By Ryan McGowan
Dave Cowens, #18 himself, said it best on Friday night.
“Go out there on behalf of the NBA and Red Auerbach and all Celtics present and past,” he said, as he presented the Eastern Conference championship trophy to Celtics owner Wyc Grousbeck, “and bring home No. 18.’’
It was probably fitting that Cowens was on hand to present the trophy, as the iconic image of Big Red diving and sliding across the parquet, floor burns and all, after poke-checking the ball away from Oscar Robertson of the Milwaukee Bucks during the 1974 Finals was the play most comparable to current Celtics point guard and wunderkind Rajon Rondo’s Game 3 masterpiece against the Orlando Magic. Rondo, however, managed to one-up the former NBA MVP and two-time champion in one regard, having scored on an unbelievable layup after out-hustling Jason Williams to the ball in the backcourt and laying out Cowens-style for the ball like Tedy Bruschi used to fall on fumbles. It was, as Keats might say, a thing of beauty and a joy forever.
The Rondo play epitomized the Magic-Celtics series in nearly every way—while Orlando was the prohibitive favorite, Boston was just better. They were smarter, they were tougher, and when they had to, they buckled down and dominated the younger legs on the other side. They made Dwight Howard play like a mortal, they ran circles around the rest of the team, and they took away their will to play so much in Game 3 that it took every ounce of Magic effort in Games 4 and 5 to save their season before an anticlimactic Game 6 beating in the Boston Garden.
So now we have the series that the NBA was clamoring for, the matchup that David Stern himself was salivating over (at least as soon as he realized that the Celtics were about to capsize King James and the Cavaliers in Round 2), and the Celtics are not only playing in the Finals for Banner #18, they are doing it as underdogs… and they get their rematch with Kobe and the Lakers to boot.
If the NBA is truly the professional sports equivalent of WWE wrestling, then Stern pulled a classic Vince McMahon move here. As Celtics coach Doc Rivers so adroitly pointed out after the clinching Game 6, the current Celtics starting five of Rondo, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett, and Kendrick Perkins has never lost a playoff series together. 4-0 in 2008, 3-0 in 2010.
Whoever the league has thrown at the Big Three plus the Young Two, the Green have wiped to the floor. Hawks? Please. LeBron and the Cavs? Vanquished twice, and this time was embarrassing (ask Mike Brown about that one). Pistons? Their last stand was in the 08 conference finals. Dwyane Wade and the Heat? Barely broke a sweat. Magic? Took them to seven games in the 09 playoffs with Glen Davis getting KG’s minutes. Lakers? Anyone remember the 39-point clincher in 2008? I bet Kobe does.
The Celtics are back, and this time they’re pissed. Pissed that the NBA consistently promotes me-first assclowns like Vince Carter, “Superman” Howard, and yes, LeBron himself, who have never won anything and seem to care more about their postgame networking endorsement meetings at Club Fantasia than taking home a title. Pissed that Kobe and the Lakers walked off with title #15 last year and didn’t have to take it from the defending champs’ hands. Pissed that the world wrote them off after their subpar regular season and subsequent #4 seed in the Eastern Conference. Pissed that the world continues to write them off, with seemingly every commentator picking the Lakers to win, just as they did in 2008 when Boston rolled over L.A. to banner 17. Even President Obama, a guy who won Massachusetts in a landslide, picked the Lakers. I guess I can’t blame him, since California has more electoral votes. But still.
So now the Celtics seem to have their world exactly where they want it to be. Bill Belichick won titles with the Patriots by making them buy the myth that no one believed in them, even when they went 14-2 and were the top seed in the AFC. Doc doesn’t have to manufacture any of that; no one believes in the Celtics right now. Proving the doubters and the haters wrong just may be the number one thing that motivates guys like Garnett, Pierce, and Allen—especially Garnett, who always had his share of naysayers until he clutched the Larry O’Brien trophy two years ago. Don’t forget that Pierce is a guy who has spent his entire career on a vendetta to get back at the nine teams who passed on him in the 1998 NBA draft.
This series is going to be a battle. Both teams are better than they were two years ago. Kobe is, in my opinion, still the best player in the game. (And is indisputably the best rapist player in the game.) Andrew Bynum was hurt in 08, and he, along with the rest of the trees in the Lakers frontcourt of Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom, might cause some matchup issues with Boston. Ron Artest brings the Lakers an edge that they didn’t have two years ago, when they were a little too soft to stop the Celtics’ onslaught.
But the Celtics have weapons of their own, despite the ever-present marching of time and the tick-tock of the Big Three’s biological clocks. Rondo has become one of the top two or three point guards and playmakers in the league, and Perkins has quietly become a monster defender. His work on Howard in the conference finals (and on Shaq and others in round 2) was probably the difference in the series. Tony Allen is contributing on both offense and defense, finally. And Nate Robinson did his best homage to his fellow little person, the late Gary Coleman, by scoring 13 points in 13 minutes in Game 6 last Friday night.
So David Stern and America have the NBA Finals we all wanted to see. For the Lakers, at stake is title #16, on the verge of tying the Celtics as the all-time winningest franchise in the league. For the Celtics, the addition of Banner 18, and for the Big Three, most likely their last legitimate shot at basketball immortality. It could be the crowning of Rajon Rondo, or the coronation of Kobe Bryant, once again.
Celtics in six. As KG once said, “Anything’s possible…”