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Posts from the ‘Celtics’ Category

Oops, he did it again

Of course Paul Pierce was going to take his time.

That stubborn deliberateness with which he’s able to get to his spot at his pace has always been his calling card; his contribution to the uniqueness of greatness. Pierce’s basketball CV reads like a case study of dichotomies: neither fast nor fast looking, yet spry enough to have routinely meandered past 2s and 3s alike for the better part of 17 years; neither hulking nor brawny, yet strong enough to have gone head to head with every iteration of LeBron over the last decade-plus; neither quiet nor humble, yet badass enough to call his shot and cold-blooded enough to make it time and again.

And as we now know, longevity is also one of his virtues. Pierce has been herking and jerking and pivoting and daggering his way through the NBA since the Clinton administration, which was around the same time he was bestowed with a nickname that would prove both prescient and lasting.

He hung 46 on Iverson’s 76ers in a winner-take-all Game 5 in his first playoff series. He scored 19 as part of a 21-point fourth-quarter comeback in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Nets that same spring of 2002. He squared up Kobe in his prime and tore from his grasp the final piece of hardware Bryant coveted after three title runs alongside MVP Shaq. He’s going to go down as LeBron’s most intense and only true rival.

And now, a full seven years after he captured his first and only championship and 13 years since he officially made Boston start believing it had found its next Pantheon Celtic, he splashed together arguably his masterpiece. It’s appropriate that his regular-season disappearance and subsequent sleight of hand into and through the playoffs came for a team deemed the Wizards, as his act had all the elements of a superb magic trick: it simultaneously wowed us, defied sensibility and left us wanting more.

Long before he called “Game!” and “Series!” in these playoffs, he sat down with a trusted reporter and put the entire East on notice via the type of knifing soliloquy usually reserved for postscripts and memoirs. He said the Raptors didn’t have “the ‘It’ that makes you worried” and the Hawks lacked the “aura” necessary to instill fear in opponents. He spoke in no uncertain terms about how LeBron’s career arc would have been different if the two had been at their respective apexes concurrently.

It was a striking and scathing preamble that had Pierce loyalists quietly smirking while casual fans hastily tapped at their smartphones to verify that the guy was even still in the league. And then at the creaking age of 37, he grabbed the mic and delivered his address over the course of a 10-game playoff run that can aptly be summarized as American Sniper on hardwood: His performance was riveting, divisive and he made certain to answer for every shot he took.

As for the shots themselves, were they ever plentiful. First came the Raptors, against whom he reprised his role as mercenary boogeyman of the north, rendering “Jurassic Park” extinct for the second straight year in a second set of threads.

Next up were the Hawks, a team Pierce once used as a perennial stepping stone to loftier goals and, most recently, one that would help him stamp his legacy as an all-time playoff assassin while staking his claim as the Vine king du jour. His buzzer-beating bank shot won Game 3, rescued the Wizards from a monumental fourth-quarter collapse and gave him celebrity status across the social-mediaverse. Then came his go-ahead three-pointer in the waning seconds of Game 5 – along with that subsequent premature salvo to the Atlanta bench – a parlay of vintage Pierce dramatics that was promptly reduced to a footnote because no Washington player could corral a game-sealing rebound.

Which brings us to Game 6, Pierce’s worst of the postseason by any measure. He had missed six of his seven field goal attempts, including a wide-open three with two minutes remaining that could have stretched Washington’s lead to four points. His shots had hit the front of the rim on multiple occasions, a tell-tale sign of heavy legs. For the first time, it looked like the 1,408 games on his NBA odometer were finally taking their toll. Yet when the Wizards improbably found themselves with a last-gasp chance to tie the game with six seconds left after a Hawks turnover and a missed free throw, everyone and their mothers inside the Verizon Center knew who would be getting the basketball.

The play was slow developing from the outset. By the time Pierce got the ball coming off a delayed screen, there was only 1.7 seconds left. Despite initially being flanked by Hawks on either side of him, he managed to slither into the corner and bury a fading game-tying trey off one leg. His internal clock is as finely tuned as there is – and to hell with anyone who has ever thwarted him from getting a good look before the buzzer – but replays revealed that the horn sounded about five one-hundreths of a second before the ball left his hand.

Was that his final shot? Did that odometer finally get the best of him? Perhaps. What was clear is he had emptied the chamber, both physically and mentally, maybe more so than any 10-game sample of his career. He admitted as much during a postgame interview in which he hinted at retirement. If it was indeed his outro, it will go down as a fitting encapsulation of “the Truth.” Dazzling. Clutch. And naturally he took his time.

Window closed: A bow on the Big Three era

I love Brooklyn. I have lived in the borough since 2006. Never entertained the thought of moving. So when it was announced on Draft night that Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett had been traded to the Nets, once the initial shock wore off, I quickly started to talk myself into the deal. The championship window of the Celtics had closed once Rajon Rondo tore his ACL in January, and while I nonetheless wanted nothing more than to go down with the ship and see Pierce and KG retire as Celtics, this was clearly the next-best thing.

The pair would be staying together and coming to my backyard, not to mention joining a team flush with talent but lacking in the mental-toughness department. It was the perfect union for all parties: The Nets were getting an injection of some sorely-needed championship pedigree, Pierce and Garnett were getting a chance to assume the reduced roles that would give them their most legitimate shot at another title, and the sizable Boston-transplant contingent in Brooklyn was receiving the opportunity to give two all-time Celtics greats a proper sendoff into retirement.

I spent the last few weeks borderline giddy about the impending arrival of Pierce and Garnett. Laying out odds on where each would live, hang, eat, first be spotted. Inquiring about Nets season tickets. Projecting the rotation come October. Wondering how many times Garnett would make Brook Lopez cry in training camp. The works. Bottom line is I convinced myself I was all-in on this Big Three-Brooklyn meld. And I remain so.

However.

Seeing them introduced on Thursday was tough. Actually, tough doesn’t do it justice. It was excruciating.

The thing about fan-athlete relationships is they are one-sided affairs. The fan pours heart and soul into the team, comes to know and love the athletes, welcomes them into their home on a nightly basis. When they win, it’s bliss. When they lose, it’s sorrow. It’s always personal.

Not so much for the athletes. Therein lies the built-in safety mechanism for the fan, as it’s that emotional detachment and all-business approach of the athlete that makes a departure/breakup easier for the fan to handle. If you’ve heard one press conference of a star player leaving the team and city that drafted him, talking in platitudes about the great experience and the fans and “At the end of the day, this is a business” and yadda yadda, you’ve heard them all.

But this team was different. This pair is different. Garnett is the most fiercely loyal athlete I’ve ever known. The guy was Atlas in Minnesota. He’ll be the first to tell you he doesn’t do change well, because, well, he doesn’t do change. Only when implored to summon an iota of selfishness has he ever acquiesced to change. And that has happened twice. The first was six years ago when he was convinced to come to Boston. And the second was a few weeks ago, when Pierce talked him into Brooklyn.

As for Pierce, his loyalty to and love for Boston and the Celtic tradition may never be matched. Sure, he grew up an LA kid, but he became Boston, through and through. He lived nearly half his life there. He almost died there. He felt the weight of history, the pull to not just win a championship, but multiple. He understood what it meant to join the Russells, Havliceks, Birds as lifelong Celtics. It was a massive burden, all of it combined, but he embraced it unconditionally.

That’s why Thursday was excruciating. Pierce wasn’t on the podium thanking Boston and lauding the fans in the past tense. He wasn’t moving on to the next chapter. Instead he was stuck in transit, mired in a strange basketball and personal purgatory. He spoke in the first-person plural about Boston, left sentences unfinished, talked about shedding tears and even analogized it all to breaking up with his first love. He hasn’t gotten over the Celtics, and he probably never will. That weight of history is too heavy.

Back when the Celtics won the title in 2008, I wrote about how more than anything Banner No. 17 was a connector of generations. For all the Celtics fans like me – whose earliest basketball memories were of a stricken Bird hobbling up and down the court, and subsequent memories were years on top of years on top of years of losing – the tradition that we were grandfathered into was one only understood in the abstract. Then we finally realized it in ’08.

Despite the so-called “three-year window” turning into four, five, six years of championship swagger, the legacy of this Celtics era will ultimately go down as one of unfinished business; of what could’ve and should’ve been.

Garnett’s season-ending knee injury in 2009 derailed what was shaping up to be a cakewalk to a repeat. In the next Finals, Kendrick Perkins tore his ACL in Game 6 and a combination of dead legs and referee home-cooking for the Lakers in the fourth quarter of Game 7 cost the Celtics the 2010 title. A peaking Rondo was KO’d by Dwyane Wade in the ’11 playoffs and the Celtics had only 42 championship-caliber minutes in them against Miami in Game 7 of the Eastern Finals the following year. There’s no Celtics fan who hasn’t done the math and come up with a number of at least two, likely three or four. Count Pierce at the top of that list.

So seeing him on that podium flanked by Nets logos, it was pretty clear he was experiencing vivid flashbacks to each and every one of those missed chances. The difference this time was the finality of it all. The quest for Banner 18 and beyond proved to be maddeningly elusive. But it was always ongoing. Seemed destined to be until he decided to hang up his laces. But basketball is indeed a business. Thus the Big Three era officially ended on that podium, and with it those lost opportunities were suddenly no longer marked by an ellipsis, but a period.

It was impossible not to sense Pierce coming to grips with all of it in real time. That’s what made it excruciating. But it was also a fitting and poignant end.

He reminded us all that this relationship was no one-sided affair.

Like Boston, Celtics down but not out

Let’s begin by stating the obvious: the Celtics as constructed are not title contenders. Lacking a true point guard, let alone one of Rajon Rondo’s caliber, is simply too much of an obstacle to overcome in the playoffs, when the games slow down, teams hone in on each other’s weaknesses and execution in the half court is paramount. The real question after a pair of losses in New York – highlighted by two of the most unsightly second halves in Celtics playoff history – is whether Boston can make the Knicks sweat by clawing their way back into this series.

First, it’s worth taking a quick look back at Games 1 and 2, which on the surface were virtual facsimiles of one another. In each contest, the Celtics played well in the first half, getting into their sets and moving the ball on offense, forcing the Knicks into contested jump shots on defense and getting out in transition when the opportunity presented itself. Then as if flipping a switch in the locker room, the Knicks came out in the second half of each game and throttled the Celtics, holding Boston to 25 and 23 points, respectively. That, however, is where the similarities end. In Game 1, the Celtics were their own worst enemy, giving the ball away 20 times, including eight turnovers in 20 fourth-quarter possessions. That ratio is staggering, and while some of the gaffes can be attributed to the Rondo void, most of them were a result of plain old carelessness.

For Game 2, Doc Rivers made no secret that his rotation would be altered (more bigs, as opposed to the three-guard bench he featured in Game 1 that totaled all of zero field goals) and the game plan would be different (establish Kevin Garnett, feature Kevin Garnett and sprinkle in some more Kevin Garnett).

Unfortunately, that game plan never came to fruition thanks to a pair of early, questionable fouls on Garnett. To be fair, the refs pretty much did the opposite of swallowing their whistles on both sides throughout most of the first half, but Garnett’s absence and the ripple effect it had on everything the Celtics were trying to do can’t be overstated. Even when he did get back on the floor, Garnett was out of sync and unable to steer clear of further foul trouble. Without KG, the Celtics had no way to collapse the Knicks defense and open up space on the perimeter. And on the defensive end, a foul-conscious Garnett was rendered a shell of himself in his primary duty of protecting the paint and helping on rotations.

To sum it up, the Celtics beat themselves in Game 1 and were thwarted from having a real shot in Game 2. There’s no denying the Knicks are the better team and boast the best player in the series in Carmelo Anthony. The added presence of playoff-hardened veterans like Jason Kidd and Kenyon Martin has also payed early dividends for New York. But two games to the home team do not a series make (see: Eastern Conference finals, 2012).

Heading to Boston for Games 3 and 4, the Knicks are saying all the right things, that all they’ve done is hold serve on their floor, which was expected. But the reality is they have no idea what they’re about to be confronted by when they step foot in TD Garden on Friday night. That’s not a dig on the Knicks. There’s a reason that of the five playoff series the Celtics have lost in this era, only one has been in fewer than seven games. They are a different team in their building. It’s a combination of the 17 banners hanging overhead, the legends sitting courtside, the swagger of the crowd and the emotion that literally pours out of Garnett. As a concoction, it’s damned near impossible for opponents to overcome.

With all that said, there is no precedent for the atmosphere that will consume the Garden on Friday. The lights over the parquet have been off since the Marathon attacks, the city beginning a healing process that will span far longer than any one season or playoff series.

Boston is a town whose story is chronicled through its sports. The narratives of the people, teams and athletes are all woven together, inextricably linked as a result of their unique closeness. The bond between the Celtics and the city has always been an especially powerful one, marked by triumph and tragedy alike.

In the wake of the attacks and with the Celtics watching from afar, the city started to pick itself up through what it knows best: sports. The Red Sox returned to Fenway Park. The Bruins re-christened the home they share with their basketball counterparts. The Marathon will run again. Now it is the Celtics’ turn.

They are no longer the perennial favorites who used to annually send LeBron James and Dwyane Wade home steaming, nor the aging, stubborn contenders who continued to assert their will over everyone but the now-unified pair. The Celtics won’t hang a banner this year. Odds are they won’t make it out of the first round for the first time since Garnett’s arrival. But to think they are about to fold in the face of adversity and go out without a whimper, in their house, is to gravely underestimate the spirit of this team and its proud leaders.

Like Boston itself, you either know it or you don’t.

Allen’s exit ends Big Three era

In the days after the Celtics ran out of gas down the stretch of Game 7 and succumbed to the Heat, it was tempting to get in the mix and offer some final thoughts following, what appeared to be, the final curtain of the new Big Three era.

A team born out of a bounce of a ping-pong ball on May 22, 2007, that had produced so many stirring memories was headed into a haze of uncertainty.

Of the original three-party, only Paul Pierce was under contract. And while it was a no-brainer that Kevin Garnett would either hang em up or return in Green, it was hard not to prepare for the former. Anyone who watched the man play from big-31late-February on could not possibly escape the thought that he was in the throes of firing every remaining bullet in his chamber in one final blaze of glory.

But when Garnett, the glue, decided he was not ready for the next banner ceremony at the Garden to be the one raising his No. 5 into the rafters, Year 6 of the Three-Year Window appeared to be all but a formality. Just like Ray Allen’s arrival in 2007 had spurred Garnett to join Boston, so too would KG’s decision to return give Allen all the incentive necessary to re-up so he and his teammates could regroup, avenge the loss to Miami and make another charge at Banner No. 18.

The Celtics have done a lot of winning over the last five years. Few will dispute that they likely would have done even more had circumstances not dictated otherwise. But given the trajectory of the franchise from the end of the original Big Three era – beginning with Len Bias and Reggie Lewis, giving way to M.L. Carr, Rick Pitino and 18-game losing streaks – to the dawn of the new one, Celtics fans were desperate for something positive to cling to.

The team bonded in Rome, where Ubuntu was hatched, before the 2007-08 season, and it didn’t take long for Boston to become a basketball city once again. Tom Brady may own the town, but he plays 25 miles to the south and is only there 8-10 times per year.

For five years, the Celtics were tangible, relatable and omnipresent. They squabbled, but more like a family than highly-paid professional athletes. They were fiercely loyal to their coach, who instilled in them a will to play as much for each other as they did for the fans.

Allen is as meticulous of an athlete (or person, for that matter) as you will ever see. Every move he makes, on the court and off, is calculated. So for him to turn his back on his roots and teammates and irrevocably alter his legacy at this stage in his career by joining the enemy means, well, there was evidently a lot going on that we were not aware of.

The gist of it has now been circulated: Allen was hurt by the way Danny Ainge conducted his business, trying to trade him on multiple occasions, including informing him that he had been shipped to Memphis for O.J. Mayo at the trade deadline only to have the deal fall through at the last minute. He was angered at losing his starting job to Avery Bradley while grinding through what was undeniably his most physically taxing season as a Celtic. And he grew tired of dealing with the mercurial Rajon Rondo on a day-to-day basis.

The reasons were there, and plentiful, for Allen’s discontent to grow into spite.

However, even as Celtics fans try to extract the knife he just plunged into their backs, it’s nonetheless difficult not to wonder if things could have gone differently. In this case, the simple answer is no.

If it was fixable, you can rest assured the trio of Doc, Garnett and Pierce would have found a way. For all Rivers made about the team’s splendid chemistry last season, that sentiment was obviously not shared by Allen. For Ray, the Ubuntu probably died when Ainge tried to swap him for a newer model. But a case can be made that it goes back even further, back to the trade of Kendrick Perkins.

When Ainge stunned everyone by dealing Perkins in February 2011, he made it clear he was running the Celtics as an enterprise. In Ainge’s eyes, Perkins had become a dated asset, no matter that the spirit of the team had been founded on and revolved around its belligerent unity. Not only did the loss of Perkins rob the Celtics of their burly 7-footer who also happened to serve as Rondo’s stabilizing force, it jolted them all back to the reality of basketball as a business.

Less than 18 months later, the business of basketball was brought full circle by Allen. Except this time it was personal, because it’s impossible to have it both ways. Ubuntu and the business of basketball were always on a collision course, and the first domino was Perkins.

So instead of one last Last Hurrah for the Big Three, it’s suddenly the end of days, when Jesus became Judas. The retooled Celtics will once again be in the hunt next year. But the days of the new Big Three are over.

Heady times they were.

Game 7: Last tango on South Beach

Mike Breen summed up Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals aptly:

“Murphy’s Law in effect,” Breen told Jeff Van Gundy and the rest of the national ESPN audience late in the fourth quarter of Miami’s 98-79 thumping of the Celtics. “Even Murphy had it better.”

And so it was on a forgettable Thursday night at the Garden, Breen’s line trumped only by LeBron James’ 45-15-5 – a cold-blooded and emphatic response to the question of whether the King’s season would be dealt its death blow by the hallowed parquet for the third time in five years.

kgThe way the Celtics came out – Paul Pierce clanking shots, Kevin Garnett getting clapped by Shane Battier, Rajon Rondo slinging passes into the first row – it sure looked like they thought the building itself was going to win them the game, and all they had to do was hop on for the ride, like a bunch of kids on a Tilt-A-Whirl.

Instead, it was James doing the tilting and whirling, sticking shot after shot directly in the eye of Celtic after Celtic. When it was all over, he was only in Wilt Chamberlain’s company. There’s a reason the guy has won three MVPs, folks. It’s because, on occasion, he does things like what we all, um, witnessed last night.

I’ve said it before, but it must be reiterated. This is the Heat. This is who they are. The moment you let your guard down or allow a scintilla of (the wrong kind of) hubris to enter the equation, they will coldly and unequivocally steamroll you. The Celtics know this better than anyone, but then again, these are the Celtics – prideful, stubborn and bearing a massive chip on their collective shoulder that practically screams their love for doing things the hardest possible way.

Naturally, there’s a silver lining, like there always is with this Green machine and the caveats that attempt to do justice to its head-scratching idiosyncrasies.

On the same night James found a way to will himself to a higher place, the Celtics laid a big ole dinosaur egg. Part of that is a happy coincidence, because let’s be real, even a 41-point eruption from Pierce or a tour-de-force Rondo was unlikely to thwart LeBron from exiting onto Causeway Street victorious. It was just one of those nights.

Long before the Garden snapped out of its coma and the final buzzer sounded, I couldn’t help but think of a game with eerie parallels to the one that was still unfolding in front of me.

In the 2010 Finals, the Celtics roared back from a 2-1 series deficit to the Lakers by winning Games 4 and 5 at home, sending them to the West Coast with two shots to close out the title. The way they came out in Game 6, it seemed like they believed the Lakers were going to serve them their rings on a silver platter and plan the parade for them.

To date, that remains the biggest no-show of the Big Three era, but boy, did Thursday night give it a run for its money.

Everyone knows what happened in Game 7 that year. Despite playing without an injured Kendrick Perkins, the Celtics threw the first haymaker. And the second. And third. Their lead was 13 in the third quarter before it all came apart in the fourth. Twenty-one Lakers free throws, a game-tying three from Derek Fisher and a back-breaking dagger from Ron Artest. Just like that, Banner No. 18 vanished into the rafters at Staples Center.

The Celtics are a grinding, forward-thinking team. When they say they don’t think about Heat-in-5 from last year, they mean it. But don’t believe for a second that when Game 7 in Miami reaches meet-your-maker time, the Celtics won’t have something extra to draw on, something uniquely painful yet invigorating.

What happened that night in L.A. is the greatest regret they have, but when the Heat are making their charge in the fourth quarter, it will represent their greatest weapon. For two years, that game has haunted them and driven them. It’s part of the reason they are even here to begin with. And by late Saturday night, it will become the reason why they were able to outlast the mighty Miami Heat.

Time to move on from the Rondo-robbery

“I guarantee you right now, they’re distracted, our team, in the locker room. But we have to get it out of us and move on.”
–Doc Rivers, after the Celtics lost Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals to the Heat in overtime, 115-111

Celtics fans should heed the words of the coach. Let it out. Your team was the victim of brazen highway robbery on South Beach last night. What should have gone down as one of the all-time great one-man acts in playoff history was unceremoniously ripped from the grasp of Rajon Rondo. Indeed, the non-call on Dwyane Wade’s face-hack of Rondo was quite possibly more foul than the play itself.

But this is not the time to lament the Rondo-robbery, or Paul Pierce fouling out on a questionable call, or LeBron James being whistled for all of two fouls while defending an attacking Pierce all night, or James taking nearly as many free throws (24) as the entire Celtics team (29), or the Heat being the beneficiaries of a 47-29 edge at the line, or Greg rondo2Stiemsma picking up four fouls in five minutes … simply for being Greg Stiemsma. I’m out of breath.

No, as Rivers wisely pointed out, Game 2 was not the end of the line, and while it helps to let the disbelief and anger flow in the moment, it’s necessary to quickly put a lid on it and trudge forward.

With the consensus headline around the country on Thursday morning some variation of, Celtics give Heat best shot, still lose, I say fair enough. Yes, the Celtics produced arguably their best effort – particularly at the offensive end – of the postseason, but they were forced to play with one hand tied behind their back.

The Celtics have cause for optimism going forward, though, because unless David Stern wants the conspiracy theories to start flying on the Kings-Lakers 2002 level, the officiating, ahem, “situation” will be rectified as this series drags on, you can bet Tim Donaghy’s right pinkie on it.

As for James and Wade, what’s yet to be rectified is their closing capabilities in tight games. Let’s go to the tape:

Exhibit A: Celtics leading, 94-91, 2:18 left. Shane Battier drains a three to tie the game. On the next trip down, Mickael Pietrus commits a bad foul on LeBron, who hits two free throws to put Miami back on top, 96-94. The Heat get a stop, and with the Celtics clamping down on defense, Wade dishes to Udonis Haslem, who sinks an 18-footer from the baseline to extend the lead to 98-94.

Exhibit B: After a Boston timeout results in a Rondo-to-Garnett lob with 1:05 left to make it a two-point game, Wade drives in and draws Pierce’s sixth foul on a circus layup attempt. With 47 seconds left and Pierce out, Wade can essentially seal the game at the charity stripe. He bricks the first free throw, makes the second. 99-96. A Ray Allen trey knots the game at 99 with 34 seconds left.

Exhibit C: James misses a layup with 20 seconds left, gets his own rebound, and misses a 21-foot jumper at the buzzer with Rondo guarding him. Overtime.

Exhibit D: James misses two free throws to begin overtime. Wade misses one on a potential three-point play with 3:32 left that keeps the game tied. Then, following the Rondo-robbery, the Heat open up a seven-point lead with 18 seconds left, yet the Celtics manage to slice the deficit to three with two seconds remaining thanks to a pair of pure-grit Rondo threes. Wade goes to the line and promptly misses the first free throw before rattling home the second.

So for those scoring at home, Battier and Haslem had Miami’s two biggest field goals at the end of regulation, and James whiffed on a pair of potential game-winners. Compounding that, James and Wade combined to clank five of 12 free throws beginning with 47 seconds left in regulation.

This is nothing new for James and Wade – be it the missing of crunch-time free throws or game-deciding shots. Apart from the playoff series between the two teams last year, when James shook the Celtics monkey off his back with a trio of devastating closes, the Heat’s superstar tandem has consistently wilted in decisive moments – be it the regular season or the NBA Finals. Of course, the Heat win a ton, but most of the time they’ve already run a team out of the building when the clock is ticking down.

But this isn’t last year. Barring a redux of Wade taking out Rondo in Game 3, Boston’s greatest weapon will be healthy for the remainder of the series, which is to say the games will continue to be close-fought wars.

Time to soldier on, everyone. You know the Celtics will.

All signs to NBA Finals read ‘Rondo’

He is perplexing, maddening, awe-inspiring. Sometimes all on the same play. His basketball wits are befitting of a savant, his control of the reins of a proud team self-proclaimed. His ability to elicit a mind-blown, What was he possibly thinking? after his worst and greatest moments alike is incomparable.

If we could see the court through his eyes, it would be like trying to look at the Matrix: endless strings of numbers and characters in code. It is for this reason that he so fascinates and infuriates us, three first-ballot Hall of Famers and one of the game’s great coaches included.

On Saturday night in a Game 7 against a team for which he had no respect, he spent the first 43 minutes and change doing a formidable job of authoring the last rites of the Big Three era. He was disengaged, careless, and at times – in the case of missing point-blank layups – just plain bad.

It didn’t matter that it was Game 7, for he was Rajon Rondo and they were the Philadelphia 76ers, a cute and lively young bunch that he had used to entertain himself for the first five games, like a cat with a ball of yarn, rondobefore yawning and deciding before Game 6 he no longer fancied them. From the beginning of that contest through the aforementioned first 43 minutes of Game 7, he shot 26 percent from the floor and committed 11 turnovers.

Game 7 was all kinds of ugly, but it was a game the Celtics grabbed by the throat with a 10-2 run to start and maintained control of throughout. Gino may not have been dancing on the jumbotron, but everyone in the house knew the outcome; that is, until the 4:16 mark of the fourth quarter when, with the Celtics leading by three, Paul Pierce took a pass from Rondo on the perimeter, drove and collided with Thaddeus Young for his sixth foul. A few minutes earlier, a Rondo turnover had necessitated Pierce committing his fifth foul to prevent Andre Iguodala from having an uncontested layup.

Pierce screamed in frustration. The Garden hushed. Things had gotten real, so Rondo activated his “on” switch.

“I felt I was part of the reason he fouled out,” Rondo said after the game. “I had two bad turnovers. I felt somewhat responsible for it.”

What he did next is why every Celtics fan still has reason to believe Banner No. 18 is within reach. A baseline drive to extend the lead to 73-68. A combined 50 feet of rainbow jumpers for a total of five points, followed by four free throws in as many attempts. Nothing but nylon on each of the six releases. Game. Blouses.

The thing about Rondo, I think, is he not only believes he’s the smartest and best player in the world, but that it’s actually not even close. It’s the reason he’s alternated between clashing with and revering his three elder teammates from Day 1, the reason he’s stepped to Kobe, called out LeBron and Wade. It’s the reason a handful of his masterpieces have come against the Lakers and Heat, and why he often needs to be jolted to life against the likes of Philly – even in a Game 7.

It’s the reason that, despite the established gap between the teams, the Celtics undeniably wanted the Heat more than the other way around. They may not have won a title in four years, but every time the Celtics take the court in the postseason, they do so with the swagger and heart of a champion, and the cold drive of vengeance-seekers.

They’ve lost three elimination games in this era, and the one time it wasn’t in a Game 7 was last spring, when Rondo had his elbow dislocated, courtesy of Wade. The Heat won that second-round series in five games, and celebrated as if they had been coronated. Miami may say they expect the path to the Finals to go through Boston, but that was all supposed to have ended last year. The Heat believed they ended it, ended this incarnation of the Celtics, and you can’t really blame them.

The Celtics, on the other hand, have long believed it would have all gone differently had Rondo not gone down. Rondo knows it would have.

All the talk leading up to the 2012 Eastern Conference finals has been about all the things the Celtics must do to simply have a chance against Miami. Garnett must dominate the battle of the bigs, Bosh or no Bosh. Pierce must battle LeBron to a stalemate a few times. Allen must find some bounce in his ailing ankles, or at least some semblance of his jumper. Bass must … the bench must … etc.

Little, however, has been made of the fact that the Heat only came alive against Indiana after LeBron and Wade raised their collective games to a level previously unheard of. So how about this: In order for the Heat to beat the Celtics, LeBron and Wade must each continue to drop 30-plus a night. Udonis Haslem must consistently hit 15-foot jumpers. Mike Miller and Shane Battier must shoot 40 percent from the beyond the arc on wide open looks. Erik Spoelstra must win a two-minute coaching battle with Doc Rivers. If that happens, consider the Celtics’ caps tipped.

The reality is both teams are hurting, and neither is without its flaws.

Back to the vengeance-seeking. Because Pierce, Allen and Garnett came together so late in their careers, and because of the immediate success they enjoyed, there’s been a bittersweet element to their time together. The combination of missing each other’s primes with leaving what they perceive to be multiple titles on the table once together has rendered them bitter and scornful.

In that respect, Rondo has always been the outlier, the young gun who has the drive to win, but not the ticking clock to keep the firing burning. On those occasions when he’s “engaged,” the Celtics are damned near impossible to beat. An engaged Rondo was sighted off and on against the Hawks and 76ers. What we have never seen is a vengeance-seeking Rondo. If that guy shows up, the Celtics will end the Heat’s season.

Fearless Celtics ready for a bar fight

On Feb. 12, the Celtics had just finished holding off the Bulls at TD Garden in a nationally-televised Sunday afternoon game. The day belonged to Rajon Rondo, who messed around to the beat of a 32-10-15 triple-double as an injured Derrick Rose glowered from the opposing bench.

Rose or no Rose, the Bulls’ fate had likely been sealed by the mere time slot and presence of ABC cameras, for that combination had proven countless times to be the tonic that morphs Rondo into an unstoppable force, a slicing and diming hardwood maestro that no foe can contain.

Shortly after the final buzzer, an animated Kevin Garnett – is there any other kind? – approached Rondo near the sideline, embraced him and bellowed out a few emphatic love-fueled words of encouragement. The camera then cut to midcourt, where Paul Pierce was observing the one-sided exchange. All Pierce could do was laugh and shake his head. A scene at once all-too-familiar and yet somehow novel.

Welcome to Year 5 of the well-documented “Three-Year Window” for the Garnett-Pierce-Allen-(Rondo) Celtics.

kobepierceAside from Year 1, when it all went according to plan – the 66 regular-season wins, the silencing of LeBron Part I, the evisceration of the Lakers and accompanying NBA championship – nothing has come easy for the Green. Garnett’s knee injury halted the title defense; Kendrick Perkins’ torn ACL cost Boston another ring at the expense of LA in 2010; the Perkins trade gutted “Ubuntu” last year, and Rondo’s hyperextended elbow put to rest any notion of challenging the Heat in the playoffs.

One line of thinking heading into the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season was that veteran-laden teams would have a distinct advantage. Be it flawed logic, untimely injuries or a general lack of player conditioning, that theory was debunked rather quickly when the defending-champion Mavericks, Celtics, and to a lesser degree, the Lakers, limped out of the gate.

In Boston’s case, the cause was a bit of it all. Pierce was both hurt and in less-than-stellar shape to begin the season. Garnett looked like he had swapped sneakers for cinder blocks. Jeff Green was found to have a potentially life-threatening heart condition. And for a team that prided itself on defense and situational execution, the lack of a proper training camp took an immediate toll.

The result was a 4-8 start, which in a 66-game season amounted to .333 ball for nearly 20 percent of the slate.

The Celtics, who had begun no worse than 20-4 in any of the previous four years and had never known life out of first place in the Atlantic Division, were six games behind the fast-starting 76ers and on the outside of the playoff picture looking in before wiping the crust out of their eyes.

Although the blows continued to come, first in the form of trade winds that swirled around each of the Big Three before centering on Rondo, then by way of further injuries to Jermaine O’Neal, Chris Wilcox and Mickael Pietrus – the latter two being particularly frightening – the Celtics nonetheless began to coalesce.

Proud, resolute and stubborn, the ex-champs climbed back to relevance, thumbing their noses at all those who wrote them off as too adversity-stricken and too old to make anything more than a whimper in this funky campaign. Through Wednesday’s loss to the Spurs, the Celtics were 26-15 since the 4-8 start, which is equivalent to a 52-win pace in a normal season.

Garnett has been sensational since assuming the 5, a position-shift he was forced to accept because, well, there was nobody else. Pierce is fresh off netting Eastern Conference Player of the Month honors for March. Second-year guard Avery Bradley has turned into Tony Allen 2.0, a ferocious perimeter defender who recently did this to Dwyane Wade.

And then there’s Rondo, who is playing at an otherworldly level these days, the end of the trade talks (and no visits from the commander-in-chief) having clearly helped him find a bit of mental equilibrium.

But as has been the case since Day 1 of Year 1, it’s Garnett who remains the beating heart of the team.

In late January, back when the 7-9 Celtics were gasping for air, they found themselves trailing the Magic by 27 points in Orlando. A third-quarter run got them within striking distance and a 27-8 onslaught in the fourth resulted in a rather breezy 91-83 victory, after which Garnett produced one of his more memorable postgame interviews with Craig Sager.

“It was a damned bar fight,” Garnett barked to no one in particular as Sager attempted to begin a question. “A bar fight. It was a bar fight, Craig. Tonight was a bar fight, man … You ever been in a bar fight?”

Despite returning to first place in late March after 50 games in unfamiliar territory, the C’s task only gets tougher. A brutal final stretch against a slew of contenders, along with a back-to-back-to-back on the road, loom. The playoffs, which Boston will undoubtedly enter with the label of also-rans, follow.

But hey, it’s Year 5 of a three-year window. This is borrowed time for the Celtics, which begs the question: Who else is ready for a bar fight?

Celtics-Heat: The Main Course

There’s a reason the Celtics and Heat played on Opening Night, then again nine days later, and finally in Game No. 80. As soon as LeBron James packed up his talents and bounced out of Cleveland, the league knew this day was coming. So it charged up the hype-o-meter early, maxed out the hoopla and then let the teams go their separate ways in preparation for an inevitable May showdown.

Well, it is finally upon us. The Heat are favorites. No surprise there. The Heat Index is boiling.

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As for the Celtics, they’re merely stewing. For a team that has manned the door of the Eastern Conference for three years and counting, this will be the third time in the last four series that they’re being expected to kindly arrange their things in preparation for an early summer. James – either boldly or coldly – referring to them as “lunch” is more than likely tacked on a bulletin board somewhere in their Waltham, Mass., practice facility.

On one hand, there’s no reason LeBron shouldn’t be oozing confidence. Miami finished the regular season on a 12-2 run, waxed Boston in the teams’ final meeting to secure the No. 2 seed, and chewed up the young and feisty 76ers – aka “breakfast” – in five games in Round 1.

Because of that, a good deal has been made recently of how Miami has started to “get it,” which is part of the reason most Las Vegas sportsbooks list the Celtics as nearly 2-to-1 underdogs in the series. What, exactly, that means has this scribe mystified, though.

The Heat’s blueprint for each of its 58 wins in the regular season was uniform: Ride the two – or sometimes three – best players on the court to victory, with a smattering of supplemental support. Miami often led big and continued to pour it on, as evidenced by their NBA-best plus-7.5 point differential.

Not one time did the Heat win a game in which it was losing or tied with less than 10 seconds remaining. Furthermore, James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh were a combined 1-for-18 from the field in those scenarios. The one make came courtesy of James on Nov. 20 at Memphis, when he tied the game on a breakaway dunk with 5.5 seconds remaining. Rudy Gay then proceeded to un-tie it moments later.

But wait, proponents of the Heat “getting it” must be shouting, things have changed in the playoffs! Actually, they haven’t.

Not once in Miami’s four wins over Philly were they tied or trailing in the last three minutes of the game, let alone the final 10 seconds. Yet in their sole defeat, they watched a six-point lead with 1:35 remaining evaporate, culminating with James getting swatted by Elton Brand on an attempted game-tying layup with three ticks left. (For those scoring at home, make that 1-for-19.)

Success in the playoffs – when talent gaps are reduced and games are tight – hinges on two things: Late-game coaching and execution. Miami coach Erik Spoelstra has proven incapable of drawing up crunch-time plays for his team (heck, he can’t even settle on which of his two stars should have the ball). And the game of improv that James and Wade have engaged in in such scenarios has failed to cover up the deficiencies of their coach.

Their late-game follies have simply underscored the importance of knowing what you want to do at the end of a game, and adding the necessary on-the-spot wrinkles to be successful on a consistent basis. It’s no secret Paul Pierce is going to have the ball in his hands at the top of the key, either isolating a weaker defender or waiting for a high pick from Kevin Garnett, on any Boston possession inside of two minutes. Or that Ray Allen will be run off a series of screens. Or a combination of the two. Great teams have their bread and butter, and dare the opposition to out-execute them.

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The Celtics have proven beyond any reasonable doubt throughout their run that they are the gold standard in terms of late-game execution, while Doc Rivers has established himself as the maestro of head honchos when it comes to putting his team in a position to prevail.

In Games 1 and 2 against the Knicks in the first round, the Celtics were outplayed for the vast majority of both contests but pulled them out on the strength of their discipline and execution in the waning seconds of each game.

Naturally, they can’t play like zombies for 46 minutes against the Heat and expect to bail themselves out late, because they will have already been run out of the building. For Miami to win the series, they will have to do just that: Run the Celtics ragged.

However, that means they must find an answer for a rejuvenated Rajon Rondo, who can run faster with the ball than anyone on the court. If Mike Bibby struggles to the degree that LeBron is forced to take it upon himself to hold Rondo – a plausible scenario – the game of whack-a-Celtic will officially commence, as Miami’s defense of Pierce will be reassigned to James Jones.

The Celtics have a lot going for them – a distinct advantage at point guard and a deeper and more experienced bench, first and foremost – but the difference in this series boils down to the systemic difference between the teams: The Heat are built to blow teams out and the Celtics are built to win close games.

LeBron may be anticipating lunch, but for the third time in four years, the main course of his postseason will be Boston in Round 2.

Celtics in 6.

Déjà vu for the Celtics?

It was nearly a year to the day that I took to my keyboard and made a case for the middling Celtics as title contenders. Despite their head-scratching inconsistency (put mildly) over the final four months of the 2010 season, I had refused to write them off.

Contrary to the product they had put on the hardwood throughout a 27-27 finish, I could not believe the championship swagger and enduring will that had been the driving force behind all their successes since the Big Three came together had simply vanished into thin air. There was a monster lurking just beneath the on-the-surface mediocrity of that team, and it was waiting for the charged atmosphere and bright lights of the playoffs to unleash itself.

Lo and behold – and to the chagrin of a few so-called titans of the East – the Celtics showed their face in the playoffs, charging all the way to LA in June, with two chances to hang their second banner in three years. Then Kendrick Perkins tore his knee apart in Game 6 and the team ran out of gas with six minutes left in Game 7.

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The offseason arrived suddenly and painfully, and the ball entered the court of Danny Ainge, who had to decide if he was going to blow up the Big Three – the “three-year window” had expired, after all. Ray Allen was in a walk year and Paul Pierce exercised his opt-out clause soon after the Finals, which made him a free agent.

With a lockout looming after the 2011 season, Ainge had the option to begin the rebuilding around Rajon Rondo and Kevin Garnett right then and there, or reload the chamber for one last run. His decision was loud and clear. Over the following weeks and months, he dizzied us all with an array of moves that included re-upping Allen, Pierce, Marquis Daniels and Nate Robinson while bringing aboard Shaquille O’Neal, Jermaine O’Neal and Delonte West.

There was to be one last rodeo for this crew, after all, for a group whose rallying cry of never having lost a playoff series with its starting five intact still held true.

With Perkins quite literally putting the Finals loss on his own two shoulders (or one busted right knee), the big man – drawing further inspiration from Wes Welker, who made a swift comeback from the same devastating injury – embarked on a furious and painstaking rehab process that stretched through the first chunk of the new season.

To a layman following the Celtics during that time, it would have been understandable to arrive at the conclusion that the team was taking on the form of a juggernaut. Ainge, obviously, is no layman. On the contrary, he’s a basketball tactician with a business acumen. And while what he saw was indeed an outfit head and shoulders above the field – Shaq’s immediate chemistry with the Core Four had the team humming along to a 23-4 start – he also saw one glaring weakness: A lack of depth on the perimeter (read: Miami Heat, playoffs). Which precipitated the blindsiding deal that sent Perkins and Robinson to Oklahoma City at the trade deadline for Jeff Green and Nenad Krstic.

(Yes, a case can be made that the one player Ainge chose not to bring back last year, Tony Allen, was the first domino that ultimately culminated with the Perkins trade. In reality, though, it was Daniels’ season-ending injury that forced his hand, as the team was essentially left with nobody behind Pierce and Allen to defend Dwyane Wade and LeBron James.)

In any event, the trade tore the core apart, both literally and psychologically. Basketball teams talk about being families, brothers etc. all the time, but in reality – and in a best-case scenario – they are friends off the court who work well together on it in pursuit of a common goal. The Celtics are/were the exception to the rule. From the Rome trip to Ubuntu to their regular blowouts and reconciliations that are commonplace occurrences in families but typically fracturing catastrophes on pro sports teams, the Celtics were different.

Professional athletes are unique in that they have an ability to compartmentalize their emotions, but this team was actually too close, if that makes sense. The loss of Perkins sent them into a grieving state, the ripple effects of which were felt for weeks after the trade. It’s no coincidence that Rajon Rondo slipped into an abyss not long after his best friend departed.

Add to that Doc Rivers’ formidable task of integrating new components on the fly and you have the ingredients of a 10-11 limp to the finish line and tumble from first place in the East to the No. 3 seed.

So, the question now is can they do it all over again, can they flip that switch and finish the job that eluded them at Staples Center 10 months ago? Can they once again use the playoffs as a focusing mechanism that syncs them back up and fixated on the next 16 wins they must have?

There were two immediate conclusions I drew in the aftermath of the trade:

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1) Ainge essentially double-downed on Shaq by moving Perkins. He had seen all he needed over the first third of the season to be convinced that a healthy Shaq made Perkins expendable, and thus gave him the flexibility to shore up what he believed to be the team’s Achilles heel. However, a healthy Shaq is not what the team has had.

2) The only way the Celtics would truly be able to get over the loss of Perkins would be to actively visualize and even prepare for the very real eventuality that the only way they’ll be hanging Banner No. 18 come June is by going through Perkins.

On the latter conclusion, it’s impossible to know if they’ve come to grips with the fact that they may have to battle Oklahoma City with a championship on the line and Perkins standing in the way.

On the former, it’s pretty simple. As presently constructed, the Celtics are in the best possible shape to navigate Rounds 1 and 2. Both the Knicks and Heat are perimeter-heavy teams with no legitimate post threats, which means Shaq will be a tangential component. Having the 6-9 Green will enable Rivers to go small in crunch time (à la 2008, when James Posey was around) with a lineup of Rondo, Allen, Pierce, Green and Garnett. That five is ideally equipped to deal with the Chauncey Billups-Carmelo Anthony-Amare Stoudemire and Wade-James-Chris Bosh trios.

Beyond that, the team’s fate will rest on the legs of a 39-year-old center. The Bulls will be waiting in the Eastern Conference Finals, and there’s simply no way the Celtics can expect to beat them four times with Jermaine O’Neal and Krstic flanking Garnett in the paint. Ditto for the Lakers or Thunder in the Finals.

Ainge has made no secret that parting with Perkins was one of the hardest things he’s ever had to do. But he did it, and in doing so he assumed the reins of the season and invited the ire of a rabid fan base. Whatever the outcome, it’s on Danny Ainge. His legacy in Boston, along with the legacies of a handful of future Hall of Famers, hangs in the balance.