Posted May 27 2010 9:48PM
BOSTON -- The Boston Celtics had the ball, the crowd, the court, 16 seconds left in a tie Game 4, a timeout if they wanted it, flow and spontaneity if they didn't and a commanding 3-0 lead over the Orlando Magic in the Eastern Conference championship series.
Look at them now.
The court Friday night will be theirs, the crowd too. But the mood at TD Garden for Game 5 will be heavier, dread lurking in the Celtics fans' side mirrors. The opportunity to sweep in Boston will be replaced by the pressure not to go back to Orlando. It's not 16 seconds anymore but four quarters, and then maybe four quarters after that, against a younger and healthier team that has the flow and the momentum on its side now. The Celtics can no longer impress in this series, they can only survive, because they're still stuck on 3, the Magic suddenly have 2 and everything -- Game 7, The Finals, a trophy presentation -- is on the verge of shifting down to Florida.
It really is a wonder that the Larry O'Brien Trophy isn't made of papier-mache and championship rings aren't the kind slipped around cigars, because this business of chasing titles so often is a fragile proposition. A team's best-laid plan turns out to be written on tissue, all that it knows to be true suddenly pivots on a dime. A few days ago, the Celtics were about to do to the Magic what the Magic had done to the Bobcats and the Hawks. Now it's the Magic doing the doing and the Celtics getting done to, only more so -- because no NBA team ever has come back to win a best-of-seven series after dropping the first three. Yet people are starting to believe.
The flip side of it -- no team ever has squandered a 3-0 series lead either, obviously -- is an easy sell in Boston because it happened just two weeks ago, the NHL Bruins staking themselves to that advantage in the Stanley Cup playoffs, going belly-up for the next three games and then repeating it in miniature (3-0 lead in Game 7, only to lose 4-3). The Red Sox did it in happier style in 2004, digging out of an 0-3 hole by sticking it to the hated Yankees in the ALCS the way Orlando shooters have been sticking 3-pointers lately.
Celtics coach Doc Rivers, since the needle on this one hit 3-0, has talked several times about the blessing/curse aspect of Boston's long, passionate sports history and, naturally, the self-appointed curators who remember every good and bad detail. That gives Rivers, a native of Chicago schooled in Milwaukee who lives in Orlando, some nice local cred. But it isn't going to provide any help.
In a season riddled with second-half swoons and leads blown late in games, the East finals are shaping up as the Celtics' most damning instance yet of failing to protect a lead. Worse, they're contributing to their own demise by giving away points, minutes and potentially whole games to emotions that aren't getting properly channeled.
Which, given their penchant for yapping their way into trouble of one sort or another on the court, is like saying that BP oil isn't getting properly pumped these days.
The Celtics, one might say, are a "technically proficient" ball club. Technically prolific, to be precise. Six Boston players got whistled for at least three technical fouls each in the regular season, in some cases many more than three: Glen Davis (3), Rajon Rondo (4), Paul Pierce (5), Kevin Garnett (6) Rasheed Wallace (14) and Kendrick Perkins (15). Wallace, the NBA's own version of Mr. T, also had three rescinded after the fact -- the same sort of clemency shown by the folks at league HQ Thursday toward Perkins.
The Boston center had the second of his two technical fouls in Game 5 wiped away the morning after, an erasure of considerable significance because Perkins faced a one-game suspension from Game 6 Friday for reaching a total of seven T's in these playoffs. It's part of a cumulative penalty process -- 16 is the trigger number in the regular season -- that deserves to be revisited soon.
Why? First, it punishes the best teams more harshly than others (they're the ones who play the most postseason games) and second, because it was conceived before the current craze among referees of issuing "double technicals" in almost any circumstance. Two players glare and cuss at each other? Double T's. One guy pokes an elbow, other guys slaps at his arm? Double T's. One fellow inhales, another fellow exhales? Double T's.
Rivers, sounding a little greedy, said in a call Thursday with reporters that he was hoping to get both of Perkins' technicals rescinded. The first one wasn't (he and Orlando big man Marcin Gortat tangled), the second one was (Perkins reacting angrily to a foul call by Ed F. Rush and stomping away). But the fact remains, thanks to the automatic ejection that came with that now-disappeared second T, the Celtics lost Perkins' services for the second half, during which they were outscored Wednesday 56-43. And he has to play now knowing that his next huff-and-puff moment will indeed trigger a suspension from Boston's next game.
For Perkins, as physical and high-strung as he plays, that could be as restricting as most players trying to stay on the floor with five personal fouls. "I am very concerned by that," Rivers said. "Kendrick just has to be allowed to play. He has to be allowed to be physical. It's amazing how this [series] has gone so far: Kendrick's in foul trouble and he's not the most physical player on the floor. Dwight Howard is clearly the most physical player on the floor.
"What we keep telling Perk is 'Just be as physical as him.' And he says, 'Yeah, but I end up in foul trouble.' So we are really concerned with that. I'm just going to try to get Perk to be Perk and play, and not be concerned with techs, not be concerned with fouls. But that's very difficult to do."
It's hard to have much sympathy for the Celtics in this area, though. Theirs has been a culture of technicals -- barking, trash-talking, questioning refs and so on -- for a couple of seasons. While some might expect a team long on veterans to be more mature, or at least savvy enough to finesse their second-guesses of calls, Rivers sees players whose feisty reputations contribute to the T times. He also sees emotions he's reluctant to squelch.
"We knew that coming into the year. We talk about it. But people are not going to change for the most part," the Celtics coach said. "We have Rasheed -- very emotional. We have Kendrick Perkins -- very emotional. We have Kevin Garnett -- very emotional. You can make the case with all three that their emotions is what has allowed them to be good players.
"Does it hurt the team at times? Yeah, there's no doubt about that. We have a rule -- and we break the rule at times -- it's 'no fourth-quarter techs.' ... We knew coming into the year that it would be an issue and it has been."
It is an issue right now. Perkins never has had to play with a muzzle before; it could limit him. Plus the bottom line is, one more T and he'll be watching the next game, whenever it is, on TV.
Then there is the team at large. The visitors' dressing room at Amway Arena late Wednesday looked like a "M*A*S*H unit," Rivers said, what with Davis' and Marquis Daniels' concussions, Wallace's aching back, Pierce's bum shoulder, Rondo's leg spasms and others' various ailments. They are playing and hurting, pushing themselves with urgency when they could have been resting, recuperating and avoiding Howard's elbows to the head entirely, while letting the Lakers and the Suns wear each other down.
Let's not forget that in that scenario late in Game 4 -- the ball, the crowd, the court, the clock and all that -- there was something else on Boston's side of the ledger: Two technical fouls. Garnett got one early in the third quarter, Wallace early in the fourth (so much for the "rule"). Magic shooters made both free throws.
And that's how it was 86-86 with those 16 seconds left, the Celtics so narrowly missing what would have been a far simpler close-out.
Look at them now.
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