Celtics 97, Cavaliers 92
There was an unquestionable mystique about the Celtics in old Boston Garden. Strange things happened there at crucial moments, always in the favor of the Celtics. Key games featured opposing players dribbling off of dead spots on the floor, or famous steals by the likes of Havlicek, Henderson and Bird. By the time the Garden was torn down in 1997, the mystique was gone and the Celtics were just another franchise, albeit with a storied history and plenty of banners hanging from the rafters of the new Fleet Center.
The names changed, but they were still always the Celtics. Russell/Cousy/Sharman bled into Russell/Jones/Havlicek into Havlicek/White/Cowens and, finally, into Bird/Parish/McHale. The successors to the 1980s big three should have been led by Len Bias and Reggie Lewis but tragedy intervened. The line had been broken. After winning 16 championships in 30 years, the Celtics entered this season in search of that elusive 17th banner following 21 seasons of futility.
A lot changed during those 21 years. The Garden closed and the Fleet Center eventually became the new Garden. Red Auerbach died. There was little to mark the Boston NBA franchise as "Celtics" except for the name on the front of the jerseys and the parquet floor. Last season, the franchise hit rock bottom, losing 58 games and finishing at the bottom of the Eastern Conference. Then came the great Danny Ainge makeover of the summer of 2007--K.G., Ray Ray and a terrific bench built on the cheap. Hopes soared in Boston. Commercials were shot. Old Celtics began coming out of the woodwork to be seen at the new Garden. Tom Heinsohn, well, he still grumbled nonstop about referees but he somehow seemed more lovable while doing it. The team won 66 games and established itself as the favorite to win the NBA championship entering the postseason.
Sunday's thrilling Game Seven defeat of LeBron James marked the first time this season that you could get a whiff of that old mystique. Oh, it's not back yet--only a title can wake up those ghosts. Nevertheless, these were the Celtics, in a classic sense, and after 11 mostly grueling years in the league, Paul Pierce may have finally earned his place in the Boston sports pantheon.
Game Six of this series was bad. Game Seven was a classic. The series as a whole was one of the lowest scoring series in playoff history (at least according play-by-play man Mike Breen) and the quality of basketball being played often left a lot to be desired. On Sunday, however, the Cavaliers and Celtics found themselves in game in which the drama and aesthetics matched the intensity. The game had a rhythm and a pace, and it featured one of the most memorable Game Seven duels we've seen.
The mano y mano battle between Paul Pierce and LeBron James reminded many of the Dominique Wilkins/Larry Bird matchup 20 years ago, when Wilkins scored 47 points only to see his Hawks come up short in a Game Seven at the old Garden thanks to 34 points from Bird--20 in the final quarter. Pierce (41 points) and James (45 points) were even better on Sunday, carrying their respective teams all afternoon. By matching the unmatchable James and willing his team to a series-clinching win, Pierce may have finally established himself as a bonafide Celtic legend. He was already there in terms of tenure and statistics but, in Boston, the ring is the thing. Boston still has two tough series ahead of it but Boston fans are probably looking at Pierce in a different light this morning. I know I am.
The main difference between Pierce in Game Seven and in the rest of the series was, obviously, that he was hitting his shots. He had one of those rhythms going when he knew if he could get any kind of the look at the rim, the ball was going to the bottom of the net. Doc Rivers was smart enough to recognize that and he kept the ball in Pierce's hands most of the afternoon. A more subtle difference in Pierce's play was his quick decision making. Too often in the previous games, the ball would die in Pierce's hands, as he held it out top, allowing the shot clock to wind down, and then would be forced to take a bad shot or make a bad pass. On Sunday, he was much quicker, making a move as soon as he caught the ball, or swinging it to a teammate to keep the offense flowing.
The Celtics held a 39-29 edge on the boards and Kevin Garnett was superb in cleaning the defensive glass and making the quick outlet pass to push the tempo. Rather than walking the ball up the floor or even pushing the pace with the dribble, Boston was much more effective by advancing the ball up the court with the pass, resulting in more easy looks. It wasn't exactly a fastbreak attack but Rivers had his team getting more early offense, the screens set and the cutters moving before the shot clock was in single digits. The result was 20 assists on 32 field goals, 34 free throw attempts, a 51.5 eFG% and just 10 turnovers.
Boston got a huge lift from its bench, with an aggregate game score of 44 compared to Cleveland's 17. Eddie House again got the call as backup point guard over Sam Cassell. House wasn't hitting his shot as he had in Game Six, but his defensive effort and hustle was a shot in the arm for the Celtics. James Posey played 26 minutes and took only one shot. Rivers used him more in the role of a defensive stopper, meaning that Pierce had to spend less time chasing around James and could concentrate on creating the points that Boston had been so starved for during the series. Topping off the bench performance was old man P.J. Brown. Brown had 10 points and six rebounds, including a couple of key stickbacks off the offensive glass. He also hit a crucial 17-footer in the final minute. That shot was emblematic of what this year's Celtics were all about--trust in the role players, contributions from every man on the roster.
As for Cleveland, James finally gave Boston his best shot. Too bad his teammates were firing blanks. The offense was just as stagnant and inept as it had been in Game Six except for the pretty significant fact that James was spectacular. He was 14-of-29 from the floor; his teammates were 16-of-38 and the Cavs assisted on only 13 of their 30 made field goals. Delonte West scored 15 points--the only Cleveland player besides James to hit double digits--but also committed six turnovers. The Cavs were -4 on turnovers, -10 on the boards. Nearly a third (22 of 67) of their field-goal attempts were from behind the arc. They hit just seven of those. James kept the Boston fans on edge all the way till the end. Still, Cleveland never led. One guy isn't enough.
On the other end, Mike Brown used more blitz traps, when the two defenders involved in a pick-and-roll will run at the player with the ball. Boston was effective in combating this by dribbling away from the trap to create space and then hitting the screener with a jump pass before the defense could rotate. This created a lot of seams in the Cleveland defense and I'm not sure why Brown would have emphasized that strategy when Cleveland had been so effective in throttling the Celtics for most of the six previous games. Perhaps that's my imagination and I just noticed it because the Celtics were so much better at defeating the double teams but it sure seemed like Brown was blitz trapping more often.
Where do the Cavs go from here? GM Danny Ferry completely changed the roster beyond the core of James, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Anderson Varejao and Sasha Pavlovic but the end result was the same: LeBron or bust. Cleveland needs to find James' Scottie Pippen. I'm not sure how that's going to happen. Cleveland is way over the salary cap. The Cavs are on the hook for two more years and $28.5 million to Ben Wallace. There's $7.3 million going to Eric Snow. Meanwhile, they have two more seasons to make James happy or he can opt out and go Hollywood or Broadway or whatever. Good luck, Danny.
The Eastern Conference is down to the Celtics-Pistons confrontation that has seemed inevitable since November. The Celtics have to battle an emotional letdown thanks to a quick turnaround. For the Pistons, it's a question of being rested or rusted. The Pistons are fixtures in the conference finals. The Celtics have been there only once in the last 20 years. But Boston is back. Yeah, the Celtics were already back but, after Sunday, they are BACK.
Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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