LOS ANGELES – Before the start of training camp, Doc Rivers gathered Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen for a private tour of the championship parade route in Boston. Through the streets and onto the Duck boats, they retraced the paths of the Patriots and Red Sox, along the way discussing the noble leadership needs of sacrifice and selflessness and dynamic defense. These are such easy things to resolve with the leaves changing colors in September, with promises and pacts the ultimate of sport's counterfeit currencies.
For the way that these Celtics pushed though the greatest regular-season turnaround in NBA history, for the way they pushed through an unexpectedly rugged Eastern Conference playoff chase, there had never been such a measure of the distance they had come together – the bond, the belief – as the uncertain moments of Game 4 on Thursday night.
Long before the most staggering comeback in the history of the NBA Finals, a hellacious 97-91 victory to push Boston to a 3-1 series edge, the constitution of the Celtics had been challenged to its core. All those promises, all that talk, and here was the acid test.
The Los Angeles Lakers had turned the Staples Center into a layup line, a Hollywood red carpet of dunks and unchallenged layups and Nicholson cackles. The Celtics were down 24 points and suddenly the Lakers had life and legs and legitimacy in these Finals.
Suddenly, the series was shaping into a Showtime revival that everyone had been so sure would ultimately run Boston out of the building, away from a 17th banner.
And still, somehow, these Celtics rose out of the rubble together. They did it without flash, without trickery, without excuse.
Pierce had gone to Doc Rivers at halftime, and declared, "I want to guard Kobe." This has been Allen's responsibility, but he took no offense. Pierce could stop Bryant's posting up near the basket. He had fouls to give, and a childhood hometown to take back for himself. Allen hadn't considered this directive an insult to his work, but a scene of sheer inspiration.
"I would've suggested it a long time ago, but it took for Paul to say it," Allen said.
Across those hellacious third and fourth quarters, when the Lakers' lead evaporated, when Pierce stunned the Staples sellout with a fabulous block on Bryant, with a bulldozing bodying of Bryant trip after trip down the floor, Pierce had validated everything these Celtics stars had vowed together.
And still eventually, Pierce had gone as far as he could blanketing Bryant. He made him miss five of his seven shots in the third quarter, and with the game, the series, and perhaps the championship on the line, those final, furious minutes moved Pierce to the brink of exhaustion. The Lakers were unsettled, unsure, on offense. They were counting on Kobe, waiting for him to push past Pierce, past that dogged Celtics defense and it wasn't happening.
"It just looks like they wanted to get the ball to Kobe and him sort of finish it off," Garnett said.
From the beginning of these Finals, this promised to be Kobe's coronation. It was Kobe against Jordan, Kobe against the Celtics, and that hasn't worked out so well.
Beyond the Big Three, Boston recruited James Posey and Eddie House to be complementary players. Posey had a championship pedigree in Miami and brought a ferocity that made him a soul mate of Garnett's. Rivers had watched the Lakers trapping all over the floor, leaving Rajon Rondo and Kendrick Perkins, the marginal shooting threats for the Celtics stars.
So, he made the choice to spread the floor with three-point shooters, and wouldn't you know it: Posey (18 points) and House (11 points) made six of 12 three-pointers. No way was Rivers going to let Bryant float, play free safety on the Celtics. "Kobe might be the best help defender I've seen since (Scottie Pippen)," Rivers said. This forced Bryant to cling close to House, and as Rivers suspected, that delivered Garnett and Pierce room to operate on offense.
Soon, the traps stopped in the fourth quarter. The floor was properly spaced. "And our scorers could score," Rivers said.
Even Phil Jackson confessed, "That changed the game."
Finally, the Lakers needed one to stop to get the ball back with time left in regulation, one defensive stand inside the final 40 seconds. Rivers had called for a pick-and-roll with Pierce and Allen, but the coach could see right away that Pierce had nothing left on offense, that Bryant had sapped so much strength out of him. "Paul was exhausted. He didn't even want to come to the ball on that play."
Which Allen recognized right away, and the symmetry was unmistakable. In that halftime locker room, in the uncertainty of an 18-point deficit, Pierce made a dramatic statement with his teammates watching, with a buoy needed. "I want Kobe," he said, and that's just what these Celtics needed to witness together. They needed to see that their captain wasn't running away from Bryant, but running to him.
And now, with those 40 seconds left in the fourth quarter, Pierce had gone as far as he could go. And Allen could see it, too. Yes, he had played the full 48 minutes, but his body was still energized, his spirit willing to be the closer that everyone insisted Bryant would be over and over in these Finals.
So, Allen told Garnett to move away, let him go one-on-one with Sasha Vujacic and Allen made a hard dribble to the rim, and another, and soon the oddest thing happened: He was past him, and to his shock, "I had the whole basket free and clear."
Pau Gasol hesitated on leaving Garnett and there was no last line of defense – just a humiliating Lakers breakdown, a Celtic driving uncontested for a layup to make it 96-91 with 15.7 seconds left. Boston had worn down these Lakers to a nub – with mind and body.
They've been so much more mentally tough than Los Angeles in these Finals, so much more willing to pay a price for victory. That final, crucial possession was something born out of the Big Three's earliest days together this season, out of assurances of sacrifice and selflessness, out of a brotherhood of getting thrust together with the opportunity of a basketball lifetime.
Together, they did it and it's moved the Celtics to the cusp of a championship, to the chance to end this journey where it started: On that well-worn Boston parade route, where pacts and promises made in the autumn New England air could be consummated on Sunday night in the Staples Center.
- Doc Rivers