In the end, two very good teams (or, "two very good teams and one horrible outfit that boasts the game's best player") that can be prone to very costly mistakes finally went head to head in a classic playoff duel that served as one of the more entertaining postseason outings we've seen in years.
LeBron James absolutely carried the Cleveland Cavaliers to the brink on Sunday, and his teammates responded with some lock-down defense, but Paul Pierce was able to find the open lanes on offense in the first half, nailed some impossible shots on the perimeter in the second half, and kept Boston afloat in a Game 7 they really could have lost.
This isn't to say that the Celtics besides Pierce didn't play a great game. They did, and at times the team's defensive effort and production bordered on the ridiculous. The C's weren't just sending two or three guys at LeBron James, leaving Ben Wallace alone and getting out on the perimeter, filling up lanes that James hadn't even driven into yet. That, we expect from them. Game 7's D went beyond that. The Celtics were also sending two guys at "shooters" like Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Sasha Pavlovic when James was forced into giving up the ball. They were all over the place. Mostly.
This isn't to say that the Celtics also didn't make plenty of mistakes, because they did: getting caught flopping or stuck in the paint at times while Cavaliers lined up and made open shots. At times, the defense was an either/or proposition.
And, continuing the lame gimmick, this isn't to say that the Cavs completely let James down in his three hours of glory. Most didn't. Cleveland's non-LeBron offense stunk, as usual, but the team's defense was there.
Also, this isn't to say that James (in the midst of a brilliant performance) didn't make mistakes. Too many heat-check threes (3-11 on the night) that killed runs, and there were times where he outright needed to go and grab the ball from Delonte West after a teammate corralled the defensive rebound (it didn't happen often, Cleveland was out-boarded 39-29) and found Cleveland's ostensible point guard with the outlet pass.
Those are a few of the complaints. Otherwise, it was quite the show. James refused to give in to a slow start and a batch of double-teams that wouldn't stop. 45 points on 14-29 shooting, 14-19 from the line, five rebounds, six assists (that number could have easily doubled; we need a "potential assist" stat), two steals, and just two turnovers in nearly 47 minutes of furious action. Two turnovers. Wow.
Meanwhile, Paul Pierce used his jab step and superior footwork to get his game going in the first half, and when Cleveland sent help in the first half, Pierce was able to hit a series of long-range two-pointers over James' outstretched arms. As it was with James, Pierce was doing his damage in the face of a withering defensive attack. 41 points on 13-23 shooting, 4-6 from long range, one missed free throw in 12 tries, four rebounds, five assists, four turnovers, two steals. If the Celtics don't get all of that, then Boston's season is over.
James and Pierce came through with remarkable performances. Years later, it will no doubt be what we take away from this series when it comes to the initial flashback. James' production kept Cleveland in the game, and Pierce's points put Boston over the top. And they were about the fifth-most important thing about this game. Why? Because it's a team game, and there were often a half-dozen other things that went into possessions on either side of the ball just to put Pierce or James in a place where they could take in the individual glory.
Points count. The team with the most points wins, a good hundred percent of the time. But things like Ilgauskas showing off a Ray Allen baseline screen, taking away a passing lane and potential shot for Allen, or Kevin Garnett's ability to leak off of his man, help on two different potential perimeter problems, and get back in time for the defensive rebound ... this stuff counts. And this stuff takes away high percentage layups or three-pointers. No amount of low-percentage fadeaway James/Pierce jumpers that go in can make up for the consistent team effort we saw in just about every other angle.
Which is why you can't listen to certain writers when they throw things like, "remember, [Player X] has been in the league since 1998, and yet he's only won four playoff series."
Why is that BS, BS? Because it's a team game. Because - let's say in the case of Paul Pierce - certain players haven't actually been in situations where they've lost to teams that they shouldn't have. Certain players might make the playoffs, and lose to better teams every year, mainly because there are five guys on the floor and up to 12 can play in a game, and the other team might have better players to work with. This isn't baseball. This isn't football. This is pro basketball, where the best team usually wins.
Kevin Garnett first made the playoffs in 1997, he didn't make it past the first round until 2004, and he hasn't made it back to the playoffs since? Do you know why? Because his teams were only good enough to make it to the first round for several years, they lost to better and much better teams in those first round series, and his teams haven't been good enough to make it to the playoffs in the years since, despite his best efforts.
It's stupid, cherry-picking "analysis" intended to confuse and distort, and take away from what real fans and real observers will never forget - that this is a team game.
LeBron had the lesser team in this series, big shocker, and Game 7 drove that point home. Here's Ben Wallace's line: four rebounds, three points, one block, five fouls, -15 plus/minus in almost 30 minutes.
The output was embarrassing, but you can't blame Wallace (save for the time he let Kevin Garnett score a jump hook on him in transition after a made Cleveland field goal in the fourth quarter), because his effort was there. He's a 6-7 power forward with one working hand and nothing left. He shouldn't have been playing.
Cleveland coach Mike Brown needlessly left the guy in, and I've no idea why. He was killing his team, all game long. In the most important possession of the game, with the Cavs down three and about 30 seconds left in the game, P.J. Brown straight up decided that, "nah, I'm not guarding Wallace," and stayed with teammate Paul Pierce from 26-feet away from the rim and all the way to the left baseline - forcing LeBron James to his off hand in and into a tough fallaway that rimmed out, sealing the Boston win.
I'm usually in favor of letting teams try to win games in the final minute without timeouts, these guys know the plays, but this is why the Basketball Gods invented offensive/defensive substitutions. Big Z should have been out there (Joe Smith, criminally overlooked all series, was on the court), at the top of the key, ready for the pass. He doesn't have to hit it. He doesn't even have to get the ball. He just has to be guarded. And nobody has to guard Ben Wallace.
Wally Szczerbiak (zero points, two turnovers, four fouls, -14 plus/minus, one rebound in 15 minutes) was no better, but at least Brown had the good sense to only play him for half as long as Wallace. Cleveland will have all summer to worry about Brown and Cavalier GM Danny Ferry. Obviously I've made up my mind, and perhaps it's time for the team's ownership to make up theirs.
In the meantime, Boston moves on. And that's a good thing, because though the team has needed 14 games to move into the Conference finals, they've been the better team, they've played well enough to win, and they haven't fallen victim to some random fluke difference-maker that sometimes sends the better team packing in a seven-game series.
We've been debating the Detroit/Boston matchup since December, but there's no point in looking back now. Detroit's a different team, and Boston is still figuring things (rotations, how to consistently bring the dominant defense, Pierce's needed role in the offense) out.
In the meantime, the Celtic coaching staff needs to really realize that all the things that went right in Game 7 weren't just some odd happenstance, and that they need to be the foundation and template for whatever happens from here on out.