June 25th, 2008
v.s. Los Angeles Lakers: The Finals
THE RENEWAL OF AN EPIC RIVALRY LIVED UP TO THE HYPE AS THE CELTICS WON THE NBA CHAMPIONSHIP FOR THE FIRST TIME IN 22 YEARS
THE 2008 NBA CHAMPIONSHIP SERIES was contested between ancient rivals but new teams. The Boston Celtics manifested the Big Bang Theory of team formation, having suddenly reached elite status last summer with the additions of Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen. (All right, that's two Big Bangs.) The Los Angeles Lakers began the year with mostly the same personnel it had last season but needed a mental overhaul, not to mention its own major move—the midseason acquisition of Pau Gasol.
Neither franchise was a sure bet to make the Finals, not with experienced rivals like the San Antonio Spurs and the Detroit Pistons lying in wait, teams that had been together much longer than these two. But on they marched—the Celtics stressing defense, the Lakers relying on offense—toward a championship series that most fans wanted, if only so they could pull out the grainy photos of Bill Russell, Jerry West, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. In that regard, then, the Finals were doomed at some level to disappoint.
But they didn't. Injuries were overcome, monumental comebacks were made, unlikely heroes were forged, and old stereotypes were undone. And when this six-game series was over, Boston's 17th championship was earned by three players who supposedly couldn't win the big one; a coach who supposedly couldn't draw an X or an O on a tic-tac-toe board; and a general manager who supposedly couldn't pick a winner out of a police lineup.
There had been so much talk about history in the 11th championship revival of the NBA's most storied rivalry that one half-expected Bob Cousy, Bill Russell and Larry Bird to trot out for pregame warmups and give a friendly wave to Jerry West, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson at the other end. But, no, as game time approached on the parquet, the legends were all in mufti ( Russell and John Havlicek for the Celtics, Abdul-Jabbar and Magic for the Lakers), and the only on-court connection that resonated with the past was the WALTON on the jersey of the L.A.'s Luke. He had been a youngster of seven when his father, Bill, played in the 1987 Finals for the Celtics against the Lakers, the last time, as everyone had heard endlessly by tip-off, that Boston had battled for a championship.
The Celtics began the game, as is their wont, in aggressive fashion. Kobe Bryant's shots were off the mark, repeatedly going in and out because he sometimes shoots it with a line-drive arc, and he was even outplayed over one short stretch by Sam Cassell, the Celtics' always-chattering backup point guard. Still, the Lakers regrouped and led 51-46 at halftime, the tide having seemingly turned back in the favor of favored L.A.
Celtics forward Paul Pierce unfavored it early in the third, hitting three consecutive shots, drawing a free throw and a rare four-point play on the second one with a masterly pump fake. But midway through the third quarter Pierce crumpled to the floor in pain after teammate Kendrick Perkins fell into him, collapsing Pierce's right knee. Teammates Tony Allen and Brian Scalabrine carried him through a tunnel under the stands, where he was put in a wheelchair and rolled into the locker room, and 18,000 Banknorth loyalists thought, We wait 21 years to get back to the Finals, and our captain goes down?
But not out. Improbably, Pierce skipped back onto the floor about three minutes later and went instantly to the scorers' table. There was a moment of confusion about whether he was even allowed to play, but coach Doc Rivers got the word that it was O.K. So back he went. Lakers coach Phil Jackson called a timeout to defuse the drama of the moment—no one would have more fun with the Pierce injury than Jackson—but neither he nor his team could do anything about the inspirational lift provided by the Celtics' captain. More to the point, neither could they stop the two dramatic three-pointers Pierce hit in the third period as the Celtics grabbed a lead they never lost.
"I just wanted to get back out there," Pierce said after the game. Added Kevin Garnett, who despite a fourth-quarter shooting slump (at one point he missed nine shots in a row) played a superb all-around game with 24 points (a team high and two more than Pierce) and 13 rebounds, "He rejuvenated us."
The will-he-or-won't-he? drama played out in the newspapers before Game 2, but really, no one close to the series suspected for one moment that Pierce would not play in Game 2. Least of all Jackson. In the days before the game the L.A. coach compared Pierce's leaving the game to players having equipment malfunctions with torn shoelaces and broken drawstrings; scoffed at his sudden revival in the locker room ("Was Oral Roberts back there?") and said that the only aspect of the whole episode his team had discussed was Pierce's being put in a wheelchair ("We decided it was the first time we had seen that").
A strategic ploy might've been running through the mind of the Zen Master, though. In the old days ('60s and '80s) of the rivalry, the Celtics were seen as the tough guys and the Lakers the drama kings, the kind of guys who might, say, hop in a wheelchair after a minor injury. Jackson could've been trying to send a message that times had changed.
The problem for the Lakers, though, was that the Celtics were still the tougher team, as they proved in this game by dominating the boards, stifling L.A.'s interior players ( Lamar Odom and Gasol) and continuing to offer help on defense against Bryant that limited his path to the basket. "They make me a perimeter player," Bryant had admitted before the game.
The Lakers' defense, meanwhile, made Celtics backup forward Leon Powe an All-Star player. The second-year forward stole the show in the third quarter. When Powe threw down a ferocious dunk with 35 seconds left in the period, Cassell and his fellow backup point guard, Eddie House, celebrated so wildly on the bench that they had to be restrained by referee Kenny Mauer. At that moment Powe (pronounced Poe) was both the most famous sports Leon since Spinks and the personification of a horror tale to the Lakers, who were having enough trouble stopping Pierce, Garnett and Allen.
But then the Lakers started picking away, and the Celtics' offense went to sleep. Bryant at last found his touch—he would finish the fourth quarter with 13 points—and Vladimir Radmanovic and Sasha Vujacic added key three-pointers. The Garden had grown almost quiet as the lead was cut to just 104-102 after two Bryant free throws with 38 seconds left.
But then it was time for...who else but Pierce? He drove to the basket, drew a foul and made both free throws. Then, at the other end, he jumped as high as he could and just grazed a potential Vujacic three-pointer with the fingertips of his "off" hand, the left. Victory was preserved.
But what was the lasting message? That the Celtics' dominance had peaked in the third quarter of Game 2? Or that they had the staying power to remain on top even after the Lakers rediscovered some of their mojo?
"All I know is that we're going back home," said Odom. "Things will be different there."
Actually, things weren't so different in the beginning. Yes, the familiar chant of Beat L.A.! that had resonated through TD Banknorth Garden was replaced by Bos-ton Sucks! But the Lakers' attack was still stilted and out of rhythm. The Purple-and-Gold was less a triangle offense than a single-point offense, that point being 24. Indeed, Bryant, who took seven shots in the first quarter alone, was the only Laker who could get going.
One reason that Bryant took most of the shots was that his aggressive-from-the-start leadership is always a two-edged sword. Much of the old Bryant had returned by this stage in the series, the Bryant with a short fuse, the Bryant who is intolerant of teammates' mistakes. Perhaps that accounted for the reluctance of Gasol and Odom to go strong to the basket—better to pass off and have Kobe holler at someone else than miss a shot and absorb the critique yourself.
Had Garnett not been curiously tepid himself on offense (unselfish to an extent, he tends to drift around the perimeter) and Pierce curiously ineffective (he would finish with six points, an astoundingly weak performance for someone who had dominated Games 1 and 2), the Celtics' lead would've been larger than the 68-66 margin they held with eight minutes left. "I probably do need to take the ball to the basket a little more," Garnett, who made only 6 of 21 shots, said later. Pierce, for his part, didn't use his knee as an excuse—perhaps he wouldn't dare do so on the road—but suggested that he was a little "too happy" to have the opportunity to come back home (he had been a high school star in L.A.) and lost focus.
Backup guard Vujacic's official nickname is the Machine, but Jackson often goes with the more colorful Rockhead. Vujacic is so known because his confidence in his own shot often blinds him to situations in which he should give the ball up. In that respect he is the anti-Gasol and the anti-Odom. Bryant might get in his face for taking a bad shot, yet Rockhead will hoist one up 10 seconds later if given the opportunity. Which is what happened when Vujacic's three-pointer with 1:53 left gave L.A. a 81-76 lead. That enabled Bryant (game-high 36 points) to hit two hold-the-lead field goals down the stretch. Vujacic finished with 20, the only other Laker in double figures.
Here's one more sure thing: In sports you should never say, One thing's for sure.
In one of the most unlikely results in Finals history, the Celtics erased a 24-point second-quarter deficit to steal this crucial Game 4 and take a 3-1 series lead, presenting the Lakers with an obstacle that no NBA team has overcome since the league went to a 2-3-2 format before the 1984-85 season. That collapse gave the Lakers the ignominious distinction of blowing the largest Finals lead (it was 45-21 with 6:45 left in the second quarter) since the Elias Sports Bureau began keeping such stats in 1970. The victory was also achieved with two Celtics starters ( point guard Rajon Rondo with an injured left ankle and Perkins with a strained shoulder) sitting out most of the second half.
After the game Bryant was asked how he and his mates would deal with such a shocking turn of events. "A lot of wine, a lot of beer, a couple shots, maybe like 20 of them," he said. Doubtless Bryant did not make it to 20 shots, but, if he had, that would've been one more than he took during the game—he finished with only 17 points on 6-of-19 shooting.
Boston needed a couple of clutch baskets down the stretch, but the difference actually came in the third quarter when the Celtics outscored the Lakers 31-15. That continued a trend, since Boston had digitally reversed L.A. in the third quarter through the first three games, outscoring the Lakers 85-58 in that period. With his team holding an apparently safe 58-40 lead at halftime, Jackson stressed the necessity of reversing the third-quarter trend; later, he would wonder if he put too much pressure on his team by mentioning it.
The Lakers were still ahead 68-48 with 7:06 left in the third, though. That's when Rivers substituted House for the gimpy Rondo. It was the Lakers' reserves who had the hip moniker (the Bench Mob) and the apparent advantage when coaches went with a small lineup. But it was the Celtics' subs and the Celtics' little guys who whittled away the lead and ultimately won the game. While the Bench Mob had zero points in the second half, the Celtics got a collective 19 out of House, James Posey and P.J. Brown. "Everybody knows what I'm going to do when I get out there," said House, who did not play much in the Eastern finals because his ball handling is shaky against a tight man-to-man. "I'm going to get up my shots."
It was House's 18-footer with 4:07 left that gave the Celtics their first lead, 84-83, and they never trailed again. Posey contributed a huge three-pointer with 1:13 left, drifting to his left as he released it. But it was a starter, Allen, who supplied the clincher when he out-juked Vujacic, drove the right side and, with no Laker offering help defense, coasted in for a layup and a 96-91 lead with 16 seconds left. After that, the denizens of Staples began heading for the exits.
The loss left the Lakers, who had won 15 in a row at home dating to March 30, searching for answers and facing the abyss. They would be trying to do what no team has ever done, making a Celtics championship a near certainty. But Boston needed to be mindful of one thing: There are no sure things in sports.
The Celtics, down by 19 points early in the second quarter, obviously had the Lakers just where they wanted 'em. Time for another comeback, not as monumental as the one in Game 4 but even more important: This would be the comeback that won a championship.
Who would be the unlikely hero this time around? Rivers reached deep into his closet—no, go deeper, Doc—and came up with guard Tony Allen, who had seen scant action in the first four games. Allen entered the game near the end of the first quarter to spell Ray Allen, and Rivers stayed with him. It turned out to be an excellent decision. T. Allen, known for his always-chattering, upbeat nature on the bench—in that regard, he's a younger (26) version of the 38-year-old Cassell—made three of his four shots, and, just as important, stuck like wallpaper paste to Bryant. After the Kobester got the Lakers going with 15 first-quarter points, he missed all four of his shots in the second, partly because Allen was relentlessly chasing him around the court. "It's tough playing Kobe," he said later, "but at least you know what you gotta do. You gotta stay on him every minute." By halftime the Celtics had cut that 19-point deficit to three, 55-52.
But there were signs of trouble for the Celtics. Perkins wasn't in uniform because of the bad shoulder, which was a contributing factor in two other developments—foul trouble for Garnett, who had to cover even more territory; and more space around the rim for Odom and Gasol, who both finished the first half with seven rebounds.
Rondo played only 14 minutes—Rivers was concerned with both his ankle and his ineffectiveness running the offense—but it was his jump shot that gave the Celtics a 62-60 lead with 8:26 left in the third quarter. On this night, however, L.A. didn't wither, even though Pierce was practically unstoppable.
It was Bryant who came up with the game's biggest play. With 40 seconds left and the Lakers clinging to a 97-95 lead, Garnett set a high screen for Pierce, a play which had constituted about 90% of the Celtics' offense in the second half. Pierce used the screen to get by Bryant, but the Laker reached from behind the Boston star and flicked the ball away. It was a clean play, Pierce, who finished with 38 points, would concede later. The ball went right to Odom; he threw a perfect pass downcourt to a streaking Bryant, whose resounding dunk gave L.A. a four-point lead that would hold up.
"Paul protects the ball extremely well," said Bryant, "but as soon as I noticed the ball was exposed a little bit, it was important for me to go after it."
And so it was back across the country for both tired teams. The Celtics retained home court advantage, but there were concerns: Perkins's injury status; Rondo's status in general; Garnett's confidence, after he missed three key fourth-quarter free throws that could have made the difference in Game 5. "That [the missed foul shots] will definitely haunt me tonight," KG admitted after the game. And there was the memory of Game 2, when the Celtics blew nearly all of a 24-point lead.
"We wanted to go home," said Rivers, "we just didn't want to be playing."
The loyalists at TD Banknorth Garden didn't feel that way, though. They hadn't enjoyed a potentially climactic Game 6 at home since 1986, when the Celtics skunked the Houston Rockets 114-97 to win the title. They would be there in force.
Could anyone have seen this coming? Was there something different about Garnett's primal scream, which plays on the arena scoreboard before the game to get the home crowd jacked? Or was it just, at this point in the season, that the Celtics were simply a better team?
"They showed us their strength," Jackson would say when it was all over.
And it was all over relatively quickly. Bryant once again got the Lakers off, hitting four shots over Ray Allen in the first 6� minutes of the game, three of them three-pointers. For the Lakers, though, that is always a dicey path to victory. The Celtics' defense is simply too good not to catch up to Bryant eventually, frustrate him with three defenders ( Allen, Pierce and Posey) and put up the vaunted wall that keeps the Lakers' superstar from getting to the hoop. And when Garnett almost matched Bryant's first-quarter output (11-10), one could almost see the stoop in Bryant's shoulders.
"They defended me well tonight," Bryant said after the game. "They defended me well the whole series."
Whatever fight the Lakers had (in an arena where the thundering cry of Beat L.A.! seemed to wake up the ghosts of the past) was taken out of them in a 1:30 stretch of the second quarter. Posey hit a three-pointer to put the Boston lead at a modest 35-29. Then he picked off a bad pass from Vujacic that led to a three-pointer from House to put it at 38-29. House followed with two free throws and, at the other end, Posey came up with still another steal. He topped that off with a three-pointer off a Pierce pass and, suddenly, it was 43-29 with 5:29 still left in the second quarter. The Lakers never got any closer than 10 points for the rest of the game, and everybody could've gone home early.
But of course they didn't. They stuck around to watch the completion of the greatest single-season turnaround in NBA history. They stuck around to watch the much-maligned Rondo ("The key to the game," according to Jackson) finish with 21 points, eight assists and six steals. They stuck around to watch Allen return from a poke in the eye to score a total of 26 points, including seven of nine from three-point range.
They stuck around to watch Rivers remove the Big Three from the game together with 4:01 left and commence the subsequent hugathon that went on around the bench. They stuck around to watch Pierce, who had struggled with his shot the entire game, hit his target when he dumped Gatorade on Rivers, believed to be an NBA first. They stuck around to watch Pierce receive the Finals MVP award after averaging 21.8 points, 4.5 rebounds and 6.3 assists. And they stuck around to watch Garnett take a long-legged stroll to midcourt and plant a kiss on the Celtics logo.
More than a few spectators, too, wondered if Red Auerbach was going to suddenly appear and take his place amid a few of the legendary Celtics who were in attendance—Bill Russell, John Havlicek, Tom Heinsohn, Cedric Maxwell and JoJo White. For with this victory, Boston kept the Lakers' Jackson from a 10th title, which would've broken the tie with Red for most championships in NBA history.
"Knowing that you were at rock bottom a year ago today, and to climb all the way to the top," said Pierce, his uniform soaked with champagne, his smile as wide as Boston Harbor, "this is a dream come true, and I'm going to cherish this forever."