The 82-Game Undoing of the Celtics
A week ago they were in prime position to win their second championship with this core, their 18th overall, and scoring yet another victory over their hated rivals. They seemed to have all the answers for the Los Angeles Lakers, seemed to be clicking at the right time, seemed to have victory within their grasp, just needing to wrap up the loose ends.
"Seemed" is such a painful term in retrospect.
A week later and their star shooting guard, arguably their best offensive threat, is on his way to free agency, possibly never to return. Their coach is giving serious consideration to walking away, having given too much of himself in the regular season and playoffs. They're unsure of whether to make another run with the elder core or detonate to the foundation and bring in younger pillars. And they'll be watching (or more likely, avoiding watching) their biggest rivals celebrating their second trophy in consecutive years. And this one was not won against some team the Celtics arrogantly considered pretenders, but against Red's Army itself.
How did they get here? What happened? They looked so dominant in the playoffs!
Tragically, painfully, when it gets down to it, it was the regular season, the season the Celtics outright dismissed and insulted, that was their undoing.
The Celtics weren't just average through the second half of the season; they were downright bad. And we're not just talking, "compared to the playoff teams" bad. We're talking "lost to the Nets" bad. But that one game was easy to pass off as a fluke when the Celtics were tearing through the Magic like they didn't exist. The other 41 are a bit trickier, and somewhere in there is the root of why the Celtics lost.
The blood on the collective corpse of the 2009-2010 Celtics team isn't made up of the play that resulted in those losses. There's no connection between the listless, heartless, overwhelmed and very aged club that fell every other night as the season wore on and the unstoppable machine that terrorized the Eastern Conference All-Stars. The Celtics turned it on when they knew it mattered, and their play in the playoffs was so efficient, so effective, so dominant, that to question whether they should have been plugged into the meaningless March games against the Sixers is madness.
Call me mad.
It's not about the Sixers. There was nothing for the Celtics to prove, and they knew it. The team admitted to being "bored," and kept promising, swearing that they would turn it on "when it mattered." And they lived up to that promise. They made all of the media (of which I was a hearty and passionate member) choke on their predictions of failure. They were a brutal storm of defensive closeouts and Rondo's slicing drives. They brought the league back to its knees, cackling at people who thought they should have tried more in the regular season.
And then, it turns out, they should have.
The Lakers won the Finals. But it's difficult to say the Celtics lost them. They played incredibly well, held a series lead, and a lead late in Game 7. They set themselves up perfectly to walk home with the title. But that was just the problem. They weren't home. They were on the road. And on the road, all those little things you need to happen in order to win a championship? They come at nearly twice the price. Bench players don't play as well. Starters looked fatigued. Momentum is constantly crashing at the walls of your fortress, and your stamina is sapped trying to maintain the appropriate level of intensity. And in the end, the Lakers woke from their shooting slump, got the kind of calls you'd expect a home team to garner, rode the momentum to a comeback and the result is a Celtics' team that is staring at this simple, painful fact.
They likely would have won the championship if they had just won a few more regular season games. If they hadn't laughed off the Nets, the Sixers, the Bucks, the Grizzlies, they'd likely be preparing for their own parade on the streets of Beantown. They were overwhelmed by the Lakers in the final two games because they surrendered the high ground in an attempt to defend their fragile health.
It's especially rousing because of how good the Celtics were on the road this season. But all those road victories were against teams that didn't feature one of the All-Time greats and Pau Gasol. And Lamar Odom. And Ron Artest. And Derek Fisher having another zombie series. The Celtics needed that home crowd to get them that fourth win. They needed every advantage because the Lakers were really that good. But the Celtics still had the makeup of a championship team. It was their arrogance in not providing even a passing grade down the stretch that put them in the grave. Their injuries? Rajon Rondo's muscle spasms. Glen Davis' concussion. Kendrick Perkins' knee. None of the Big 3, who held up admirably as the postseason wore on.
We came to the realization as the Finals began that the regular season was even more useless than we thought it was. But it was the regular season that wound up deciding the championship. The Lakers were better, not just because they outplayed the Celtics, but because they won the right in the regular season to hold the last two games of the Finals with Lawrence Tanter droning, Jack Nicholson smirking, and the rest of the fans setting fire to cars and assaulting the cops outside. The Lakers may have given a mediocre regular-season performance in the second half of the season, but the Celtics gave a miserable one.
Everyone thought the Celtics' age and laziness meant that their team's ceiling was unsustainable. For three series, that looked like brash foolishness. And then when it mattered most, against the one team over all that they did not want to fall in defeat to, they found themselves on a distant shore, battling fatigue and frustration, and finally watching their rivals hoist the trophy. And the best part of this little joke?
If you asked the Eastern Conference Champions? They'd tell you they'd do everything the same way again.