BOSTON – There still is no Kevin Garnett. There may be no more Leon Powe. Rajon Rondo is playing on an extremely gimpy ankle – and Paul Pierce loves where the Boston Celtics are in their entertaining first-round playoff series with the Chicago Bulls.
“I think we feel very confident because we feel like we haven’t played good basketball yet," Pierce said on Monday, after the Celtics eked out a 118-115 victory over the Bulls to square the series at 1-1 on a Ray Allen 3-pointer with two seconds left. “We win [Game 2] and we feel like we should have won Game 1 and we just say, ‘I feel like this is pretty much our ‘C’ game. We are not a team that gives up 100 points in consecutive games. I think our best is yet to come.”
The great unknown, of course, is whether this actually is as good as the Celtics can play – it’s hard, for instance, to see how Rondo can play any better – because, without Garnett, they are a much different defensive team. And that is where they are getting abused. The Bulls have already stolen home-court advantage and have succeeded in getting the Celtics to play an up-tempo game in both games. Should that trend continue, you have to like Chicago’s chances with its superior youth and athleticism. Clearly, playing in Boston does not rattle these guys.
Pierce is right; the Celtics have not played well in either game. And yet had Pierce himself not missed a free throw at the end of Game 1, the Celtics might be heading to the City of Broad Shoulders with a 2-0 lead. Then again, had the Bulls not treated a defensive rebound like it was some kind of radioactive orb, Chicago might be heading home with a 2-0 lead.
The highlights of this one will feature an epic mano-a-mano between UConn alums Allen (30 points, 28 in the second half) and Ben Gordon (42 points, 25 in the second half). Allen’s emergence came after he had gone 1-of-12 in the first game and 1-of-4 in the first half of Game 2. With Pierce curiously hesitant and tentative all night, Doc Rivers told his team at halftime, “I need one volunteer: one volunteer to step up and score for us. And it was Ray.” Indeed it was.
“I never think I’m not in my rhythm," Allen said in typical shooter-speak.
There will be a proper amount of slobbering over the brilliant play of Rondo, who had a triple double (19 points, 16 assists, 12 rebounds) and played the entire second half because Rivers was afraid that if he rested him, the kid’s ankle would swell like a balloon. Rondo was a tsunami in the first seven minutes of the game, succeeding in getting both opposing point guards in foul trouble while taking the game right to the Bulls. “It’s the best I’ve ever seen him play,’’ Rivers said.
There will be some attention devoted to the Bulls’ shot-blocking prowess and to the emergence of Glen "Big Baby” Davis, who submitted Garnett-like numbers (26 points, nine rebounds) in the role he refers to as “The Ticket Stub.”
But the reason this series is going to Chicago knotted at 1-1 can be summed up in one word – rebounding. The Celtics mauled the Bulls on the offensive glass, collecting 21 offensive rebounds, which led to a revealing and ultimately decisive 32-12 advantage in second-chance points. Eleven of those 32 points came in the fourth quarter, including Allen’s penultimate 3-pointer, which erased a 113-112 Chicago lead with 25.3 seconds left.
“The key,’’ Rivers said. He didn’t say “a key.” He said, “the key.” And he was right. Chicago controlled the glass in Game 1, to the point where Kendrick Perkins said he couldn’t sleep, lest he see visions of Joakim Noah flying over him for a rebound.
Game 2 was a complete reversal.
Pat Riley is famous for saying he wants rebounders at this time of the season because rebounders get championship rings. To Riley, and to a lot of coaches, it’s the ultimate sign of desire and toughness – wanting the ball badly enough to go out and get it. That is how the Celtics survived.
Riles must have been ready to sign up Perkins (12 rebounds, seven offensive), Davis and the exceedingly resourceful Rondo. All those second and sometimes third chances can wear down a team, especially if it has done a decent defensive job on the first go-round.
“It was real frustrating,’’ said Derrick Rose, who came down to earth after his debut in Game 1, settling for 10 points, seven assists and six rebounds.
The overall rebounding numbers: 50-36 in Boston’s favor. “We can’t expect to win when we get outrebounded like that,’’ Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro said.
He’s right, of course. But his team did everything but win despite the rebounding numbers.
It might be premature or even misleading to resurrect the great Rudy Tomjanovich line about never underestimating the heart of a champion because the Celtics, as presently constructed, do not have the look or feel of a successful repeater. There are too many banged-up bodies, too many uncertainties.
Garnett was seen limping at practice and doesn’t appear to be close to thinking about playing anytime soon. Rivers still hasn’t closed the door all the way on a K.G. sighting; after all, a week ago, Garnett looked great. Then, he was ruled out of the playoffs. So maybe there’s hope – if the Celtics can continue. Powe was sent to the hospital after injuring his “good” knee in the first half and Rivers doesn’t like the way that looks. Rondo’s ankle has been troublesome for some time.
But in a game the Celtics felt they had to win, they found a way. They may not like the way they did it, but they found a way. That is what the good teams do. The Celtics aren’t where they want to be or need to be, but with only one game in the next five days, they will have plenty of time to rest and regroup and move closer to that ever-elusive goal. Judging by what we’ve seen so far, they can use all the time they can get.