BOSTON – The hour chased midnight now, and the coaches were passing in the corridor of the Garden. Doc Rivers was on his way back to his office and looked less like a winner than he did a survivor Saturday night. His tie undone, shirt soaked, Rivers had pulled everything out of his playbook, out of his motivational speeches. He had gone against his most valued coaching principles to finally step out of the way of these relentless Chicago Bulls, like he would a cab outside on Causeway Street.
"It was one hell of a series," the Celtics coach said as he stopped to embrace Vinny Del Negro, his old teammate with the San Antonio Spurs. The Boston Celtics and Bulls had gone seven games and seven overtimes in an epic Eastern Conference playoff series and, now, a 109-99 Game 7 victory had Rivers turning to Del Negro with empathetic eyes and a long, firm embrace.
"You did a hell of a job," Rivers said into Del Negro's ear. "Now trade all of your players for next year, will you?"
When the Bulls hired Del Negro 10 months ago with no coaching background, one of his first calls for advice went to Rivers. He told him all about taking a job without a coaching résumé. Rivers is an NBA treasure this way, generous with perspective and context on everything in the game. Only, he was too deep inside this series to see for himself. This never felt like a classic, just a death grip.
"I've had more calls about this series from other coaches in the league," Rivers said. "They all thought it was great, but I didn't think so. I'm in it. But coaches who have been in this league for years would call and just say it was amazing."
He shook his head, as though he had just started to process these long, hard seven games through the prism that everyone else witnessed them. Boston had to reach into a reservoir of superstar greatness, bench ingenuity and coaching resourcefulness. In the end, the Celtics are a champion fighting the loss of their star, Kevin Garnett, fighting father time for a thirtysomething core.
The Celtics never had a pass in this series, never an out because Garnett was gone. No one expects them to win a title without Garnett, but the burden of defending a Celtics championship wouldn't have allowed for a title defense to have vanquished so soon.
The Bulls were magnificent in this series. Derrick Rose is going to be a superstar and should Ben Gordon re-sign and Luol Deng rediscover his game, the Bulls promise to be an Eastern Conference contender for years. The Bulls' young legs pushed the Celtics to the brink and beyond, pushed Rivers to unconventional and uncomfortable lineups.
When it was late, and the Celtics were fighting to hold back the Bulls one final time, Rivers turned to a smaller, scoring offense to close out the series. So, there was Rajon Rondo and Ray Allen and Eddie House playing small ball. With the way that Rose, Gordon, John Salmons and Kirk Hinrich spread the floor and scored with such ease on the Celtics, Rivers had no choice. That's how it goes in Game 7: Survive and advance.
"That was against almost every fiber in my body," Rivers said. "That was tough for me. We're a defensive team, and to put Eddie and all the guards on the floor … I don't like it. I just don't like it, but I just felt we couldn't get stops, that we had to score."
They would turn to the bench for Game 7, and there was Eddie House and Brian Scalabrine hitting 3-pointers, and Stephon Marbury running the offense, and the Celtics bench rising in support of Paul Pierce, Allen and Rondo. Whatever happens now with Dwight Howard and the Orlando Magic, Boston has honored its championship defense.
"We aren't defending anything," Rivers said on the walk to the locker room. "They can't come back and take our trophy away. We are trying to win another one."
That's what Rivers tells himself, his team, but he knows better: These are the Celtics and there's immense honor in the task of protecting a championship season. Allen called the Bulls series, "the toughest I've ever been a part of," and maybe that's because there was such mental and physical demands for both Allen and Pierce. Without K.G., they had to do more scoring and defending, had to lead in different ways. That takes its toll, too. What's more, people were wondering how Allen and Pierce would approach the playoffs without Garnett, wondering whether a voice within them would simply say, "What's the point?"
It never happened, and now they get the Magic on Monday night in Game 1 of the conference semifinals. All along, they still believed that Game 7 belonged to the Celtics in the Garden. Always has, always will. "With or without Kevin, we are still the Boston Celtics and we should still expect to dominate here, to defend our title," Scalabrine said. "I was never thinking that this was some classic or epic series. I was just thinking, 'We're the Celtics and we have to defend our title.' "
Between the Saturday morning shootaround and Game 7, the Celtics climbed into their cars at the practice facility to find a thick book and a DVD. It was the Orlando Magic scouting report. Maybe this was greatest playoff series in history, but Boston understood that it would only be historic should it be on the winning end. That's all that matters here, all that's ever mattered.
Orlando will be tough to beat without Garnett, and the Cavaliers most improbable. Yet those were fights for a different day. These young Bulls came hard for the Celtics, came again and again and again, and finally Paul Pierce sighed and said, "We still are the champs until someone knocks us off."
Still the Celtics, still that burden. For now, still the champs.