Almost three years ago, Paul Pierce and Jermaine O’Neal went to dinner. Where they went was unimportant. What they ate doesn’t matter. Pierce had a glow about him, a natural happiness that Jermaine could spot instantly, just the same way he could spot the flashy, new ring on Pierce’s finger. If Jermaine had wanted an NBA championship before, he suddenly became Gollum from Lord of the Rings, cursed to chase a ring for the rest of his career. (Boston Globe)
“He was at a different level,’’ O’Neal said. “It was like a natural high. Like a newborn baby or winning the state lotto. Whatever it is that gives you that feeling of happiness, he was there. As a player, you’re not envious of what he’s done. But you want to have that feeling.’’
The ring became Jermaine’s primary goal, one of two things missing from his storied career. The other, an MVP trophy, was unrealistic, so Jermaine focused his efforts on attaining that ring. If a championship could bring a man so much happiness, if it could make him as happy as Pierce had been that night at dinner, Jermaine wanted one. Maybe he even needed one. The ring became his precious.
For two seasons after that dinner, winning a ring seemed almost as unrealistic as that MVP trophy. While championship contenders duked it out in the playoffs, Jermaine’s hopes in Toronto and then Miami remained slim. He had seen first-hand how a ring could change a man, how it could lift a man to another level of happiness like having a newborn baby or winning the lotto, but Jermaine’s teams were not good enough to challenge for one.
Likely, he spent a lot of time reflecting on the Palace Brawl. If only nobody had thrown a beer at Ron Artest. If only Artest had restrained himself from running into the stands. If only a fight had not ensued. If only suspensions not been so drastic. If only… , maybe Jermaine’s Indiana Pacers would have earned him that ring. They were talented and hungry, focused and skilled, deep and well-rounded. But it was not to be. Instead, Jermaine found himself in Toronto and then Miami, ringless as a girl whose boyfriend wouldn’t propose, with hopes that dwindled as he grew older and creakier, even if his face never seemed to age a day.
And then Jermaine was freed. Free agency arrived, and Jermaine knew he would base his decision on that elusive ring. Money wasn’t an issue, because he’d made more than enough of that. Playing a large role wasn’t an issue, because he’d been there, done that. Only a title mattered. Only the quest for his precious.
There were probably just two real options: stay in Miami, where the Heat had assembled an All-Star lineup but still needed a starting center, or move to Boston, where a starting position wasn’t promised but the Celtics had proven championship know-how. For O’Neal, the choice came down to where he thought he could win a title.
He thought back to his dinner with Paul Pierce, back in the summer of ’08. He remembered discussing how important it is to be labeled a champion, how winning one title can erase so many negatives from a career. He remembered Pierce telling him what it felt like to reign over the entire NBA. He thought about Boston’s veterans, about how they had no agenda but another title, about how they performed without any egos, about how individual glory truly meant nothing to them. He thought about Miami, where younger superstars would naturally still want to leave their individual stamps on the game’s history, where he wasn’t sure whether such stars, still in their primes, could sacrifice enough for the team. He knew time was his enemy, that the search for his precious had an expiration date.
He chose Boston.
Nine months later, Jermaine’s decision will now be tested. A best-of-seven series will tell him whether he made the right choice. And the following keys will play a huge part:
The Miami Heat have no natural answer for Rajon Rondo. Surely, they will concoct some scheme in an attempt to limit Rondo’s effectiveness and keep him from dominating the series. That will probably involve trying to make him a scorer, sagging off him to force some jump shots, and limiting Boston’s transition opportunities by taking care of the ball and getting back on defense. But Playoff Rondo doesn’t get easily bothered by such tactics. Against the Heat, Rondo has become Boston’s biggest advantage. Whether he gets off will go a long way toward dictating this series.
The Joel Anthony Effect
In round one, the Joel Anthony Effect was in full force. Despite possessing all the skills of a fire hydrant, Anthony’s on-court/off-court numbers in round one were outstanding. Actually, make that outrageous: the Heat were 51.36 points per 100 possessions better with Anthony on the floor. Granted, that number probably isn’t sustainable. But Anthony has been doing everything Erik Spoelstra has asked of him, providing Miami with an interior presence similar to the one Jermaine O’Neal provided for Boston in round one. (And yes, if you told me two months ago I would be comparing Joel Anthony and Jermaine O’Neal, I would have bet my life I’d be comparing their suckitude. But things changed. Quite drastically.)
At the beginning of the season, interior play was Boston’s biggest advantage against Miami. With Shaq, Jermaine and Kendrick Perkins, the Celtics had three players who could dominate Miami’s weak front line. Now, I’m just hoping A) silly glue continues to hold Jermaine’s body together, B) Jermaine can outplay Joel Anthony, and C) Glen Davis finally resembles the player who used to help Boston win games. Boston’s interior advantage is almost entirely gone, unless (and I’m not holding my breath) Shaq comes back healthy and functional. Even then, he couldn’t be relied on to play more than 10-15 minutes, so his effect would probably be somewhere between “negligible” and “not much”.
Games One and Two
If the Celtics do hold a mental edge against the Heat—and considering no member of the Heat has ever beaten the Big Three Celtics in a playoff series, and considering the Heat have called Boston their big brother and their bully multiple times this season, it’s difficult to imagine the Celtics don’t have at least a small edge—it will be on the line in the first two games. If the Heat win those two and start to believe in themselves, the mental edge goes “vamoose.” But if Boston walks into the American Airlines Arena and takes one of the first two—BAM!—the doubts become larger. Maybe the Heat start to listen to the voice in the back of their head telling them, “Boston’s got your number.” Maybe the media starts to crucify Lebron already. Maybe Miami’s role players start to lose confidence. Maybe Boston’s mental edge becomes even more significant.
Another reason to win one of the first two in Miami? Starting a series 0-2 is never terrific.
On paper, Boston’s bench looks significantly better than Miami’s. On paper. In reality, one of my friends started calling Boston’s bench “The Toilet Boys” because they’ve been pissing away games all season. The talent’s there, and that’s important. But there has been a critical disconnect between potential and performance, and Glen Davis, Jeff Green and Delonte West have all performed less than admirably, especially recently.
Though Doc Rivers cautions that benches become less important in the playoffs (and that’s true, because they don’t play as many minutes), second units can still swing games one way or the other. Remember when Stephon Marbury won a game against Orlando in 2009? Or when Shrek and Donkey won Game 4 against the Lakers last year? If Boston’s bench helps win one game and doesn’t piss any away, that could be the difference in the series. But if The Toilet Boys continue to urinate at inopportune times? Miami won’t be as forgiving as New York was.
Turnovers and Rebounds
If you’re a Celtics fan, the chorus is familiar. Take care of the ball, box out, crash the glass, yada yada yada. But the Celtics have struggled in these two areas since the Big Three era began.
Against Miami, turnovers take on an even greater significance. Though the Heat play at a slow pace they are the NBA’s top team in transition, able to convert turnovers into showtime at the other end. If the Celtics can take care of the ball and turn the Heat into a half-court team, they’ll be able to load up on Wade and Lebron and force tough shots. But in transition, those guys are like trucks with no breaks—you can’t stop them. The same principle goes for Miami, who will strive to limit Boston’s transition opportunities and keep Rondo from finding easy buckets early in the shot clock.
Just like the Heat don’t have an answer for Rondo, they’ll struggle to stop Ray. Dwyane Wade normally gets the assignment, but there are two issues with that: 1) he tends to help off shooters too much, and 2) guarding Ray actually hinders Wade’s offensive aggressiveness. The other options don’t sound much more enticing. Mario Chalmers is probably the next-best fit to defend Ray.
Bottom line: the Celtics are a better team when Ray hits his shots. And he was 16-28 from deep against the Heat during this regular season.
Individual Brilliance vs. Team
When people contrast Boston’s teamwork against Miami’s individual brilliance, it’s not just a convenient narrative. Boston’s offense often relies on all five players moving in unison and making swift and proper decisions, while Miami’s offense relies more on Wade or Lebron running a pick-and-roll or isolation and other players spotting up in the corner. It’s not that I’m damning Miami’s strategy: the Heat are the league’s most productive team during isolations and pick-and-rolls. Their strategy works. It’s just different. And it helps negate the offensive liability of guys like Joel Anthony and Mario Chalmers.
If an NBA playoff series is about a team’s top two players, the Celtics are in trouble. The Heat have the best two players in the series. But the Celtics might have the next four best (Chris Bosh might disagree), and a more versatile and talented bench (even if The Toilet Boys haven’t inspired any confidence).
If a game comes down to the final Boston possession, I’m supremely confident Doc Rivers will manufacture a good look. If a game comes down to the final Heat possession, I’m supremely confident Erik Spoelstra will call an iso or pick-and-roll. If coaching’s the difference, Celtics fans have to be excited.
Prediction: The Celtics have been there, together. The Heat haven’t. In a series this close, that matters.
Celtics in six.