You might never watch another basketball game again.
But if you are an avid fan, one who knows the ins and outs of the game, you can’t help but appreciate the effort and execution the two teams exert every time they match up.
Those swift defensive rotations, the crisp ball movement and extra passes, the exquisite attention to detail paid both by coaches and, in effect, their teams. To some people, those things might not be exciting. Some of you would probably rather watch Golden St. play a game in the 130′s against the Phoenix Suns. But that isn’t basketball at its purest, that isn’t a cohesive unit of five guys willing to bust their ass not only to score the basketball, but to keep the other team from scoring. Because it’s at the defensive side of the ball where you find out who’s truly selfless, who’s gritty and willing to do whatever it takes to win. Anyone can try his hardest on offense: After all, his stats — not to mention his next contract — are based in huge part on offensive output. It takes a different kind of player, a different type of man, to dig in on the defensive end, to take a charge when his team needs it, to rotate to an open shooter when a teammate needs help, or to dive to the floor after a loose ball.
The Spurs and Celtics, for whatever reason, are filled with those tough, selfless types of players. They are throwbacks; they don’t care who gets the glory, they don’t care who takes (or makes) the most shots, they don’t care who scores the most rebounds or gets the post-game interview. They just want to win games. And that’s it.
Last night, you saw that selflessness in action, from all angles. You saw Tim Duncan working throughout entire positions in an attempt to seal his defender and get an angle for an easy lay-in. You saw Kevin Garnett foregoing ten-foot jumpers to throw bullet passes to Kendrick Perkins under the basket. You saw DeJuan Blair, 6’7″ in high heels, a man with no ACL’s, registering 18 points and 11 rebounds almost strictly by his non-stop activity and undeniable motor. (Not to mention his great hands.) You saw Rasheed Wallace, old and out of shape, hustling his rear end off to make a defensive rotation and contest shots that otherwise would have been open. You saw Matt Bonner — slow, outmatched and, well, slow — scratch and claw his way to nine rebounds, even though every other player on the court had considerably more athletic ability. You saw Paul Pierce, struggling to a 2 for 9 shooting performance, shake off his frustration and take it out while defending Richard Jefferson and Manu Ginobili, whom Pierce helped harass to combined 7 for 25 shooting. You saw pure heart, determination, and team play from everywhere.
While both teams executed, and both teams played hard, it was the Celtics who made more plays. And the player who made the most plays for the C’s, Rajon Rondo, was their MVP. It was hard not to give my meaningless, made-up MVP award to KG, but the difference between when Rondo was on the court and when he wasn’t was so great I couldn’t help but give it to him. (Did you see that second unit with House running the show? Every bench player who played had a negative +/–, and House’s ineptitude running an offense was at least partially to blame.) Back to Rondo — the meaningless, made-up MVP — he had 12 points, 12 assists, and the play of the day when he flung a no-look pass to Rasheed Wallace for a three-ball to end the third quarter and extend the C’s cushion. (And by no-look pass, I mean I’m pretty damn sure he never once looked at Rasheed. Not once, during the entire play. At least from what I could see.) Rondo played Tony Parker very evenly, perhaps even getting the better of him, and that in and of itself says a lot about how good Rondo was on this night.
If it weren’t for Rondo’s performance, KG would have easily been the fictional MVP. He continued his torrid streak from the field, shooting 9 for 15 with 20 points, 7 rebounds, and 5 assists. If that’s not enough, his alley-oop from Rondo (which he finished with a very, very contested layup instead of a dunk) was a huge momentum changer, as the Celtics came up with a big bucket every time they really needed one. As much as the Spurs fought to come back, they could never get over that hump to finally make it a one-possession game.
Actually, rewind a little, and let me take it all back. Rondo wasn’t the game’s meaningless MVP; it was the sideline. You know, the sideline Michael Finley inadvertently stepped on before canning a three-pointer that would have cut the lead to 2 points with 12 seconds remaining. The sideline Finley wishes could have been a couple inches farther back. The sideline that effectively ended the game when it snuck up on Finley and forced him into an unforced turnover.
For San Antonio, I was — as always — impressed by Duncan. The man is so fundamental. If you watch him, every second, he’s always preparing for his next move. When a player fronts him, Duncan works to seal him towards the middle. When a player plays behind, Duncan keeps him pinned there so he can work his face-up game that often ends with a soft kiss off the glass. When a player comes to double, Duncan is passing out of the double-team to an open teammate before the double can become effective. He isn’t as athletic as he used to be, but it was never athleticism that made Tim Duncan great. It was his fundamental play and ability to plan one step ahead of everybody else. It’s as if he sees the game in slow motion while everyone else sees it in fast-forward.
Besides Duncan, there was Blair. Ohhhhh mannnnnn, there was Blair. That kid plays with as much heart as Eddy Curry, only if Eddy Curry 1) actually had a heart and 2) it was enormous. Blair attacks every rebound like it’s a free meal, using his great hands and strong frame to carve out space and snatch boards. Once he gets the ball, he knows what to do with it: Put it in the basket. (Even if, once, it was his own basket. Don’t worry, it was accidental… I think. It actually looked like Blair intentionally tipped a rebound back into his own bucket, but that can’t be true. Can it?) Blair helped lead the Spurs to a 55-32 advantage on the boards, including an outrageous 20-2 margin on the offensive glass.
Then there was Tony Parker, still one of the NBA’s best point guards despite all the injury problems he’s gone through lately. He’s lightning fast, and it was at once comical and very sad to watch Parker and Rondo guard each other. They both laid off each other by about ten feet, scared of being blown by, and willing to allow the other to take open jumpshots all game long. Neither Parker nor Rondo decided to settle, both deciding they were better off being patient and getting to the hoop more often than not. (Though Rondo hit the biggest jumper of the game, in the closing minutes to push the lead to six. Well, I think it was six. I’m almost positive it was six.) Parker is a one-man fast break, capable of finishing in the lane over any human being ever created. It’s uncanny, Parker’s ability to not only get his shot off over bigger players in the lane, but to make those shots too.
What else to say, what else to say? Perk wasn’t as good as he has been lately, but the C’s will take 9 points, 7 boards, 2 blocks and a solid overall performance. Ray couldn’t buy an outside shot and disappeared in the fourth quarter, but was nonetheless effective with his midrange game and in transition. (Note: Did you see Jesus Shuttlesworth sky for that dunk in the first half? Somewhere, LaLa watched that dunk with her other dude and felt a tinge of jealousy that Jesus escaped her grasp.) Rasheed was active, solid and willing to bang down low. Eddie House was bad, and Marquis Daniels was nonexistent, but neither compared to the inadequacy that was the Spurs’ trio of Antonio McDyess, Keith Bogans, and Roger Mason. For those guys, a combined 50 minutes played, 0 points, 5 rebounds and 3 assists between them. It’s tough to win games with such meager production from three important players. (Normally, I wouldn’t call Keith Bogans important under any circumstances. But he started! That has to give him some significance, doesn’t it?)
Anyways, enjoy your night, and remember:
Thank God for that sideline. That sneaky, glorious sideline.