It didn’t matter that Ray Allen had been quieter than a whisper for the past month. With the Celtics trailing by one point and only 21 seconds remaining, Doc Rivers knew he could trust his smoothest player. Allen had done this more times than any other player ever has—sprint, catch the pass, plant the inside foot, bend the knees, follow through, swish—and he reacts to pressure in the same manner a comatose man reacts to sound; that is to say, pressure has no visible effect on Ray Allen.
The greatest three-point shooter in NBA history set a screen and faded toward the sideline, faded away from his defender, faded into the latest notch on a belt of game-winners that continues to grow longer and longer. He stepped into the shot and watched the ball leave his hand. It had not yet fallen like a raindrop through the rim but his wrist remained flexed toward the basket, and his eyes remained locked on his target. The crowd collectively stood to its feet, and 20,000 sets of eyes stared right where Allen was looking, and the ball splashed through the rim just as everyone in the building expected. The Knicks had not given Boston the game. Rather, Allen and the Celtics had torn it from New York’s unrelenting jaws by being one step better, one shot better when it mattered most.
The switch exists, at least to a certain extent, at least enough for the Celtics to hold an offensive juggernaut to 34 second-half points, at least enough for them to play defense and rebound with a passion they haven’t shown in months. Maybe that switch won’t be enough to win a championship. Maybe it won’t even be enough to get past New York, a team that looked every bit the part of low-seeded spoiler (though I suspect it will). Who knows? Maybe it will be turned off by Tuesday night. But the Celtics can play at a high level, and they can win even when they don’t play perfectly (or even close), and they can do that because they sometimes resemble a hungry pack of wolves.
For a long time, it seemed that Boston would fall victim to a lifeless second quarter and a Knicks team that wouldn’t concede victory. When the Celtics finally wrestled the lead in the fourth quarter, it was short-lived. Amare Stoudemire picked the world up and lifted it over his head for a few minutes (no, Glen Davis, he’s not actually easy to defend), and Toney Douglas followed Stoudemire’s Greek god display with a three-pointer deserving of the Sam Cassell dance. But in the NBA, playoffs experience is a loaded weapon, and the Celtics used it to send the Knicks staggering back to their hotel with a 1-0 series deficit that probably shouldn’t be.
The Celtics can thank Jermaine O’Neal. No, seriously, the Celtics can thank Jermaine O’Neal. (They can also thank his surgeon, who clearly works miracles.) After a year of one setback after the next, one insult after the next (most of them directed by yours truly), O’Neal became everything the Celtics wanted. One person tweeted me to compare Jermaine’s output to J.D. Drew’s grand slam against the Indians back in 2007. That one play made J.D.’s whole disappointing existence worth it, just like Jermaine’s one night made his two-year, $12 million contract worth it. But with J.D., we suspected he would go right back to staring harmlessly at third strikes the next night. We figured he would never live up to his contract again. With Jermaine, finally healthy, moving his feet like a new man, blocking shots and contesting shots and taking charges (and, this goes against my point though it’s worth mentioning, getting dunked on when Amare emphatically sprouted wings), there’s hope this could become more than a one-night stand. There’s hope Jermaine could begin to provide this on a nightly basis, even if I’m crossing my fingers and knocking on wood while typing this sentence
Excepting Jermaine, nobody on Boston was anywhere close to perfect. Glen Davis shot like a blind ferret, even though I loved his hustle. Paul Pierce went through a 1-9 dry spell, even though he hit some clutch shots. The bench combined for only eight points, even though it came to life during a brief fourth-quarter stretch that helped win the game. Rajon Rondo played sloppy ball and wasn’t aggressive enough attacking the hoop, even though he shifted into playoff gear and almost notched a triple double. Kevin Garnett struggled to get the best of Ronny Turiaf, even though he gritted his teeth to a double double. And Allen could barely get off a shot in the first half, even though his unwavering hand ultimately won the game.
But playoff basketball isn’t about being perfect. It’s about doing enough things right—execution down the stretch, defending in the entire second half, committing to the glass—that you don’t have to be. It’s about getting a win and moving onto the next game. It’s about pulling a miraculous out-of-bounds alley oop out of your hat, drawing a charge to get the ball back, and finding the world’s best three-point shooter open with the game in the balance. It’s about surviving, and tonight, the Celtics did enough to do just that.