I knew Anthony Carter would lead a comeback, I just didn’t know when. Superstars rarely fade without a fight. But not even Carter’s onslaught (of sorts) and his teammates’ surge of energy could get New York back into the game. Not after a first half that was more surgery than blowout.
If Friday night was extraordinary, with Paul Pierce and Ray Allen combining to hit 14-19 threes and Rajon Rondo compiling just the eighth 20-assist triple double in NBA history, the only thing extraordinary about today’s first-half dismantling was the ordinary, dull and methodical fashion Boston used to end New York’s season. There was nothing special about the way Boston played, nothing the Celtics couldn’t presumably repeat every night, no record-setting feats, no historical subtext, nothing but the cold, steady hand of an experienced killer.
The Celtics immediately turned from old and gray to wise and experienced, posting the first series sweep of the Big Three era, Boston’s first series sweep since Larry Bird still wore the number 33, and the only sweep of any team in this year’s first round. This team didn’t resemble the Celtics who limped into this year’s playoffs. No, this was the Celtics who helped nudge Lebron James out of Cleveland. This was the Celtics who convinced Otis Smith to blow up his entire roster. This was the Celtics who have been to two Finals in the past three seasons and don’t believe they’re done adding to that tally.
Rajon Rondo could have been in Minnesota, or Idaho, or Podunk, or wherever else Mike D’Antoni wants to see him play, and Toney Douglas still wouldn’t have had a chance. Playoff Rondo is gourmet macaroni and cheese to Regular Season Rondo’s Easy Mac, a beast of the same species but completely different genetic makeup. He’s able to carry his teammates to a different level, and given that he’s working with three Hall of Famers, given that Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce are far healthier than they ever were last postseason, the Celtics can’t mind their positioning heading into the second round.
When the Knicks drew within four points in the fourth quarter and the crowd had woken to a frenzy of false hope, Pierce came around a screen. An open jump shot shouted his name but Pierce pretended like he didn’t hear the screams, knowing another option was more enticing. He lowered his head instead, found his way to the bucket for an easy lay-in, the shot he wanted rather than the one that was available. It was a bucket Pierce wouldn’t have made last year, a bucket that resembled Game 6 against Detroit in 2008 or Game 5 against LA during the same year, a bucket that was our latest reminder that he and Garnett are younger this year than they were last year, not in age but certainly in mobility.
Sure, New York was overmatched to begin with, and even more so when Chauncey Billups went down and Amare Stoudemire’s shield of armor developed a chink. But this series wasn’t about New York’s return to the playoffs, nor was it about Carmelo and Amare’s first opportunity to win together; it was about a Celtics team too stubborn to recognize its own mortality. The Knicks were destined to be one and done. They were a novelty because of their star power and location, but not a basketball team capable of winning four playoff games. Meanwhile, even after the Celtics ended the regular season with a limp, we always knew their path would ultimately lead to Miami. The Knicks were only a speed bump along that road.
A comeback briefly stifled Celtics fans’ excitement, but Boston still did more than enough to send a message: Miami, we’re ready. Whatever happened in the regular season, it means nothing. You’re on our turf now, whether we play in South Beach or Boston, because the playoffs are our time. Lebron James and Dwyane Wade have accomplished so much in their careers; individual trophies, Olympic gold medals, All-Star appearances, All-NBA teams, so many wins, so many accolades, so many highlights, and so much respect. But neither one has ever beaten Boston in a seven-game series. The Celtics remain an obstacle neither Wade nor Lebron has ever conquered. Of course, they were trying alone. This will be their first attempt while operating as a tandem.
After a week of rest afforded by their sweep, the Celtics will be ready. Two narrow series-opening wins did nothing to dispel the notion that Boston’s prime was gone, to subdue the growing feeling that the Celtics were championship contenders in reputation only. But the Celtics showed another level in the Big Apple, one that held New York to 34.1% shooting in an elimination game, one that made Carmelo Anthony sound proud of being swept, one that assured New York’s postseason win drought would reach at least 11 years, one that reminded everybody: the Heat have home court advantage, but the path to the NBA Finals still goes through Boston.