With six minutes left in the second quarter, my friend Timmy texted me. His heart, just like mine, was being held captive by a game the Celtics needed to win.
“I feel morbid,” he wrote. “Like every big Heat moment is going to drive us into another 20 years of misery.”
Maybe this game wasn’t the end, but it felt like it. Teams that win the first two games of a series win that series 92.3% of the time. Considering that the Celtics have led for an approximate six minutes this entire series, there’s nothing much for Boston fans to hold on to. Our hopes hinge on the illusion that Miami will crumble, or the TD Garden will change the entire complexion of the series, or Shaq will miraculously return and somehow prove to be the difference, or the old vets have something left deep within their bag of tricks. And that’s what I took most from this game. For the first time in their playoff history, the Big Three looked creaky old. They’ve looked like that before in the regular season, but never in the playoffs. Tonight didn’t seem like a regular loss, but more like the Heat beginning to dig Boston’s grave.
In the web of pre-series narrative spun by media members, bloggers and fans, I imagine few people expected this. Somewhere down the line, the script flipped upside down. The Celtics are supposed to win these games, these grind-it-out affairs, these slow-paced wars of attrition, these tests of will. They surge ahead, and the opposing superstars fold, and Doc Rivers makes a brilliant call down the stretch, and Ray Allen or Paul Pierce hit big shots, and Rondo defies physics, and KG comes up with the big defensive stop, and the Celtics win. That’s what we’ve come to expect. But every time the Celtics balled their fists and waved them in the air menacingly, Miami came back throwing boulders. Lebron James and Dwyane Wade were brilliant in tandem, like Abbott and Costello or Sherlock and Watson or the Hardy Boys or the Woody’s of tennis lore, two superstars playing at their unstoppable best, two superstars seizing the moment and feeding off each other’s energy.
What felt most damning about these games was that Boston played valiantly. As you would expect in the playoffs, the Celtics left no leaf unturned. They tried feeding Kevin Garnett more. They tried Glen Davis in the post. Rajon Rondo was more aggressive. Jermaine O’Neal played his cadaverous ass off. Jeff Green scored early and often. Delonte West came back to life. Rivers even called on Von Wafer, just to see if he could offer some kind of spark. They all played so hard. It’s just much more difficult for Boston to get an easy look than it is for Miami. Wade and Lebron can create a decent look at the snap of the fingers. But for Boston, so much has to go right. That’s why it took Boston a quarter and a half to claw even, but it took Miami only a couple minutes to finish the Celtics off.
Boston’s legs are getting older. The same trio that once dominated the league en route to 66 wins and a championship has never looked so fragile. When Dwyane Wade twisted Kevin Garnett around like the two players were ballroom dancing on one play, then made Ray Allen fall before drilling a three shortly thereafter, there was something symbolic about it, something perilous. Pierce left with an injury. Ray left with an injury. Garnett needed 20 shots to score 16 points. Even Rondo, the young, still-blossoming stud, needed an ice pack and stretching treatment whenever he wasn’t on the floor. The Celtics weren’t a basketball team tonight. They were the opening scene from Saving Private Ryan.
It almost makes the loss worse that Boston’s bench actually performed well. Allow me to explain. We’ve come to learn that we can’t expect anything from Boston’s bench. If anything, we expect missed shots, blown leads and opportunities lost. To lose on a night when the Beleaguered Boys actually came through means the Celtics’ starters weren’t good enough, which means if the bench regresses back to the mean things don’t look promising. And the bench did come through. I spent a lot of time cursing at Green’s defense, noting how Lebron looks at Green defending him and instantly feels invincible. Still, Green carried the Celtics in the scoring column during a first half when they desperately needed it. He and Delonte West were far more than Doc Rivers could have expected off the bench. They hit big, timely shots. If only Glen Davis had not decided he was a superstar and shot layups like a blindfolded seal, and if only Nenad Krstic had not impacted the game less than my fifth-grade science teacher, the bench would have been perfect, or at least far closer to perfect than it had been in a long time. As it was, the bench was more than adequate. But when the Fab Four becomes the Lonely One, Boston doesn’t have a chance.
We spend a lot of time discussing the bench, Krstic’s disappointment, and even whether Von Wafer, Carlos Arroyo or Troy Murphy will be on the active roster. In reality, a team’s best players wins or lose the majority of games. Tonight, I can comfortably say Boston’s Big Three lost the game. I feel awful even treading in these waters, because the trio brought the Larry O’Brien Trophy back to Boston and have personified everything I expect and want from my favorite team. But tonight they just looked, for lack of a more accurate description, old. They still play so hard. They tough out injuries. They share the ball. They play basketball like I want my unborn children to play one day, without any selfishness or care for individual glory. But tonight was the first time I’ve watched the Big Three play in an NBA playoff game and thought, “Damn, they just aren’t good enough anymore.” The first time. Before, even when they lost, I’ve always thought they possessed another gear, or they were just an inch or two from winning. Even when they lost, there was the feeling they could make adjustments and play better. But tonight came equipped with a different feel. Tonight, the Celtics seemed like Apollo Creed stepping into the ring against Ivan Drago.
I’m not waving the white flag, not quite yet. Remember, I’m the same man who said in a playoff preview, “You can’t count the Celtics out, even if they’re down on the canvas spitting up blood.” The series will head back to the TD Garden, Shaq’s probable return will give the C’s a mental boost if nothing else, and they’ll refuse to fade quietly into the night. If I’ve learned one thing about these Celtics, it’s that losing rubs them the wrong way. Losing brings them closer together. Losing makes them come back harder, fiercer, more desperate.
The problem is, tonight felt like more than just a loss. It felt more like the end of an era. I’m begging to be wrong.