Paid in Full: Celtics Clinch Banner 17
With a systematic dismantling of the Lakers in Game 6, the Boston Celtics clinched their 17th NBA title. The final score was 131-92 but the game was essentially over after a dominating second quarter in which Boston outscored Los Angeles 34-15.
Silencing his critics, Kevin Garnett came up huge, especially during the first half, and was instrumental in Boston’s early run to an insurmountable lead. His final line was 26 points, 14 rebounds, 4 assists and 3 steals. He was aggressive early and often on offense and helped set the standard of in-your-face basketball that his team demonstrated wire to wire.
Ray Allen was similarly magnificent, scoring 26 points that were fueled by his 7-for-9 shooting from beyond the arc. It was the capstone of an exceptionally played Finals series by Allen, who set the record with 22 treys.
Rajon Rondo also submitted a watershed performance, finishing with 21 points, 7 rebounds, 8 assists and 6 steals. If Garnett had a partner in aggression during this game, it was Rondo, who finally seemed able to put his ankle woes behind him and regain the quickness that is so integral to his game. Throughout the evening, Rondo wreaked havoc in the passing lanes and prevented the Lakers from ever finding a flow to their offense.
James Posey and P.J. Brown were the other major factors for Boston. Posey predictably lived up to his nickname of “Big Game James”, scoring 11 points on 4-for-4 shootings (including 3-3 from deep waters) and played a stifling defense on Kobe Bryant that effectively neutralized “the greatest player on earth”.
Bryant finished with 22 but shot only 7-for-22 and scored only 11 more points after the 5:30 mark in the first quarter. In other words, he wasn’t a factor, which could never be said about Michael Jordan in June. Pau Gasol scored 11points in 32 minutes, which wasn’t nearly good enough for a team that desperately needed their number two scoring option to step up.
Regardless, the end result of this game had little to do with the failings of Gasol, Bryant or anyone else in the purple and gold. It was about what drove this Celtics team to victory all season long: defense and teamwork. Time and again, help defense sealed the gaps and forced the opposing offense into difficult shots. On the other end, the Celtics ran a clinic on passing out of double teams and finding the man with the best shot. Forget the triangle. Give me a rotation of players who can make the right pass to the right man.
Some other thoughts:
I respect Phil Jackson. I even like some things about him. That said, it adds a little oomph to Banner 17 knowing that the Celtics victory prevented Jackson from surpassing Red Auerbach to take the lead with 10 coaching rings.
Yes, it’s been said a million times already but it needs to be said again. It was less than a year ago that the ping pong balls fell horribly wrong and drove the Celtics down to the number five slot in the draft. After that, Celtics Nation had every reason to despair. Hope was a fallacy and only the truly optimistic and/or naïve believed that the core of youth would ever evolve into anything but a middle-of-the-road playoff team. Then it all happened. Ainge pulled the trigger on the Ray Allen deal, which on its own merits was a bit confusing because it left the team in limbo with a too young youth movement mixed together with a couple of aging swingmen. Then the Garnett deal happened, which, well, changed everything. The culture. The outlook. Expectations. The collective commitment to defense. Throw in the additions of James Posey and Tom Thibodeau and the ability to win based on defense was cemented.
Early on, there were some questions with some answers that would remain to be seen: Could the Big Three (Can we call them that now, fellas? Are we within our rights now? Are you sure we have your permission?) jell together and set their egos aside? Could the aging superstars handle the rigors of a long season? Could Rajon Rondo, a kid that could’ve potentially been in his senior season at Kentucky, handle the pressure of running the offense for the big dogs? Were the supporting cast of players good enough? Was the ambitious concept of team defense as the primary focus going to work? Could Doc Rivers lead this team to the promised land? In summation: Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes and yes, in that order.
This all reminds me of a poster of the Philadelphia 76ers following their title in 1983. It featured Doctor J and Moses Malone and it said “Paid in Full”. That’s how I feel about this Celtics team. Paid in Full. Damned straight. After all, it’s been a long 22 years. Not the stuff of stupid curse books but it’s still a long period of time to watch a team fall short, sometimes woefully and embarrassingly short. I still recall being stunned in watching the Celtics get run off the floor in losing the Finals clincher to the Lakers in 1987. There were excuses then, of course, McHale had the broken foot. Walton was hurt. Therefore, none of us ever could have imagined that it was take another two decades plus for the team to return to the Finals, let alone foresee the string of tragedies, mishaps and seemingly endless stretches of futility that would befall the team in the years that followed. It feels good to leave all that baggage and bad karma behind for good. It’s cathartic.
As much as anyone else, this moment belongs to Danny Ainge for engineering this whole thing. A year ago, I was writing articles looking back fondly on the 2002 playoff run, as if those were the days of Camelot. The point was, though, that I like a lot of ardent followers of the team were sick of watching kids who didn’t quite grasp the game run around in Celtics jerseys and speculating about how good they’d be in a few years. Some of the die-hards understood Ainge’s game plan which in a nutshell was to collect enough marketable chips to eventually cash into a core of veterans in their prime. It made sense but we all wondered whether he’d actually be able to pull it off, especially considering the challenges of fitting it all into CBA guidelines and fighting the uphill battle of wooing players to Boston (hello, Kevin Garnett, who at first took a pass on us). Ainge pulled it off. He deserves every molecule of that tiny glass trophy the league awarded him a couple months ago for Executive of the Year.
Finally, kudos to Wyc and the boys. They claimed they’d overspend if the team came close to contention and then backed it up, willingly paying mounds of luxury tax penalties for guys like Garnett, Posey and even P.J. Brown. Way to back it up with action and balls.
Congratulations to the Celtics and to all that have chosen to follow them in their quest for title 17. Paid in full, baby.
[top image: http://www.flickr.com/photos/pkeleher/]