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BOSTON – Something had been lost, these Boston Celtics listened to people tell them every day. Something’s gone now. Bigger than the muscle, the rebounding, the defense, something walked out the door with Kendrick Perkins(notes) and maybe left this franchise. All hell had broken loose at the buzzer Sunday night – Ray Allen(notes) slamming the ball onto the parquet, and Kevin Garnett(notes) grabbing a microphone and screaming, “BEANTOWN!” – and, yes, those final minutes had been testament to a brilliant coach’s mind, to the spirit of an old championship core.
Something hadn’t been lost with these Celtics, but found. When Game 1 had slipped away to the New York Knicks, there were the old Celtics. Garnett mauled Amar’e Stoudemire(notes), refusing him the ball. Allen made monumental shots. Jermaine O’Neal(notes) climbed out of the crypt and turned the calendar back a decade. And the orchestrator of it all, Doc Rivers, did to Knicks coach Mike D’Antoni what one of his mentors, Gregg Popovich, did to D’Antoni on a regular basis in Phoenix: undressed him in the final minutes of a playoff game, unraveled his defense.
On the walk back to his office Sunday, on the way to Tuesday night with an 87-85 Game 1 victory that felt a little like salvation for these under-siege Celtics, Rivers confessed this comeback had cut to the core of the doubts and debates of Boston’s fitness to fight.
“What I loved was that we showed our resolve,” Rivers told Yahoo! Sports. “We showed some toughness. And that’s been questioned – and maybe rightly so – when we made that trade of Perk. That’s been questioned a lot.”
This isn’t going to be an easy series for the Celtics, and they don’t make New York go away because they stole Game 1. For the Celtics, they survived a Sunday when the Western Conference’s No. 7 and 8 seeds – New Orleans and Memphis – beat the Los Angeles Lakers and San Antonio Spurs. They survived being down 12 points to the rejuvenated Knicks in the third quarter, and survived one more game without Shaquille O’Neal(notes) on the floor.
Most of all, the Celtics survived the uncertainty that lurked within minds over the transformation of the roster this season, over the sluggish end to a season where they showed themselves unable to compete with Chicago and Miami.
“You just don’t know about yourself as a team,” Rivers said in the corridor. “You know the human mind is, so you just never know. But I told our coaches before the series: ‘I really like our team, but we need to jump into this, though.’ The way this thing started for us, it may be good in the long run.”
The Celtics needed Rivers to a diagram a lob dunk out of a sideline out-of-bounds play for Garnett with 37 seconds left and needed Allen to deliver a 3-pointer with 11 seconds left. Ultimately, the Boston Celtics needed Carmelo Anthony(notes) to miss once more to end the game – the 10th miss of his final 11 shots.
The Knicks were grumbling about officiating, but they had no one to blame but themselves. Truth be told, they had two people to blame: D’Antoni and Anthony. Stoudemire has been the most accountable, best leader for these Knicks. D’Antoni was out of timeouts for the final possession and his defense turned into a fire drill when Rivers switched in-bounders prior to Allen’s shot. Stoudemire had destroyed the Celtics, but Garnett became resolved over the final several possessions to force the ball away from him, and ’Melo was too willing to keep missing shots and turning the ball over.
“I’m not too concerned about my individual performance or anything like that,” Anthony said.
Whatever. As Garnett overplayed Stoudemire, denied him the ball, it was on D’Antoni to still find a way to feed him. Stoudemire had been a one-man wrecking ball on Boston with 28 points, 11 rebounds and two blocks, and the pain of a lost opportunity would be exacerbated with the old bones of Chauncey Billups(notes) suffering a leg injury late that left him limping to the interview room and confessing, “I’m in a lot of pain right now.”
Stealing a game out of Boston becomes a monumental task for the Knicks without Billups on Tuesday, but so it goes when you give a proud, old champion the chance to hang around and hang around and regain its muscle memory on closing out playoff games. For all the discourse over Shaquille O’Neal’s unpreparedness to return, the Celtics found one more reason to believe in themselves this spring with the improbable emergence of Jermaine O’Neal.
Never mind his 12 points on perfect shooting, it was the four blocked shots that changed everything around the rim. “We won the game because of Jermaine O’Neal,” Rivers said.
Maybe they get Shaq back for Game 2 – maybe that Achilles never allows him to return. Yet, Jermaine O’Neal had gone down with knee surgery in early February, and there were a lot of people, including the Celtics, who believed he could be done for good. There were those doubting his desire to even return.
And yet Jermaine O’Neal traveled to Chicago for rehabilitation with trainer Tim Grover and quickly Grover could see that O’Neal was desperate to get back to Boston and chase a championship. “Every day for three weeks, two times a day,” Grover said by phone Sunday night. “I had to slow him down. All he did was show up, listen and work hard.”
He isn’t Kendrick Perkins for these Celtics, but he’s someone they can start to believe in too. The test for Jermaine: Can he do it again and again? For all the mythology over what’s been lost with Perkins, Rivers laughed that his old center would go for 20 points and 20 rebounds late on Sunday night, “And it’ll start all over again.”
Perkins was no Wilt Chamberlain in the Thunder’s Game 1 victory over the Denver Nuggets. He wasn’t even Jermaine O’Neal. Perkins had four points and five rebounds, and that didn’t touch the Game 1 that J.O. had back in Boston. Doc Rivers was thrilled to get out of the Garden with a victory, but something else lingered in this springtime air. Something the Celtics couldn’t touch, but sense. When the night was there to be had, muscle memory took hold and Boston executed the New York Knicks out of Game 1. Perfect play calls and perfect execution. A perfect ending to an imperfect night, an imperfect regular season.
The Boston Celtics have a long, long way to go, but when it looked like they would disappear into the dark abyss on Sunday night, they danced on stars. It’s been a long time, but they felt like themselves again.