Somber Celtics Went Out Like Champions
It was quiet in the visitor's locker room at Staples Center on Thursday night, where one Boston Celtic after another was asked to discuss their own basketball death. They talked about the classic Game 7 in hushed tones and in a painful rotation -- Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, Rajon Rondo, Glen Davis, Kevin Garnett -- all reliving the Lakers' 83-79 championship survival. The floor was wet over here, too, but it wasn't because of champagne.
"There was a lot of crying in our locker room, a lot of people who care," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "I don't think there was a dry eye. A lot of hugs. A lot of people feeling awful. That's a good thing. You know, that means everybody cared."
They went out like champions from beginning to end, these aging Hall of Famers and relentless reserves who came so close to pulling off such a memorable and unexpected feat. They unplugged the electricity in the building early, jumping out to a 10-point first quarter lead that ensured the tension among most of the 18,997 witnesses would not escape.
For a while there, they humiliated Kobe Bryant in his own house, the Lakers star looking rattled and inept as part of his team's 6 of 27 shooting start.
They finished with the same fight, the same belief that drove so many big shots down the stretch. Pierce's jumper over Ron Artest with 3:45 left, cutting the Lakers' lead to 70-66. Rasheed Wallace's crafty pass to Garnett for a dunk moments later. Wallace's rainbow three with 1:23 left over Bryant to keep the leprechaun from leaving. Allen's three from the left corner with 51 seconds left, one of the game's best shooters finally coming through after so many mystifying misses. Rondo's three with 16 seconds left to cut it to 81-79.
It could be said that it came down to one "what if?" scenario, this one having nothing to do with injured center Kendrick Perkins and the question of what his presence might have done. With 13 seconds left, Rondo's pesky arms jarred the ball loose at midcourt from Bryant, who won his fifth title despite his legendary poise betraying him at almost every turn.
The ball bounded toward the Celtics' basket in what looked to be a fast break opportunity and likely tie score, if not for the sideline that got in the way. It all came down to inches, the possession going back to the Lakers and Sasha Vujacic burying two free throws with 11 seconds left that ended it.
"It's disappointing," Allen said. "This probably is one of the hardest feelings I've felt in my lifetime. We're scratching and clawing, trying to do everything we could to pull this out. That's what probably hurt the most, just having the opportunity to win down the stretch (and it) didn't go our way."
Allen was the spokesman on that front. While Bryant was bailed out by Ron Artest, who scored 20 points and held Pierce to 5 of 15 shooting, and Pau Gasol (19 points, 18 rebounds), the Celtics shooting guard was remarkably ineffective at the worst possible time.
He hit just 3 of 14 shots and had a game-high tying four turnovers, hitting just 2 of 7 three-pointers. His defense was phenomenal on Bryant, but the shot for which he is so well known disappeared like never before. Aside from his Game 2 outburst in which he set a Finals record with eight three-pointers, Allen hit 4 of 30 three-pointers in the series and averaged 11.6 points per game.
The fallout might be great for the 2008 champions. Rivers, who has one year left on his contract, said he'll take time to be with his family before deciding whether he'll return. And while the Celtics coach didn't give much insight into his own future, he abruptly announced that he expects Wallace to retire.
"I don't know if Rasheed will ever play again," Rivers said. "I think he took that out on the floor with him. I think he is thinking about retiring."
Wallace, whose early scoring was key en route to his 11-point, eight-rebound outing, was emotional in his own way afterward. He reportedly attempted to enter the officials room and talk to referee Danny Crawford, only to be turned away by Staples Center security.
Allen is an even more relevant wild card in Boston's future, as he is a free agent this summer, making the notion of the Big Three being broken up a distinct possibility. Asked if he wants to return, Allen said, "I'll deal with that when the time comes, but it's obvious that I don't want to be anywhere else."
Except on the winner's podium, of course, holding the Larry O'Brien trophy to what might have been a stunned and miserable Lakers crowd. Instead, Allen and his teammates cried in near silence.