Thursday, June 19, 2008

And Boston Beats L.A.!

The Boston Celtics just beat the Los Angeles Lakers.

After more than two decades of waiting fruitlessly. After seeing Larry Bird and Kevin McHale play their last games and get sent off without a championship. After seeing Reggie Lewis crumple to the floor and die a few months later. After learning Paul Pierce had been stabbed. After seeing Rick Pitino bully his way off the coaching roster. After countless and meaningless trades. The one pre-season trade that mattered finally bore fruit. This era’s Big Three – Pierce, Garnett, and Allen – finally have a championship ring to call their own.

And it was not just those Three who played their hearts out. It was Kendrick Perkins and his massive defensive presence in the paint. Rajon Rondo and his fearless attack off the opponent’s dribble penetration. Eddie House and his three-pointers that brought down the, well, house. James Posey and his reliable shooting. Leon Powe and his repeated moments of brilliance (particularly in Game 2). Sam Cassell and his reassuring offensive presence. PJ Brown and his defensive stops. (And the odd thing was I never really liked those last two players. And now I admit they were phenomenal during this Finals series.)

People said Kevin Garnett single-handedly remade the team into a mean defensive machine. And that may be true. He transformed the Celtics culture into one that was defense-oriented. They got together in very early mornings to practice their pick and roll plays, their screens, and their defensive positions. John Thibodeau, the team’s assistant coach, was also instrumental in helping the team turn the defensive corner.

And Paul Pierce, that magnificent franchise player, finally got his due. He and the team made their own history, hung up their own banner. In time, he might get his number retired and hung from the rafters, too. And he definitely earned it. As the Finals MVP, he clawed his way through the Lakers’ defense and shot impressively from the field. He worked the perimeter, the paint, the three-point area. He played with heart and passion. He has certainly defined his role in the team and everyone in Boston are just so proud of this man who morphed from rookie who tried to do everything, into an All-Star player who could do anything.

But no one made my heart swell that night than Ray Allen. Despite his inclusion into the Big Three, he was constantly ragged on his inconsistent offense. His shooting was erratic, and he was seemingly absent from the playoffs. Analysts said he had the most to sacrifice from the trade – from being the star player of the Bucks and the Sonics, to the third shooter on a team that was just full of superstars and potential stars. He seemed to always be adjusting to how the ball was rotated, and he had to buckle down and start polishing up on defense if he couldn’t get the ball himself.

Come the first two rounds of the playoffs, Allen played miserably. But when the Finals against the Lakers rolled in, he became a different player. On two nights when Garnett and Pierce were less than impressive, Allen stepped up and became the only constant among the Big Three. In the Celtics’ first loss in Los Angeles, Allen was the only player who made his shots. And in Game Six, he tied the NBA Finals record for most three pointers made. He was hot and he was money, and he never let up even when the lead was padded up to an astronomical 40 points. And he was terrific on defense, too. He was able to guard Kobe Bryant, the one player this season whose greatness was unquestionable, and shut him down on several occasions. He was closest to Larry Bird for me – a terrific scorer and defender who quietly did his role and stepped above it. He was way too classy to get physical in the paint, but he penetrated the inside as fearlessly as Kevin or Paul. Remember his mismatch with Sasha Vujacic, whom he lost on his way to the basket? Or him getting poked in the eye by Lamar Odom? His success at the three-point area has made people forget that he could play the inside, too.

But the fans knew. When Ray Allen came back from his eye injury, the fans rewarded him with a rousing cheer and a standing ovation. But he simply nudged his teammates aside and sat on the bench and kept an eye on the game. He didn’t swagger into the court; he got there quick and seemed to make a mental note as to how to help. I love his quiet passion, and I am so happy that he was rewarded for it. He got a lot of love from the fans that night. And from me. I am so so SO GLAD he won.

And Doc Rivers. The man who almost got his ass handed to him last season. He turned the team around with his Tutu mantra of “ubuntu”. And the whole team listened. He and Danny Ainge, that Celtics point guard who was easy to hate during those days – they both turned the team around this season. My hat’s off to Danny Ainge, who really looked at the big picture and stuck with it. And big props to him for sticking with Doc Rivers.

My favorite moment of the championship celebration happened twice. Once, during the immediate on-court celebrations after the clock expired, Michelle Tafoya encountered Garnett in near tears and asked how he felt. Garnett immediately thanked, among other things, Minnesota. The one city who welcomed him when he first arrived as a pro player fresh out of high school. And on the podium, when Pierce and Allen gave their speeches. Like Garnett, they both thanked a city. Both of them thanked Boston. Pierce thanked Boston for sticking with him, even on the not-so-great years. And Allen thanked Boston for having him. I’ll say. Boston, the city with the most pride to give, THANKS YOU, Allen and Pierce and Garnett and Rivers and Ainge and the rest of the Celtics. And thank you for keeping the Auerbach love (and win record) alive.

We’ll see you guys again next year.

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