Friday, June 13, 2008

A Career-Defining Game Four

Pretty vague title, no? After all, that could be referring to any number of people involved in Boston's epic comeback on Thursday night. We've got Paul Pierce, with his newfound defense, clutch sensibilities, Inglewood roots, controversial knee injury, and Boston tenure. We've got KG who plays the game with intensity bordering on madness, a love for 20-foot jumpers, and the world's biggest monkey on his back. We've got Kobe Bryant, who is in danger of seeing the dream season - an MVP, the top seed, and an improved reputation - slip away, along with his chance at a first non-Shaq title. Heck, even James Posey has some pre-cheap shot artist Robert Horry fame he can grab a hold of. To put it simply - there are an inordinate number of people involved in this NBA Finals who have careers on the line. And that's before we even deal with Phil Jackson's attempt at a record 10th ring or David Stern's latest attempt to bully and belittle and patronize his way out of a mess that is largely his own doing.

For all of that though, I thought Ray Allen turned in the most career-defining performance in Game Four.

Allen played a fantastic basketball game and, in my opinion, was the reason that Boston won the game. In fact, he's probably the biggest reason they are up 3-1 in this series. He's on the verge of completely altering the way people will remember his career. And let me tell you, the transformation is stunning.

For starters, it was just a few weeks ago that Allen appeared to be done. As in, maybe he'll retire after the season. He couldn't hit the broad side of a barn with his patented jumper. He couldn't elevate and finish near the rim (never his strong suit anyway). He got torched by Joe Johnson. He was getting benched in favor of Posey pretty routinely. Even Boston fans and columnists got in on the act, mocking Allen by referring to the Celtics' as the "Big Two and a Half." There was very little indication that he could even get the better of Wally Z, let alone carry Boston to huge playoff wins.

But sometime during the Detroit series, he started to turn the tide. Actually, not "sometime." It was Game Five of those Eastern Conference Finals. With the Celtics desperate to win at home in order to take a 3-2 series lead, Allen shook off a combined 7-for-24 shooting performance from the previous two games in Detroit to go 9-for-15, including 5-for-6 from downtown. He scored 29 points, hit an enormous three on an out-of-bounds play that might have saved the season (Boston was reeling from a big Pistons comeback), and then iced the game with his typical deadly free throw shooting. From that point on, Allen has been looking more like the Ray Allen we all know so well - running guys off screens, hitting threes, making smart plays. In the first three games of the Finals, he was able to give the Lakers' backcourt fits with his constant movement and seemed to have an extra bounce in his step as he tallied 20.3 points per game while shooting over 50% from the field and from three.

So by the time Ray Allen stepped onto the floor for Game Four, it was no longer surprising that he was playing well. And if you told me before the game that he would be a primary reason for a Boston victory, that wouldn't have been all that surprising either.

What was surprising - and what will forever alter the way I remember Ray Allen - is the way that he played well. It was the way he became a primary reason for Boston's comeback victory. Because, quite honestly, this wasn't vintage Ray Allen. And I mean that as a compliment. Consider the following:

1. He played defense. If given 100 adjectives phrases [wow, somebody needs a grammar refresher] to describe Ray Allen, would you ever use "defensive stopper"? Doubtful. Yet, for some reason, the man guards Kobe Bryant like the fate of the free world is at stake. Whatever Bryant did to him once upon a time, it has staying power, because Allen has been applying a slow bun to every matchup with Kobe - whether in the preseason or the Finals - for nearly a decade. A byproduct of that was some really solid defense in Games 1-3, even when Kobe played well. But tonight, I thought Allen really turned it up a notch. Everyone is jumping on the Paul Pierce train tonight (and sure, rightfully so) for his willingness and ability to guard Bryant so tough in the second half of Game Four. But that ignores the unbelievable defense that Allen played over the first 24 minutes. Nobody noticed, since the Lakers were raining threes from all over the court (Trevor Ariza!) and playing fantastic, but the D was there. Allen held Bryant to 0-for-4 shooting in the first half and did a fantastic job of denying the ball and forcing Bryant to pass. This played a major role in Kobe struggling to find the range later in the game. Not only that, but Allen didn't stop playing defense just because he got switched off of his nemesis. He just spent the second half putting the clamps on Sasha Vujacic instead, running the Game Three hero off of his favorite shots, challenging everything, crashing the glass, and getting into the passing lanes to force steals. Did Ray Allen somehow morph into Shane Battier for the evening?

2. He played all 48 minutes. I won't necessarily say this was out of character, because Allen isn't exactly a guy that gets winded easily. But he's also not exactly young. Not does he exactly have perfect ankles. I know that guys can get more rest in the Finals due to the long commercial breaks, but still, 48 minutes is a haul. It takes a toll both physically and mentally, yet despite all that, Allen constantly looked like the freshest and most focused player on the court. More than anything, he gave Boston a constant on the court with all the new looks and weird lineups. Kind of like Penny and Desmond in Lost. (Okay, nothing like that.)

3. He handled the ball. I thought Rondo gave Boston some okay minutes - especially when they made their underrated little run in the first half to get the score down to 12, which helped them regain focus and confidence - on his bum ankle. (Although to hear Jeff Van Gundy tell it, Rondo not only was the worst player in NBA history tonight, but he also is responsible for all that ails modern society. I thought Beetlejuice's commentary tonight was one-note, unprofessional, annoying, and - as Simon Cowell somewhat famously uttered on American Idol this year - "borderline disrespectful." But maybe it's just me.) But there's no denying that the combination of Phil's defensive strategy and Rondo only being "89.555 percent" forced Doc's hand. And while Rivers kind of botched things in the first half when he gave Sam Cassell half a quarter to heave up bricks, he got it right in the second stanza by turning things over to Eddie House. The problem with playing House at point guard, of course, is that he can't dribble. Seriously, he can hardly bounce the ball more than three times in a row. This meant that Ray Allen and Paul Pierce had to do the bulk of the ball-handling. Pierce carried the load late in the game, but I would venture to say that Allen brought the ball up the floor 75% of the time in the second half. And he did most of that at a fast clip in order to get Boston into transition and early offense. So the fact that he had just one turnover was amazing.

4. He filled up the box score. Can you name the last time that Ray Allen had at least 9 boards and 3 steals in the same game? I'll tell you - November 20, 2006. That's like 170 games ago. So this was not normal. It was also not a luxury. If Allen hadn't been so active pinning down on the glass and getting into the passing lanes, the Celtics could not have won the game. Period. Plus, he had two boards in particular where he was absolutely skying (including a key offensive rebound late). Where did that come from?

5. He finished at the rim. Allen had several terrific plays at the basket in this game, but he saved his best for last with two really impressive forays to the rim late in the contest. First he had the uber-athletic reverse layup along the baseline and then he sealed the deal with the isolation on Vujacic that ended in a little finger roll off the glass. Again, where did that come from? Allen looked more like Kobe Bryant than Kobe Bryant in the fourth quarter.

All told, we got to sit back and watch an aging jump shooter dig down deep, completely vanquish his demons from early in this postseason, and lead his team to one of the most dramatic comeback victories of all time ... and he did it while playing the full 48 minutes and completely redefining himself, on the fly, on the biggest possible stage.


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stacks said...

Great post Hoff. Excellent anaylsis of what I think is an underrated storyline of these playoffs.

Anonymous said...

nice post, but "defensive stopper" is not an adjective

Jordan said...

Definitely a great read. And I'd like to add that this is right up there with Basketbawful and Truehoop as one of my favorite basketball blogs. Keep blogging, Adam.

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