LET’S GET ONE THING STRAIGHT FROM THE JUMP: I take the Celtics very personally. They have always been a part of my life. As a 23-year-old, however, the teams I grew up with did not embody the “Celtics Way.” There were no titles, but more importantly, there were no moments in which I was made a believer in things I was not aware I hadn’t believed in before. That’s what it’s like watching Kevin Garnett, Rajon Rondo, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, and Doc Rivers. Straight up, it’s like being in love with another person; you view the time before you loved them as a time in which you did not understand that you were lonely. The Celtics teams I grew up with consisted of Antoine Walker, Kenny Anderson, the great Walter McCarty, Coach Jim O’Brien and his vaunted iso-on-the-wing offence which prominently featured, yes, Paul Pierce. Or rather, Paul Pierce holding the ball for 15 seconds and then kicking out to ‘Toine for a deeply misguided 3-pointer. Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen changed things because, in brief, Kevin Garnett is a force of nature, Ray Allen, “The Professional,” is the ultimate assassin. Paul Pierce was permitted to become the all-time great he is, and Rajon Rondo entered the league under immense pressure to get his guys the ball in the right spots, and at all costs, to win with them, on their level. Which helped him out a little bit in becoming arguably the best point guard on the planet, seeing that those two things are somewhat important for point guards. This is all to explain that I will periodically refer to the Celtics as “us,” and use the pronoun “we” to describe things the Celtics do. Welcome to sports.
This team, led by the example of Garnett, plays with so much heart that the entire world has noticed. I remember being in Florence, Italy, during the 2010 run to the Finals, and the barbershops and cafes would explode whenever the Celtics made a play. They are loved everywhere basketball, and sports in general, are loved, because they don’t give a goddamn what time it is, who predicted what on TV, or where they’re playing, and they certainly couldn’t give a fuck if your name is LeBron James. They’re gonna do what they need to do to win a championship, or they’re gonna fall short of that goal because heart, the will to win, and determination just weren’t enough that night. They can’t wait to get on the court and throw the ball up. It doesn’t matter that the other team may be more talented as individuals. Doesn’t matter. The Celtics think they are the better team. And you know what? They just might be. But these Celtics can also beat teams that have more talent. In fact, they love to. It just puts all the more on display that despite your Nike contract and your reserved seating in the VIP at LIV Night Club, we are better than you at basketball. Celtics fans are betting that the old legs and the outside stroke can match the heart and pride we know will be there. The Miami Heat have a staggering amount of talent, but it is the heart, the will to win, that may or may not show up. How thrilling. I’d rather be rooting for the Celtics, safe to say.
Going into Game 7, I am fairly certain that the only way the Miami Heat can beat us is if they blow us out by 20, as they did in Game 6. If it’s close in the final minutes of the game that decides the fate of each team’s season, potentially throwing a strong blow to individual legacies of LeBron and Wade in one direction or the other, I don’t think the Heat can win. Tim Legler, one of the better analysts on ESPN, agrees. The final minutes, the witching hour, belong to the Celtics. That’s “grit and balls” time, and “grit and balls” time is the best time. Paul Pierce wants to humiliate whoever is guarding him in the biggest moments. Those moments where everyone knows that the shot that goes up will significantly change the game to a possibly irrevocable degree? Those are Paul Pierce moments. Ray Allen moments. Rondo moments. KG moments. The only close game the Heat have won was Game 2, an overtime game in which the blatant slap to the face of a penetrating Rondo went uncalled, and the 5-on-4 dunk that followed essentially sealed the game since Paul Pierce had fouled out. That game lit a fuse under the Men In Green, because they should have won that game, and they knew it. It was the game that had every analyst pulling out their shovels to bury the Celtics, the game in which recklessly driving to the basket was championed over playing basketball the right way (i.e. moving the ball, getting the right shots, defending with passion, taking what the game gives you, and above all, living and dying for your teammates). You can guess who is who in the aforementioned situation.
In the last 5 minutes of a game in which the lead is 5 points or fewer for either team, Paul Pierce is shooting 12-19 in these playoffs. That’s 63.2 percent, and yes, it’s the best in the league. Rondo is shooting 16-31, 51.6 percent, in the same situations. The Celtics, as a team, are shooting a clean 50 percent, a ridiculous 48 of 96 field goals, trailing only the Spurs who had a mere 17 attempts is such situations. LeBron is 6-19 during that time, and Wade is 8-20. When it really counts, we know what to do, and they don’t. If it’s close, we’re winning this game. No sentiment could speak more to the honor and integrity of the Celtics. And it doesn’t matter what happens tonight, that will remain the truth. Maybe the Heat figure it out tonight, and maybe they don’t, but the Celtics have got this winning thing down. Nothing can change that, though the legacies of these Celtics can be rocketed even further up the totem pole of greatness if they are to deny the Heat and send them home.
We were right there. Right where we wanted to be. 4th quarter, tie ballgame, let’s see what we can do. Even crept within five at the previously divine five-minute mark on a pure hustle play when Rondo raced past James and put home a fast break lay-up. But things went south from there. Everything we had wanted was not quite enough. Chris Bosh was an incredible 8-10 for the night, including 3-4 from deep. It was the difference in the game. James and Wade were their respective selves, meaning LeBron played pretty huge and Wade did well. Neither of them was spectacular, save for LeBron’s runaround 3-pointer from well beyond the line after the Celtics’ defense had broken the possession. We didn’t make any shots. First we missed good looks at the basket, and as the misses piled up, the looks we got worsened.
Still, the best part of the game was the final seconds, when Pierce, Ray, and KG came out of the game. You could see the emotion on each of their faces as they left the floor (especially Pierce, who was visibly upset), and the emotion on Doc’s face as he greeted them on their way to the bench. You could see the pain, the disappointment, and the heads held high. KG embracing Doc, tapping him on the chest, consoling him as Doc nodded knowingly, was particularly extraordinary. Despite KG giving all of himself, and then reaching somewhere unknown to give even more, it just didn’t go his way. For him to have the fortitude not only to remain strong on his own as everything slipped away, but to also reach out to his teammates and coach in that tragic moment, showed exactly what that man is all about. That was the defining moment of the game. Not LeBron’s 3, not Wade’s and-1 that sealed it, but the moment in which every Celtic fan whose heart was breaking knew they were justified, at least, in their heartbreak. Knew that it hurt our Celtic idols just as much, and in all likelihood, much, much more. Knew that there was nothing to do but applaud, and be thankful we have had this team to love. I am a Celtics fan, and I’m proud of my team.
After the game, Ray Allen said, “This one hit me hard, I had-,” and he sighed, “we wanted it so bad.” Rajon Rondo was asked if he thought the team overachieved, and he shook his head, looked away, and said, “Nope.” The reporter persisted, “Out of gas at the end, though?” Rondo answered, “We missed shots.” Still, the reporter went further, rebutting, “That can be caused by being tired, though.” Rondo listened, and replied, “Could be. That’s your opinion.” It was unfittingly classy for Rondo, a player known for his fire, and some would say his ‘mercurial’ nature. He continued to speak about the game, how we came up short, and crediting the Heat. Doc Rivers said in summation, “People, at times, talk about the NBA as an individual league. I think we’ve,” he shook his head, “that theory’s gone. This is a team.” He went on about the ways in which Miami beat us. He mentioned our turnovers, and getting beat off the dribble, before abruptly commenting, “Overall, I don’t know if I’ve ever had a group like this.” Regarding this year’s group of Celtics, Doc said, “How much they gave up to win, that’s what I’ll remember most about them.”
Pain is a part of love. Everyone from Socrates to Ja Rule has meditated on this dichotomy. Love always hurts, at some point, and loving through the hurt makes the love stronger. All you can hope for is that the hurt is worth it, that the love is valuable enough to justify the pain it brings. These Celtics were worth it. Are worth it. “How much they gave up to win,” Doc said. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter that we didn’t win. What matters is that the pain of losing is not enough to diminish the love even a little bit, but on the contrary, it has revealed the depths to which we love these players, this team. We knew all along that these Celtics were special. Watching them lose hurts, but, above all, it makes me realize that loving them through that pain is the enduring gift of an extraordinary Celtics team.