Okay, that’s it for my venting about the tough day the Celtics went through yesterday on the eve of a new season. Today, I’ll have my basketball playlist on: “You’re the Best Around” from Karate Kid, “One Shining Moment” immortalized by the NCAA tournament, and the entire Hoosiers soundtrack. Maybe even a little bit of Busta Rhymes’ “We Made It.” Or Nelly’s “Heart of a Champion.” Or Eminem’s “Till I Collapse.”
Hell, I already watched Hoosiers last night. Then slept in my Paul Pierce jersey for good luck. You might call me obsessed, or maybe just strange, but these are the things you do when basketball is your religion, a couch your church pew and Tommy Heinsohn your preacher.
If you haven’t guessed, there’s a game to play tonight. And it counts. Just in case that weren’t enough incentive, it’s against Lebron, Shaq and the Cavs. The team many predict to be the best in the Eastern Conference, and the East’s number one seed last year.
Most coaches could talk until they’re blue in the face about how one regular season game means very little. After all, an NBA season is 82 games long and one game means little to a team’s final record. One regular season game in and of itself means nothing. Does anyone remember that the Celtics beat the Cavs on opening night last year? Chances are you didn’t. But you sure as hell remember game seven against Orlando. Coaches would probably remind you not to read too much into a regular season game.
But I’m not a coach, and no matter how much you can say a regular season game means nothing, tonight’s game is important. It will set the tone for the season and will determine the early frontrunner for Eastern Conference champion. Two seasons ago, the Celtics came out of the gates like lions preying on unsuspecting food; they smacked the Wizards on opening night by some ridiculous margin, in the process setting the tone for a championship season. Last season, the C’s opened with a sluggish 90-85 victory over the Cavs. While the Celtics’ 62-win season was nothing to laugh at, they never regained the dominant form they displayed in 2007-08. They were still very good, still one of the best teams in the league, but never dominant.
Have there been teams that have won the NBA championship after losing their opening-night game? Of course. But I refuse to believe a single regular season game doesn’t matter, and especially one on opening night, played against a rival. On any given night in the NBA, even the best teams can lose to a team like the Kings. The gap between the top teams and the bottom teams just isn’t large enough where even the top contenders can get away with a lackadaisical effort. But when the lights are on and two contending rivals are playing, especially in an opening-night game where the emotions are running high, the game simply means something.
Tonight, both teams are going to give a full effort. That’s a given. It’s the season’s first game and there will be excitement, passion and intensity in every player on the floor. Last year, I was underwhelmed by the Celtics in situations like this. The last time we saw the C’s play a big regular season game, they were getting steamrolled by these very Cavs, 107-76. The Celtics also lost both games against the Lakers last year, including a Christmas day game that served as the first rematch of the 2008 Finals.
When rivalry games, or even just two games between top teams, are played, both teams are playing hard. And when both teams are playing hard, it’s the team that executes more effectively that wins. So maybe you can’t tell a lot about a team based on a normal regular season game, but when the ball is tipped between two of the best teams in the league and both teams leave their hearts on the floor, a good deal is learned about both teams.
Last year, the Celtics just plain old may not have been good enough to win the championship. I’ve written a few times that the Celtics very well could have won a championship had Kevin Garnett stayed healthy. But, to be honest, the signs were there that they just weren’t as good as the Lakers… even before the KG injury derailed any hopes they had for a repeat. In the big games, the Celtics were outclassed by their opponents – a big warning flag.
Here’s what I wrote last year during the Lakers’ run to the finals:
This year’s Lakers have something to prove, and came out of the blocks showing the chip on their collective shoulder. Bursting to a 23-5 record, the Lakers were set to play the Celtics in a Christmas Day showdown. In a manhandling very reminiscent of the way I saw my Celtics play last season, the Lakers completely shackled the Celtics, forcing them into an ugly, rhythm-less game.
That game, a huge game by all accounts, even so early in the season, set the tone for the rest of the Lakers’ regular season. When they played the power-house teams, the Lakers came to play. They beat the Celtics both times they played them. The Cavaliers? Beat them twice too, smacked them actually (including their first home loss, right when the Cavaliers were starting to think about the NBA’s first undefeated home record).
I’ve always been a firm believer that the team that wins big games is most likely a better team. On an off day, any team in the NBA can lose to another one. But in the big games, when the lights are on and the whole country’s watching on TV as two NBA powerhouses do battle, both teams usually bring their best effort. And when both teams bring their best effort, it’s usually the better team that wins. Last year, it was the Celtics who won all the big games.
They were 2-0 vs. the Lakers, 2-1 against the then-Eastern Conference defending champion Pistons and 2-0 vs. the ever-contending San Antonio Spurs (who were also the defending champs). They were the first team to sweep the Rodeo Road Trip (at San Antonio, at Houston, and at Dallas) in twenty years. Whenever there was a big game, the Celtics left no doubt who was the better team.
Then the playoffs came around, and the Celtics let Atlanta take them to seven games in the first round. The Cavs came next, and they pushed the Celtics to the brink of elimination, too, before succumbing in Game 7. Everyone was clamoring about the Celtics allowing lesser teams to take them to seven games, but what everyone failed to notice was that every time the Celtics needed a win, they delivered. In Game 7 against the Hawks, the Celtics ratcheted up the intensity and the game was over within minutes. In the Cavs’ Game 7, the Celtics held off an amazing performance by Lebron James, gritting out a tough win.
Somewhere along the way, the Celtics learned how to consistently win, and how to finish out playoff series’. As they advanced through the postseason, Boston got stronger and stronger, beating a seasoned Detroit team in six games in the ECF and smacking the Lakers in Game 6 to take home the franchise’s 17th banner.
I see the Lakers making those same strides. During the Jazz series, everyone wondered what was wrong with the Lakers when they lost a game, and when they kept blowing big leads. In the Rockets’ series, everyone wondered how a Tracy McGrady-less, Yao Ming-less Houston team could bring the Lakers to a Game 7.
But what I saw was that the Lakers picked it up a notch in that Game 7. They raised their play to a level no other team in the NBA can attain. They played flawless offensive basketball, with terrific ball movement, great shooting and slashing penetration. They played inspired defense, hedging out on the dangerous Aaron Brooks pick-and-roll and forcing the Rockets into bad shot after bad shot.
The Lakers, now, seem to have learned how to bring that effort on a daily basis rather than merely when they need it the most. They ended the Nuggets’ season just six games after a lot of people picked a Denver upset, and took their great play into Game 1 of the Finals, defeating the Magic in an overwhelming blowout. When the Lakers play up to their capabilities, there is no other team in the NBA that can measure up.
When you watch the game tonight, don’t think the whole season is riding on this one bout. Don’t think the Eastern Conference champion should be crowned tonight. But keep in mind that in the big games, the better team wins most of the time. Not every time, but most of the time. The Celtics won the big games two years ago, and the Lakers won them last season. When those two teams were operating at their best, there was no other team in the NBA that could match up.
The Celtics may win tonight, they may lose. Either way, we’re going to learn a lot about the guys in Green. Whether we like what we learn or not. It’s only one game, but it’s a big game.
And big games tend to reveal a lot.