paintball guns and still wouldn’t have had a chance of halting play when the Celtics were being perhaps a tad overly aggressive. The arena simply wouldn’t allow it.

A series of Powe throw-downs at the end of the third quarter had me believing that if the old Garden was still sitting next door it would’ve crumbled after being rocked by the tremors emanating from the new house. So you’re telling me that in this environment, a wrist-slap on an ensuing Lakers possession was going to be identified and whistled by a referee? I think not.

Now is that the way it’s supposed to be? Probably not. Crowds — while an integral aspect of the game — should not be able to sway the outcome and render the officials mere bystanders. But time was, that’s how it went down; that’s one of the reasons why the Boston Garden and LA Forum produced nearly half of all NBA titles. That sense of intimacy, of a stake in the action, that’s what has made basketball the unique professional sport from a fan perspective.

Unfortunately that which has given basketball its identity — the ability of a crowd to rise up and become a greater force than the men policing the game — is now threatening the game itself. And it’s all because of (hopefully) a single “rogue” (Stern’s word) official. Let’s get something straight: Calling fouls in basketball is, and has always been, purely subjective. Bodies clash and hands check on every possession of every game. It is the job of the referees to control the chaos.

There’s a monumental difference between refs getting swept up in the moment and attempting to dictate it for personal gain. During the heyday of the league, the former used to happen with great frequency. At this juncture we can only hope that Donaghy’s claims are those of a soulless and desperate man, that some semblance of the game’s integrity can ultimately be preserved.

What we can’t allow to happen is for the abhorrent transgressions of one to sully what remains a riveting throwback series between the two franchises that made the game what it is today. I finally experienced what I’d only previously known through lore, and nothing about what I watched was dirty. What it was was a singular and momentous two and half hours when fans and team together waged battle against an old adversary. That was always basketball at its finest. To hell with one man destroying what many far greater men worked so hard to build.

The Time Has Come for Pride

I don’t remember Magic’s sky hook. Was probably watching Sesame Street when Bird stole the ball. Definitely would’ve rather been fed than seen McHale clothesline Rambis.

Hello, I’m a 25-year-old Celtics fan. There are many others like me.

Forgive us, but this is quite a new experience.

For us, Celtic Pride is mythic. Sure, we feel it — strongly in fact. It’s odd, really. We’ve heard the stories; gripping first-person narratives of triumph and glory, of heart and soul. We’ve seen the legends in the flesh, maybe even had the chance to pick their brains in a restaurant or listen to them give a speech at the conclusion of basketball camp. We’ve watched the games–on ESPN Classic, on YouTube, on box set–and seen for ourselves how it all went down way back when.

We know who won, who scored, who coached, who called it, what the untold side stories were, what the stakes were, where the celebrations took place, when the foundation was laid, how the legacy was built, how it was sustained, and why everyone who’s not us will forever be green — with envy, that is.

Because of the tradition, the pride, we have three dimensions and 360 degrees of Celtic-history.

But it’s not real. It’s the greatest house of cards ever constructed. The most thoroughly and flawlessly conceived fairy tale.

Might as well call it the basketball Matrix because we’ve been plugged into it our entire lives: An alternate hoops universe strictly for our minds. It’s there to keep us proud, to prevent us from associating the Celtics during our youth with the Celtics. And through the passion and dedication of those around us, we have been made to believe that it is reality.

But it is not.

Reality for us is Reggie Lewis breaking our heart after discovering too late that his own was too weak. Reality for us is Dino Radja and Eric Montross as “the future”. Reality for us is M.L. Carr and 15 wins. Reality for us is Rick Pitino, the Kentucky Wildcats and a certain “door”. Reality for us is not-Tim Duncan.

Reality for us is 11 stab wounds.

So here we stand today, in the midst of a new reality. One that needs not be defined and substantiated by the past, only enhanced by it.

Today, that horrible September night seven and half years ago–when we almost lost Paul Pierce–seems long ago. And while it was so nearly the end, only in hindsight can we now see that it was in fact just the beginning.

We went from wondering if the first superstar to don the green since Reggie would ever play ball again, to watching him become the only Celtic to start all 82 games in the 2001-02 season. We were awestruck when he rained 46 points on Allen Iverson and the 76ers in the first deciding playoff game of his career. And we became believers when he singlehandedly led the greatest fourth-quarter comeback in NBA playoff history against the Nets in Game 3 of the 2002 Eastern Conference finals.

The Celtics bowed out at home in Game 6 that year, the deepest they had advanced in the playoffs since 1988. I was tucked away in the upper deck of the Fleet Center (“The Jungle”) that day, but I remember seeing perfectly the smile that beamed on Paul’s face when we stood as one for him after the final buzzer. I recall how the past year flashed before my eyes.

All of it had come so close to never happening.

The entire arena felt how he was thinking the same thing. I’m pretty sure it was that moment when Paul Pierce realized he’d never wear another uniform again and we all realized that one day his number would be hoisted up into those rafters—the Celtic pantheon—rightfully alongside all the great ones.

That was the day the journey really began, we just didn’t know at the time.

I did know it was the proudest moment I’d ever had as a Celtics fan because the pride I felt was 100 percent genuine and solely my own. It was also the most unique moment I’d ever had as a sports fan because it had nothing to do with winning or losing.

Seven-plus years later, it finally does. It would have never been possible without Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, but their addition and the subsequent return of the Celtics has at last given three dimensions and 360 degrees to what we now know officially began in 2002: the Paul Pierce era of the Boston Celtics.

Now, together, they are four wins from putting the finishing touch on that era and giving a new generation of fans their own stories to pass on. Four wins from sealing two legacies that needed the Celtics as desperately as the Celtics needed them. Four wins against the only team with which we have unsettled business.

Four wins from a restoration: The time has come for pride.

BEAT LA!

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.

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.

Superstars = Super NBA Playoffs

Suns-Spurs started it all. Chris Paul took over from there. Dwight Howard really did become Superman. Then there are those Kobe, Lebron and Garnett guys. They looked pretty good too.

The playoffs have only been in session five days, but already the performances have superseded the hype. (For the record, before this season I could have never envisioned writing that last sentence in reference to the NBA.)

Seriously though, TNT’s annual, unrelenting “40 Games in 40 Nights” promo used to be a deterrent that bordered on a turnoff to the casual NBA viewer. 40 games! 40 nights! If you watch them all you are officially a loser! TNT!

Now I’m counting off the days like you do on vacation. Five down, only 35 left… %$&#!!! Must have more TNT!

Excuse me for being blunt but if you’re a sports fan not watching these playoffs, well then, there’s just something wrong with you.

Now, let’s look at the aforementioned super-duper-stars, and use a Q+A format to help clarify what they may have in store for us giddy basketball fans…

Kevin Garnett

What can already be determined? That KG can smell it. It doesn’t make a difference that the Celtics are playing a team 29 games worse than them. It’s of no significance that each of the first two games has been over by the six minute mark of the second quarter. And it’s utterly inconsequential that a few boneheads on the Atlanta Hawks have actually had the audacity to suggest that 1) Celtics fans are bandwagon hoppers, and 2) their 37-win team matches up well with the 66-win Celtics and is capable of pulling the biggest upset in NBA playoff history (hey there Mike Bibby and Joshes Childress and Smith … better get those 9-irons polished). Once again, all that means nothing. If you’ve watched the first two games of this series and seen Garnett pummel Leon Powe after a huge dunk and claw at his jersey in the waning minutes of 20 point blowouts, then you see what I see. The man has picked up the scent. He’s honing in on it.

On a scale of 1 to 10, what is his “can win a series by himself” potential? 9.8 out of 10. KG doesn’t get the full 10 out of 10 because as dominant and intense as he is, he’s never been the go-to guy to take the last shot in a decisive playoff game. Part of that is because defenses collapse on him late in tight games. Another part is because he will have primetimers Pierce, Allen and Cassell lurking in his periphery when daggers must be dropped. But that doesn’t mean he can’t solely dictate a seven-game series. (Or four seven-game series’.)

What’s the verdict on the Celtics? (fingers experiencing uncontrollable spasms) N o .. Ba LL GAm E …. J I nX!!!!

Dwight Howard

What can already be determined? That Dwight Howard need not don the cape to validate his status as the hero reborn. What he did in the slam dunk contest this year transcended the event. What he is going to do to the rest of the league over the next decade may very well transcend the game (11-foot baskets?). What he has already done to Toronto is unkind. That would be score 54 points, beast 42 rebounds, and swat eight shots in two games. So… Yeah…

On a scale of 1 to 10, what is his “can win a series by himself” potential? 9.9 out of 10. A tiny notch ahead of Garnett because of his age but still lacking the perfect 10 because it is possible to get the ball out of his terrifying hands at the end of games. In fact, these playoffs will probably spawn the “hack-a-Howard” strategy because he only shoots 59% from the free throw line. Of course there’s always the chance that in crunch time he will shed would-be foulers like ants. He truly does have the power and quickness to unilaterally overrule futile foul attempts. That said, if you’re an opposing coach, you simply can’t let Dwight Howard throw one down in the last seconds of a tied playoff game. If it must entail lining up a wall of oversized pawns to thwart him, so be it. It must be noted that Howard’s options on the perimeter (Hedo Turkoglu and Rashard Lewis) for a game-winning kick-out are not as reliable as KG’s. That will inevitably mark Superman’s downfall (this year at least).

What’s the verdict on the Magic? A loss in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals to Boston (yes, that means the season-long anticipated showdown between the Pistons and Celtics will never happen because Dwight Howard says so).

Lebron James

What can already be determined? That the regular season means NADA to Lebron James, and that slights from alleged colleagues tend to rattle the King’s cage. I mean, is DeShawn Stevenson for real? Did he really go on record as calling Lebron “overrated”? The next time he gets posterized by King James with the quote “overrated” sprawled across the top does he get a copyrighted piece of the glossy-revenue? What–for goodness sake–was this guy thinking? Not a wise move considering Lebron has made it a habit of burning anyone who questions his greatness.

On a scale of 1 to 10, what is his “can win a series by himself” potential? 10 out of 10. I believe he addressed that matter in Game 5 against Detroit last year. He then closed the case in Game 6, and in doing so established the modern-day standard for “player who singlehandedly carries a team to a higher place in spite of omnipresent mediocrity”. He reiterated it for Stevenson and any other stupid loudmouths in the first two games against Washington, popping off for 32-6-4 and 30-9-12, respectively (against a solid and peaking Wizards team, no less). Lebron may have a new supporting cast of “Boobies”, and he may be trying to defend his Eastern Conference crown in a bracket that has the Celtics looming in round two, but don’t speak too soon about the fella. I believe DeShawn Stevenson already learned that lesson the difficult way.

What’s the verdict on the Cavs? Out in 6 against the Celtics, with Lebron achieving some superhuman feats to win Cleveland’s two games (obviously).

Chris Paul

What can already be determined? That Chris Paul fears not the playoff stage. He wasn’t just the best player on the court in the first two games against Dallas; he was by far the best (and Dirk Nowitzki has played well). In Game 1, with David West struggling to find a rhythm early on and Peja Stojakovic hoisting up bricks, the Hornets found themselves in a 12-point halftime hole. No sweat for CP3. He took over in the second half, turned a double digit deficit into a blowout opening win, and helped usher in the return of the “Mark Cuban Face”. Not bad for a playoff rookie.

On a scale of 1 to 10, what is his “can win a series by himself” potential? 10 out of 10. His 35 and 10 preceding 32 and 17 (plus a combined seven steals) in fact weren’t what stuck out the most. (And no, I’m not munching on the magic brownies.) It was the way he carried himself; the way he carried his team. In the tone-setting Game 1, each bucket he dropped and dime he dished was accompanied by a progressively meaner and more confident look in his eyes. Chest pounds and cries of “Let’s go!” had Hornets fans smelling blood and Mavs players anticipating the imminent (which was also the psychological precursor to the beating Paul gave them in Game 2). His intensity level was so high he appeared ready to take the contest into the parking lot after the game. We haven’t seen that from Dirk since Game 7 of the Spurs series in 2006. I’m surely not the first to say it, but I won’t be close to the last: We are witnessing the beginning of what may become the greatest career by a point guard all-time. His ceiling extends far beyond the bannerless rafters inside New Orleans Arena.

What’s the verdict on the Hornets? A Game 7 loss in the Western Conference Finals at Staples Center, and a born-legacy (not to be confused with “The Bourne Legacy”).

Kobe Bryant

What can already be determined? That Kobe Bryant was frustrated and wanted out of LA, then he was angry when he didn’t get moved, then he didn’t care, then he cared again, and now he’s on a mission that evokes memories of Denzel Washington in “Man on Fire”. There is no debate that Kobe has been the best player since MJ — when he has chosen to be. Somewhere along the way, a combination of scandal, a big head and a “diesel” Hollywood breakup temporarily stripped him of his unmatched talent and boyish love of the game. What a difference a “Pau” in the arm can make. Now Kobe has the Euro version of KG in Pau Gasol along with a young and eager supporting cast whose collective vibrancy must remind him of glory days past. Beware of the Black Mamba.

On a scale of 1 to 10, what is his “can win a series by himself” potential? 10 out of 10. See above: “best player since MJ.”

What’s the verdict on the Lakers? NBA Finals. Boston. Game 7. I will say no more.

Celtics’ Eyes on the Prize

When you think about it, the Celtics have been engaged in an interminable period of adjustment since Danny Ainge began wheeling and dealing the day after the draft last summer.

Once Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett were introduced in green, the Celtics had to adjust from life as a bottom feeder to an existence as a veritable contender. Then, after starting 29-3, they had to make the delicate transition from contender to early front-runner. Most recently, when KG had to sit out nine games prior to the All-Star break with an abdominal strain, they were forced to preserve an identity without their centerpiece.

Now, with Sam Cassell and P.J. Brown on board, fortifying one of the deepest and most talented rosters in the league, the Celtics have one last phase of adjustment to tackle: bringing it all together for a run at title number 17.

With 21 regular season games remaining, Doc Rivers has about six weeks to integrate Cassell and Brown (and consequently reduce the roles of other players). If their current track record of adjustment holds up, odds are the Celtics will keep moving forward.

That seems to have become the M.O. of this team.

As obstacles–some real, others media contrived–have presented themselves, Danny and Doc’s boys have continued to work, continued to evolve. They haven’t allowed the many highs to be too high; the few lows to be too low. They have kept things on an even keel, which is what championship teams do.

The general manager and the coach deserve their fair share of the credit.

That Ainge and Rivers showed no haste in getting Garnett back on the court was both a reflection of the faith they had in the chemistry of the team as well as a recognition of the bigger picture. Ainge has made it no secret that there will be no talk of a possible restoration of the league’s most storied franchise or even of “The Big Three” until that seventeenth banner gets hung over the parquet. He said as much when he stood between Ray and KG at their unveiling, and has reiterated it over the course of the season.

The players wholeheartedly endorse the words of the man who assembled them, particularly the title-starved trio of stars who have led the team. Take, for instance, Allen’s comments prior to unquestionably the biggest game of the season against Detroit on March 5. “What is this game 59 for us? It’s business as usual.”

Maybe a bit trite, but given that he said it before a game in which the Celtics locked down the Pistons in the fourth quarter with a decisive 21-9 run, gained the head-to-head tiebreaker with their only close competitor, and reaffirmed their place at the top of the East, at the very least he was being candid. Allen only shot 1-for-9 that night, but he put in a blue-collar days work in defense of Richard Hamilton, which only served to validate his pregame assertion.

It’s business.

These days, skeptics argue that the Celtics won’t have the necessary gears to win a championship, won’t be able to turn it up when hardware is on the line against teams that have already been to the promised land. Time was, skeptics contended the Celtics couldn’t improve on their amazing start, couldn’t deal with the ramifications of tumbling back to the stark reality of a loaded-NBA.

21-9 since 29-3 has silenced that line of thinking. So too has the Green’s ability to stay tops in the league in opponents field goal percentage (42 percent) and opponents points per game (90.3). No passing lane is safe against this team either, as the Celtics continue to rank among the best at creating steals (8.7 per game, fourth overall).

It’s due to a cumulative commitment and relentless effort on the defensive end that have Boston positioned where not a whole lot thought it would be: locked and loaded for the stretch run having not yet peaked.

And here comes Cassell.

It’s hard to fathom a 38-year old point guard making or breaking a championship team, but this one will. He won rings his first two years in the NBA, which furnished him with a set of stones that have been the topic of many a water cooler. His ego is accordingly robust. He could conceivably be a problem for the incumbent and up-and-comer at his position, Rajon Rondo. Just don’t count on it.

Cassell spent considerable time with Allen in Milwaukee and Garnett in Minnesota. He knows he’s coming onto this team to take a backseat to Rondo, mentor the young man, and when called upon, assume control of the rock in crunch time. Just as KG, Ray and Paul assured everyone they would spread the wealth for the good of the team, so too has Cassell expressed his readiness to do what’s necessary to win.

“I don’t have to take 15-20 shots to make the Boston Celtics a championship team,” he said. As for Rondo? “I don’t want his job. I’m just here to make the team better.”

Cassell has talked the talk throughout his entire career. He’s done the walkin’ too. Now he becomes the final piece on a team that has been under reconstruction for the last nine months. One last adjustment before the real games begin.

“From what I’ve heard, there’s nothing like getting a championship in Boston,” said Cassell.

You heard right, Sam.