At some point tonight, Paul Pierce will tie his shoes. Kevin Garnett will sit somewhere across the locker room, talking to nobody, likely blacked out in focus, wearing a look that says serial killer. Ray Allen will be on the TD Garden court shooting jump shots, just like he always does. There will be nothing different about the way they approach the game, except everything will be different.
They know the stakes. The ending’s already written, the one where the Celtics bow to the younger, more athletic team, the one where the Celtics again become linked to the Los Angeles Lakers, except this time in early fishing vacations rather than an NBA Finals rubber match. To change that ending will mean rekindling the resiliency of their past and illustrating one more time the steely resolve of age. It will mean proving that Games 1 and 2 were fraudulent rather than telling, riding the TD Garden crowd to new heights, and ignoring the growing consensus that the Celtics are too old. It will mean snuffing out Dwyane Wade and Lebron James in their primes, just when they’re confidence level has reached an all-time high, and it will mean proving everybody but the most eternal optimists wrong.
“It’s an all-in type of mentality starting with [Game 3],’’ Garnett said. “The urgency is there. This is it. We’ve used all our lifelines. This is it. I hate to say it like that, but it’s true. This is not a cool, kind of, keep your composure. No, this is we’ve got to get the next game.’’
And since this next game’s so important, I commemorate it with the second “iPod Shuffle,” in which I relate each song that comes up on my iPod to the Celtics.
Eminem, Going Through Changes: “Wake up in the hospital, full of tubes, plus somehow I’m pullin’ through. Swear when I come back I’ma be bulletproof. I’ma do it just for Proof, I think I should state a few facts, cause I may not get a chance again to say the truth.”
Believing Shaq will turn everything around is like believing the tooth fairy will fix the gap in between Michael Strahan’s two front teeth. It’s not incredibly realistic. Sure, Shaq’s presence makes everything easier for his teammates. Sure, the Celtics have played infinitely better against the Heat—as a team, and as individuals—when Shaq’s on the court. But that was when Shaq was relatively healthy. Now, he’s played five minutes in the past three months, and those five minutes ended with Shaq looking like he’d been shot in the leg by the sniper from “Shooter.” To expect Shaq to play well tonight over extended minutes (by extended, I mean anything more than 10-12 minutes) is to think he’s still capable of jumping into a phone booth as Clark Kent and coming out as Superman.
Still, don’t underestimate the emotional lift Shaq could provide for the Celtics. Put your “willing suspension of disbelief” goggles on for a second and imagine the following scenario: Shaq enters the game tonight at the end of the first quarter. The Celtics are struggling to keep pace with the Heat. The Garden crowd is slightly stunned. But upon seeing Shaq, the crowd erupts like Mt. Vesuvius in its prime. The Celtics bench feeds off the energy. Shots begin to fall. And when Shaq grabs a rebound and flushes it back home like it’s 1999, the Garden reaches decibel levels the ears can’t even take. Think Willis Reed, on a far less heroic scale and hopefully not as hobbled.
Plus, what if Shaq’s healthy enough to make a real difference? I know, I’m stretching here. But A) if Shaq’s still alive, the Heat have nobody who can handle him or even come close, and B) one thing I took from his last (albeit quite brief) return was that Shaq can re-enter the lineup and make an immediate impact. Remember, for those five minutes he was outstanding. Yes, it was only five minutes. Yes, he got hurt immediately after his short stretch of splendid play. And yes, I know how stupid I’m going to sound if Shaq gets re-injured tonight or just flat-out sucks. But last time he returned he didn’t have any practice time under his belt (not even one practice) and still made an impact. So there’s reason for hope. Even if hope is a dangerous thing, even if I wouldn’t bet the house (or even two nickels) on anything regarding Shaq’s health, and even if he’s just as likely to get re-injured tonight as he is to help the Celtics win.
Obviously, I’m confused and hopeful and pessimistic and optimistic about Shaq, all at the same time. I don’t expect much from him. But I understand he might, against all odds, still be capable. He knows this is his last chance. Hell, it might be this whole team’s last chance.
Lupe Fiasco, Gasp: “I’m writing you in spite of you. The conflict rests inside of you. Dividing you, devour you, defeating and de-power you, depleting and deflower you. Revolutions waiting on the hour to expose all of the weakness of the powerful.”
There’s always a revolution waiting in the NBA. One team controls the conference until another’s strong enough to wrestle it away. The Pistons waited for the Celtics until the day the Celtics were old and couldn’t dominate the East anymore; then Isiah Thomas had his throne. Michael Jordan waited for the Pistons until the day he finally caught up to them; then he bludgeoned them to death before sprinting by. The Bulls ceded the conference to a bunch of second-rate teams (the Eastern Conference’s low point), which gave way to the Pistons’ brief control of the East, which was then seized by the Celtics. Now the Heat wait to control the East, a superpower formed over the offseason, flawed yet supremely talented, battered in the media but ultimately growing stronger by playoff time.
If the first two games taught us anything, it’s that the Heat believe their time is now. LeWyane Jade doesn’t want to wait for a supporting cast. Jade doesn’t care that Miami’s fourth best player is Joel Anthony. Jade doesn’t care that Miami’s point guards couldn’t outrace my friend’s pet turtle, or that Zydrunas Ilgauskas couldn’t jump over one of his fingernails. The Heat are hungry, they’re confident, and they have the NBA’s best duo. And the scariest part is that they’ll only get better in the years to come.
After two games, this feels like a passing of the torch series. It feels like Miami has run up on Boston, maybe more quickly than expected, and is now using that torch to burn Boston down to the ground. Which is why it’s appropriately panic time in Boston. There was nothing fluky about the first two games, just one team administering two successive and methodical ass-whippings to another. Considering that the Celtics were the big bully giving Miami swirlies less than three months ago, the role reversal has been stunning. The Celtics, in less than three months, have grown old. The Heat, in less than three months, have fused into a real team. But hey, at least the Celtics have Jeff Green for the future! (That sound? It’s me, puking.)
When you’re on top in the NBA, there’s always a revolution waiting to defeat and de-power you. The Heat are a revolution. The Celtics, as proud as peacocks, will do everything in their power to stop the new regime from gaining traction. But the torch is quickly being yanked out of their hands. Which brings me to the next song:
Jin, Whatever it Takes: “Life tends to put me in these situations, waiting to see my reaction. And how I react determines how I’ll overcome. What am I willing to do? I will do whatever it takes.”
I don’t really want to think about it, but it’s the elephant in the room (no, not Shaq; the other elephant in the room): what if the Celtics go meekly? What if they get their heads smashed in just like they did in Games 1 and 2? What if, gasp, they get swept? Does that change the way we’ll look back at this team?
They’ve always been viewed as the resilient team that bends but never breaks. Even when they lose, it’s valiantly. In 2009, they took the Magic to seven games even though Kevin Garnett was injured. In 2010, they overcame Garnett’s limp leg, the fluid squirting out of Pierce’s knee, and regular-season juggernauts Cleveland and Orlando to reach the Finals. Then they gave Los Angeles fits, losing Game 7 only because the shots just wouldn’t fall. They’ve never been an easy out, never lost confidence, always been a worthy competitor. So what if they get bush-whacked by Miami and the Big Three era goes down like the Titanic? Does that change anything?
I don’t think so. I still have the memories, and I’ll never let go. Damn it, I sound like I’m eulogizing the Celtics already. I know they’re not dead yet. I do. Just addressing the elephant in the room, that’s all. An elephant I hope will never see the light of day.
Eminem, W.T.P.: “They call me the Stephon Marbury of rap, darlin’. Cuz as soon as they throw on some R-Kelly I start ballin’.”
Is there ever a bad time for a Stephon Marbury reference? I didn’t think so.
J. Cole, Home for the Holidays: “And to those that I used to know/ from way before/ keep your head up/ come let’s get this bread up/ girl, I gotta go, wish I could stay/ but I’m coming hme for the holidays”
Here’s to home court advantage. The TD Garden crowd needs to be rocking tonight. The Celtics need a boost.
Jay-Z, Moment of Clarity: “The next time you see the homie and his rims is spinning, just know my mind is workin just like them—the rims, that is”
If the Celtics are to win this series, they will need an other-wordly effort from Rajon Rondo. He’s been okay in the first two games. A near triple-double in Game 1, even though he was bothered by foul trouble. A nice stat line in Game 2, even though he (and his team) disappeared down the stretch. He’s been okay. But against the Heat, against Mike Bibby, when Rondo is Boston’s biggest advantage by far? They need so much more from Rondo. They need him to be Danny Almonte playing against Little Leaguers.
Remember when the Celtics got ransacked by Cleveland in Game 3 last year, going down two games to one in the series? After losing by 29 points, at home, the Celtics couldn’t have felt very confident about themselves. But remember what happened in Game 4? Rondo had 29 points, 18 rebounds and 13 assists, flexing his sinewy little muscles and outworking everyone on the court. The Celtics didn’t lose again in the series. And Rondo set the tone.
Look, it’s not that I’m upset with the way Rondo’s played. You can’t blame him for the losses, not when it’s the Big Three who look so overwhelmed against Miami’s youth. But especially considering that Paul Pierce and Ray Allen will both likely be outplayed all series (sorry, it’s true), Boston needs Rondo to be special. Not just good or great, but special.
When I was in college, my business professors repeatedly told me the importance of differentiation. “What makes your product different than everybody else’s?” they’d ask. “What makes your product better?” The Heat are differentiated by athleticism, youth, and two superstars whose talents know no boundaries. And Boston’s differentiation against the Heat? Experience, heart and Rajon Rondo.
The Celtics could certainly stand to make a lot of improvements. The bench can play better. Ray Allen can get free for shots. Paul Pierce can keep his composure and do more scoring. Kevin Garnett can start shooting well. But mostly, the Celtics need Rondo’s mind and motor to spin just like them—-the rims, that is. He’s Boston’s biggest differentiation against Miami, and the Celtics need him to do more.
J. Cole, Premeditated Murder: “I swear I’m coming back today. But if I’m wrong and I ain’t got what it takes, then all them people that was counting on me—Boy, won’t you climb down the mountain for me.”
“We’re not in the white sands of the beach no more,” said Kevin Garnett. “We’re back in the jungle. That will do some good for us. I told you man, it’s all in. I got two pocket kings and I’m all in. Let’s do it.’’
My first time ever visiting a casino, I was dealt two kings. Pocket kings, if you will. A tingle went down my spine. This was it. My chance to earn some real money. Some nutjob raised and four players called the bet. I re-raised. Nutjob went all-in over the top, risking all his chips against me. Everyone else folded. Nutjob had raised five straight hands, so I figured he was bluffing. Plus, only one hand was better than mine at that point. Even though I was more nervous than a murderer in confession, I called the enormous bet. Only one hand could beat me, I reminded myself. Nutjob smirked, then turned over pocket aces.
What I’m trying to say is this: In the basketball game of life, losing a playoff series is the rake. It’s the f–king rake, man. Let’s hope the Celtics still have alligator blood. Because when tonight ends, the Celtics will be in one of two places: they’ll be dropped into their graves, where the Heat just need to shovel a little dirt onto their dead bodies, or they’ll be one win away from tying the series.
Option number two sounds good to me.