We wait for so long for the switch to flip. We wonder whether the Celtics will ever play championship-caliber basketball again. We blame the Perkins trade. We blame Danny Ainge. We blame Rajon Rondo. We blame anyone who plays poorly, and we blame anyone in the front office who might have caused the players to play poorly. We even blame the O’Neals, whose bodies just won’t work properly, even though we know they’d be on the court if they could. It’s somewhat irrational, this blame game, this amount of time we spend pondering a basketball team, the theories we create to explain why a crew of NBA players doesn’t seem to care, but it’s what being a fan—a true fan—entails. During the good times, we fall in love. During the bad times, we’re still in love but love fucking hurts.
And then our team suddenly cares, and we remember how beautiful it was to watch them, and we remember exactly why they were considered title favorites as recently as a month ago. Rajon Rondo operates on another level most players could only dream of, and the offense runs well, and the defense looks suffocating, and the Celtics execute the Spurs to death like they were a bunch of rookies, and that love becomes beautiful again, like the first time you heard the Beatles.
The Celtics’ sense of purpose was so much better tonight, and by that I mean it actually existed. Maybe it was because Jermaine O’Neal returned. Maybe it was because the Celtics were waiting for a legitimate opponent. Maybe Doc Rivers gave a terrific motivational speech. Maybe the Celtics finally decided collectively, “We’d rather not shit the bed this time.” Maybe playing Matt Bonner, wink wink, was exactly the challenge Boston needed. Maybe Sasha Pavlovic offered a pregame prayer, or Troy Murphy killed a sacrificial chicken (a la Pedro Cerrano), or Kevin Garnett ran around naked making “Yo Momma” jokes to lighten the mood. The truth is, I don’t know why they showed up tonight after boycotting the past 12 games. I just know it was nice to see the Celtics finally resemble the Celtics.
A dominant second half allowed the Celtics to coast to a win, but the increased effort began in the first half. Contested shots. Rotating defenders. Box outs. Hard cuts, like the game meant something, like the Celtics finally decided to cut the bullshit and play like a real team. I took offense when Tony Parker drove unmolested to the hoop time after time, but the Celtics made adjustments. I took offense when George Hill hit Paul Pierce to the floor and nobody got in his face, lamenting the Celtics’ suddenly soft play. But they played hard, and they kept fighting, and by the end of the day they had a swagger about them that hasn’t been evident lately.
Rondo led the way, and he played an almost-perfect game. Doc Rivers called his shooting “coach’s porn,” and I would like to add that it was also “blogger’s porn.” People always wonder how tough Rondo would be if he could consistently hit jumpers, and he showed why tonight. If the Spurs went under a screen, Rondo rose without hesitation. If he was open in transition, he pulled up smoothly. At one point Kevin McHale said Rondo’s jumper “looks beautiful,” and after thinking to myself, “I bet that’s the first time anyone ever said that without a double dose of sarcasm,” I thought, “Hell yeah, it does.”
But the shooting wasn’t the whole story. Hell, it was barely half the story. Rondo played 41 minutes, most of those with the ball in his hands, and turned the ball over zero times while dishing 14 assists. He made the right decision almost every time down the court. He chased down loose balls, and he chased down rebounds. He played downhill, attacked off screens, and hit KG and Glen Davis for wide open jumper after wide open jumper. I guess one night off was all he needed to get his head back on straight, or his body right, or to fix whatever the hell it was that was bothering him.
Paul Pierce was great, too, in a far more understated way. So were Kevin Garnett, Glen Davis and, for a brief stretch when Matt Bonner defended him, Jeff Green (the lesson, as always: if Rondo making jumpers is “coach’s porn,” being defended by Matt Bonner is “player’s porn”). Jermaine O’Neals return was a success, too. He didn’t have a huge statistical impact, but he competed and looked more advanced in his recovery than I expected. He’s another big body down the stretch, someone who can defend players who are able to shoot right over Davis (like Duncan did tonight).
Ray Allen wasn’t great, missing eight of his eleven shots, but–I swear—his movement off screens opened his teammates all game long. And Delonte West’s stat line won’t wow anyone, but he simply makes winning plays. Like the time he stripped Duncan down low. Or when he made a hard foul on Dajuan Blair to force him to make free throws. Or when he curled around a screen, penetrated into the paint and hit Allen for a dagger three.
Only one thing went truly wrong tonight: Nenad Krstic went down with what might be a torn ACL. The Celtics will find out more about Krstic’s injury Saturday, when he undergoes an MRI. For now, they should celebrate a win, and more importantly the return of Ubuntu. Maybe the Celtics will turn the switch off again tomorrow night. Maybe this type of performance was fleeting, rather than permanent. But the Celtics still have that 100-MPH fastball when they need it. And it was oh so beautiful to see.