Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Game Six Thoughts

It's not everyday that you see an NBA team clinch a title by rolling to a 39-point blowout win. I mean, you have to have a real perfect storm of events - amazing play by the winning team and horrendous performances from the losers chief among them. A dash of indifference from the defeated head coach is helpful, as is a boisterous home crowd. All in all, it was just an absolute shellacking that the Celtics put on the Lakers in a 131-92 victory. And there was so much to discuss, so much to soak up, that I had to abandon any semblance of a theme and just bullet out all the analysis. So here goes, in order of my personal preference (because hey, that's what blogging is all about!):

1. The return of Rondo. Actually, this one needs its own post. More on this tomorrow, but I'm just so happy for my favorite Celtic. The way that Rondo shook off the injury, the struggles, and the detractors to throw up a massive 21-8-7-6 line was incredible. I sure hope that playoff fantasy leagues exist and that somebody had Rondo on his team tonight. What a box score. And the crazy thing is that the stats barely scratch the surface of Rondo's impact. It is worth noting that both Doc Rivers and Phil Jackson singled Rondo out (apropos of nothing) as the key player in the game. I'll stop there since I'll be penning a 14,000 word (estimated) Rondo post tomorrow, but for me, the little guy's magnificent return was the biggest story of this contest.

2. The love fest. Is it possible that we will wind up remembering this team more for the hilariously epic victory celebration than for the victory itself? I think these guys wrestled the title of "most excessive celebration" away from the cast of Chicago (at the 2003 Oscars). At certain points, it was downright uncomfortable. Now, I don't want to be seen as the guy raining on the parade, but you have to acknowledge that it was all a bit much. Doc Rivers and Paul Pierce were understandably emotional, given the state of all things Celtics about a year ago, but their protracted hugs, near-kisses, rib taps (Doc gave him about 45 light taps to the midsection during one embrace), and face presses were the pinnacle of comedy. Big Baby Davis was inserting himself into the middle of every celebration and picture, even cradling the trophy on several occasions. Sam Cassell looked like an extra on Friday Night Lights. Leon Powe nearly made me fall off my couch when he yelled "I got you, I got you!" to KG during one particularly rambunctious outburst. And how can we forget the two most out of control aspects of all: 1) the Gatorade pour, and 2) the Garnett interview. The former was just idiotic. I know Pierce wanted to replicate other championship moments, but I think he forgot that they play football games on a field, not a court. Who willingly dumps liquid all over a hardwood floor when there is still time left on the clock? That was just insane.

Oh wait, I forgot to reserve the word "insane" for KG. One day I will have to tell the tales of Kevin Garnett's wild week on the Pepperdine campus in Malibu during the summer of 2003, but for now, I'll say only that he showed some flashes at that time that curbed my surprise tonight when he lost all control of his emotions during the ill-fated interview with Michelle Tafoya. The interview started with a question and was followed by ... silence. No answer from Garnett for a good five seconds (although it felt like five minutes). Then he came back with something fairly indecipherable, which was followed by a blurred mixture of crying, screaming, back-arching, and a profanity-laced bellow. At this point, the good people of ABC needed to find another player to interview. Like, oh I don't know, Paul Pierce, maybe? After all, he's been the go-to interview the entire series and was set to be named the MVP of the Finals. Plus, he's the longest tenured Celtic. But no, ABC had to have the KG interview, because they thought it would be emotional. It was emotional all right. It was the most uncomfortable and awkward sports-related interview since Joe Namath tried to make his move on Suzy Kolber. After the crew decided to stay with KG, he started to rally back and credit his teammates, but quickly dissolved into a location-driven shoutout session that sounded a lot like the bridge of a bad early 90's rap song. He finished it all off by saying "I'm certified. I'm certified." Obviously, this meant that he finally had the NBA title that would validate his career, but as my wife put it, "He should have said, 'I'm certifiable.'" I've always accused Kobe Bryant of being contrived and watching too many Michael Jordan videos (mainly the Flu Game), so I would be remiss if I didn't throw out the possibility that Garnett is just a little too familiar with Jordan's crying jag following the 1991 Finals. But hey, the first cut is the deepest as Cat Stevens once sang, so I'm sure that KG had a good reason for coming completely unhinged on national television.

3. Phil embarrassing Kobe. I have to believe that Phil Jackson was absolutely loving the fact that he had the power to make Kobe play all but three minutes of the fourth quarter. There was no other reason to keep Bryant on the floor after about the five minute mark, yet there he was, running around and trying not to let the horror of being asked to play in a 39-point blowout show on his face. To his credit, Kobe kept playing and even taking a few shots (in stark contrast to the way he completely quit on his team against Phoenix in 2006), but it was obvious that he didn't want to be on the floor. And I don't think any other coach of any other star player would have kept his guy out there as long as Phil did. You can agree or disagree with my opinion on this, but the bottom line is that I don't think the old wounds have healed. Jackson is coaching this team because he gets paid a ton of money to chase a tenth ring and to help mold young people with his interesting blend of coaching and teaching. The fact that Kobe is around is probably a nuisance at best and a travesty at worst. Again, this is all conjecture. But it seemed to come through loud and clear tonight when he embarrassed his star player by making him play out the string alongside the likes of Vujacic, Farmar, Eddie House, and Big Baby.

4. Ray Allen. I spent a great deal of time detailing Ray Allen's career-defining Game Four, but it is worth noting again how huge this guy was in the NBA Finals and how amazing that fact is considering the way he started the postseason. Allen drained a Finals record 7 threes in tonight's game [atually, I think he tied the record] and a Finals record 22 threes in the series and was right there with Paul Pierce as Boston's rock. He had 26 points on 8-of-12 shooting (including 7-of-9 from deep) and added four boards and three steals in less than 32 minutes. And all this while dealing with a family crisis involving the health of his son and after being poked in the eye and missing almost a quarter of the game. I can't stress enough what a transformative series this was for Ray Allen. He's a lock now for the Hall of Fame and pretty much automatically jumps over 4-5 shooting guards on that particular all-time list. Amazing stuff.

5. Paul Pierce. The other guy - besides Allen - that did the most for his legacy (KG comes in third since he was pretty spotty during Games 2-5 ... Kobe comes in 913th), Pierce was just a fascinating guy to watch during the postseason. On the one hand, he had some of the worst offensive performances I've ever seen (Game One against Cleveland and Game Three of the Finals, when he went 2-for-14 in each with 4 and 6 points, respectively). On the other, he had two of the great postseason games in Boston history in Game Seven against Cleveland (the duel with LeBron) and Game Five of the Finals. He completely outplayed Kobe Bryant ... yet he did it while looking like he had a deadly virus the entire time. Pierce had the famous (or infamous) knee injury and subsequent return, which will be one of the most indelible memories from the 2008 Finals. He completed the transformation from "scorer" and "slight head case" to "complete player" and "team captain." His evolution defensively was mind-boggling and was capped off with one-on-one defense on both LeBron James and Kobe Bryant that rivaled any effort that has ever been made against either superstar. The guy should probably just retire right this minute, because he will never reach a higher plane as an athlete. In fact, I half expect him to finally get an MRI that reveals the fact that Pierce played the entire series on a torn MCL. Nothing is out of the question at this point.

6. P.J. Brown is no Mitch Richmond. Not sure if you remember the way Mitch Richmond glommed on to the 2000 Lakers in order to "get a ring," but I'm happy to say that P.J. Brown did no such thing. He got up off the couch and signed with Boston late in the season with the hopes that he would finally reach an NBA Finals at age 38. I'm sure he expected to play a handful of shaky minutes and try to impart some knowledge in the locker room. Instead, he wound up saving Boston's season in Game Seven of the Cleveland series, going something like 6-for-6 from the field in the fourth quarter. Plus, he played huge minutes during the Finals and helped Boston absorb everything from foul trouble to injuries to Doc Rivers' love-hate relationship with Leon Powe. Plus, he got to be part of a Celtics team that scored as many points in tonight's game as his old Heat teams used to score in a series (slight exaggeration). Good for P.J.

7. LeBron is good. Not to move too far off the main point here, but with all the references to the Cleveland series, it is worth mentioning that the Cavs could have, should have, would have won that second round series were it not for Rajon Rondo in Game Five (9-for-15 from the field, 20 points, 13 assists, 2 steals, 2 blocks, and a pair of massive threes in the second quarter that erased an early Cleveland lead) and the aforementioned P.J. Brown performance in Game Seven. And that's before you even mention Pierce going for 41 in the clincher. You can talk about the Hawks taking Boston to seven games, but that was kind of a fluke if you ask me. Atlanta had the perfect blend of youthful exuberance, extreme athleticism, and naively excited home crowd to give a team with expectations a lot of trouble. But when it came right down to it, Boston throttled the Hawks by 34 points in the clincher. (In fact, Boston's point differential in the series was +94.) The Detroit series can be blamed on Flip or Sheed or Billups being banged up or whatever, but the bottom line is that Boston handled the Pistons in that one. And they pretty much put it on the Lakers as well. It's crazy to say this, but the Cavs gave Boston the toughest series of anyone. And sure, I know that matchups are a big factor and that Ray Allen hit the skids at that time, but the fact remains that Cleveland came within a handful of possessions of beating the team that eventually emerged as the clear champs of the NBA. And considering how putrid most of that Cavaliers roster is, what does that say about LeBron James? More specifically, how impressive do we have to deem his 112-20-17 over the final three games (when his team scored a grand total of 255 points)? Whereas Kobe wore down over the course of the series and found the going consistently tougher against the vaunted Boston defense, King James figured things out on the fly and gained strength, shaking off a brutal start to that series to close with the aforementioned flourish. I know we are an out-of-sight, out-of-mind culture, but there is a pretty scary takeaway here and it has everything to do with the summer of 2010. If a legitimately good team clears enough cap space to take a run at LeBron, we could have a next generation version of Shaq signing with L.A.

8. Kobe's no MJ. This one is so painfully obvious that it doesn't seem to warrant inclusion, especially since all the irrational Lakers fans out there will flip out upon reading a few negative words about their hero. But there were just way too many Jordan comparisons being thrown around before the NBA Finals, and I believe that every person alive who cares about basketball and has access to a keyboard owes it to society to smash that theory to pieces. There was no basis for such a comparison before this series and there's certainly no way to make that claim now. Bryant shed the good teammate image the moment things went bad and went on a gripe session in Game Two that is quickly becoming legendary in NBA circles. He treated his coach with disrespect bordering on disdain. He failed to rise to the challenge that Paul Pierce brought to the court. He would try to deflect blame after bad passes by screaming at the intended target (it called to mind the old jokes that my Dad used to tell me after an overthrow - "Grow taller!"). Then there are the cold, hard numbers - 53-for-131 from the field (good for 40%, including just one game with over 50% shooting) and 23 turnovers. There was the 24-point lead relinquished and the 39-point waxing in the clincher. None of this suggests Jordan, unless we're talking MJ's last year with the Wizards or maybe his stint with the Birmingham Barons. So people need to stop suggesting that Kobe is in the same echelon as Jordan. Period.

(Of course, even though everyone is nodding and agreeing with this now - well, except for those Lakers crazies - the tune will change yet again if things start going well for the Lakers next year. Remember, less than a year ago Kobe was demanding a trade, throwing his franchise and teammates under the bus, and supposedly tarnishing his legacy forever. Eight months later he was the MVP and a wonderful teammate and an inspiration to impoverished nations everywhere. So I'm not holding out much hope for collective long-term memory on this one. Pencil in the Jordan comparisons for May 2009. Wait, even more likely - this August when he's D'ing up some uncoordinated Lithuanian point guard at the Beijing Games.)

9. How can Portland acquire James Posey? If there is a more ideal "last piece to the puzzle" guy in the NBA right now than James Posey, I'd like to know who it is. Twice in three years - first with Miami in 2006 and now with Boston - Posey has given a contending team the lift it needed to get over the hump. He's a physical player with a propensity for "finishing guys off after the whistle" (as Jeff Van Gundy put it). He's afraid of absolutely no one (more on this in a minute). He drills enormous threes with regularity. He's a smart player who knows how to get the ball to guys where they like it. He even has a nasty habit of delivering cheap shots in testy situations. Come to think of it, I think he took the "small forward who does all the things I just mentioned" baton from Robert Horry a few years ago and never looked back. I don't know if the edgy style of play would go over on the feel-good Blazers, but I promise you that giving Posey 25 minutes a night at the 3 would accelerate that team's timeline by at least a year. I doubt Boston will part with him, but teams everywhere should be trying to get their hands on him to get over the top. Utah, Portland, Denver, Phoenix, Cleveland, Orlando, and New Orleans are all teams that come immediately to mind.

10. The Fearless Trio. I mentioned Posey's neglect for fear above, but there is more to the story. Specifically, Posey is not afraid of Kobe Bryant, which puts him in select company. I never hear people talk about this, but one of the keys to Boston's defense on Bryant in the series is that they had three guys they could throw at Kobe who quite simply were not afraid of him. This probably sounds like common sense crossed with a bad cliché, but it is actually a very important point. I couldn't give you an exact number, but I would wager that the number of NBA players that do not fear Kobe Bryant could be counted on two hands. And maybe "fear" is too strong of a word, but the large majority of NBA players would just rather not mix it up with him. The biggest factor is that they don't want to be embarrassed. Players have a lot of pride and aren't fond of looking like a fool in front of 20,000 fans and on national television. And since Bryant is known to eschew the team game in favor of destroying an individual opponent, the threat of being exposed is very real. For all of my problems with Kobe, I readily admit that he can abuse nearly anyone in uniform. So what it takes to approach Kobe Bryant unafraid is not a specific skill set, but rather a willingness to absorb personal embarrassment if necessary, so that you can guard him as hard as possible, drive on him as hard as possible, and play him physically tough all game. Again, it sounds simple, but watch closely next year and note how many players actually do this. Hint: not many.

Anyway, here are the guys that I believe have the ability, willingness, or whatever it is that is necessary to take Kobe head on with no fear:

[Update - we're getting some great additions via email and in the comments section, so maybe we can grow this list of "players that don't fear Kobe."]
LeBron James
Shane Battier
Bruce Bowen
Tayshaun Prince
Ruben Patterson
Paul Pierce
James Posey
Ray Allen
Brandon Roy
[Raja Bell]

Honestly, I can't really think of anyone else. Bowen has lost a step and so no amount of courage can save him now. I don't even think Patterson is in the league. So that leaves seven guys - and a whopping three of them play for the Celtics. The fact that Posey, Pierce, and Allen (due to his strange feud with Bryant) could all care less about offending Kobe, raising his ire, or otherwise putting themselves in harm's way gave Boston a truly rare weapon against Bryant; the Celtics had a rotation of solid athletes willing to take the challenge. That's half the battle.

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Anonymous said...

Fabulous analysis and overview, especially valuable when Game 6 is so fresh in our minds. You've given us a lot to think on, a lot to (retrospectively) enjoy, and set a wonderful example for outstanding sports writing.

Jason said...

I'd suggest Raja Bell for that list too, though in his case I think he actually does care about offending Kobe—I think he enjoys it. ;)

Great post.