Game 4: A fan’s odyssey continues in Boston

The last time I visited the TD Garden, I wound up devoting more than 1,500 words not to basketball analysis but to discussing the electrifying feeling of watching one’s team play at home in the Finals, especially when accompanied by people who matter. At the time, fellow CelticsBlog staffer Roy Hobbs told me, “I think moments like yours last night are the reason we watch sports.”

At three o’clock in the morning in a hotel room somewhere just outside Boston, it’s that statement that sticks in my head, and it’s for that reason that we’ll save most of the analysis of last night’s Game 4 of the 2010 NBA Finals for the bullet points down below. I watch (and write about) basketball because I love the game, and I enjoy watching the best players compete. Evenings like last night remind me why I love being a sports fan.

Over the last few years, I’ve done a lot of growing up as a sports fan. I’ve always leaned toward the devoted-to-a-fault side, reveling in the highs (prior to the last few years, there had been few of those as both a Celtics and Dodgers diehard) and taking the lows about as well as Rasheed Wallace takes every foul called against him. I’ve cried after losses, made projectiles out of living room furniture, stormed out of my residence and a walked block in my socks and sulked for days after playoff eliminations (what a gut punch it was to see the 1999-2000 St. Louis Blues play the best hockey in the NHL all year, get down 3-1 in the first round to eighth seed San Jose, fight back to tie the series…and lose a decisive seventh game on home ice). You get the picture. Fortunately, most of that is behind me at this point. I’m still devoted, still probably to a fault. It still makes my night to watch a good win. It still makes me spew obscenities at my TV to watch one of my teams play badly. But with age comes a better grip on how to enjoy one’s teams.

It’s only worth putting so much stock in worrying about the things you can’t control. There are costs associated with making an impromptu trip from New York to Boston. Acquiring tickets to the NBA Finals is not a cheap undertaking. Missing work is an issue for Mother of Son of The Guru as is missing school for Miscreant Younger Sister of Son of The Guru (luckily, The Guru himself is enjoying the benefits of semi-retirement). Getting the entire family to an NBA Finals game together is a special opportunity that we were able to put together for ourselves. That’s what was in our control. And as much as a Celtics win makes the night that much better, an experience like this simply cannot hinge on the one part of the night completely outside of us. It shouldn’t – and it doesn’t – take the gravity of the dollar value associated with Finals tickets or the gas mileage or the seven hours in the car over two days to spark that realization, but those factors can definitely combine for a strong reminder.

After all that, the point I’m getting at is this: Seeing one’s team play, especially at home, especially in the Finals, is about a heckuva lot more than the end result. That’s why, while I’m thankful beyond belief that the Celtics are now two-for-two in my Finals visits, I believe I’d still be writing this piece even if the final minutes of Game 4 had shaken out in a considerably less pleasant way for fans of the green.

I would still be writing to share what a cool feeling it is to walk into a building right when the doors open 90 minutes before game time while being serenaded with a “Beat LA!” chant potentially louder than anything heard at some arenas all year. At the turnstiles. An hour and a half before tip.

Or how it makes me ruefully shake my head to watch Rasheed Wallace come out an hour before the latest “biggest game of the season” to shoot three-pointers with his left hand. A month ago, this would have added to my “Buy him out at all costs this summer!” campaign. I’m not ready to disband said campaign, but for now, well, the shooting exhibition is just part of the show.

Kobe Bryant. Fellow Celtics fans will hang me for showing any admiration for him, but I love watching him before the game. There’s no question that Kobe Bryant the person has given us plenty not to like. But if everyone prepared for his or her job the way Kobe Bryant prepares for his, we would all be a lot more productive. Every movement is measured. Even in his shoot-around, every shot is taken with a purpose. No chitchat. No goofing. This is a man with a job to do. It’s no surprise that he is a nominee for the least exciting introduction of any NBA starter. Walks right through the two lines of his teammates, hands extended out to his sides, eyes straight ahead. Time to work. I guess I could tell you that I’m not impressed by watching one of the world’s best hoopsters prepare to play, but I’d be lying if I did.

The combination of Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight” for the Celtics-Lakers Finals montage video followed by the theme from Rocky for the Celtics’ entrance to the court to warm up still gives me chills. For the second time in three years, my heart rate takes a disproportionate jump merely watching the video vacillate from Larry Bird dunking to Ray Allen with his head bowed in the tunnel to Kevin McHale clotheslining Kurt Rambis back to the live shot, this time filled by Kevin Garnett stalking the tunnel. Just like in 2008, I can already barely breathe, and we’re going to follow this with 18,624 fans standing to loudly greet the Eastern Conference champs as they actually take the floor? I’m on green overload.

And all of that pales in comparison to the highlight of the pregame: the Celtics’ introduction. I’ll never forget my dad’s startled laugh when Kendrick Perkins barrels into Nate Robinson, knocking him from the paint to the sideline. The lights are down, the music is blaring, Eddie Palladino is screaming into the mic, and we have to strain to hear him because this crowd of green faithful really is that frenzied. But we can just make out my favorite arena phrase – “the captain aaaaaaaaand the Truth” – as Paul Pierce dances his way to the middle of the floor. For at least one more night, we’re here to watch the defining Celtic of this generation play for all the marbles. I can’t explain why, but there are tears in my eyes.

People pay a lot of lip service to the way every possession matters in the playoffs as though taking care of the basketball and defending well are suddenly more critical factors to winning games than they are all season. They’re not. Everybody just cares more. Which is why no matter how tonight’s game had gone, I would be gushing as I am now about the way that every-possession-matters rhetoric truly does bear itself out in the stands. Two or three Celtics baskets in a short stretch get our entire section up on our feet clamoring for a stop. One basket from Pau Gasol deflates us in the blink of an eye. One call in favor of the visitors elicits what Mike Breen would refer to as “fans engaging in an anti-refs chant.” A three-point attempts goes up from a white jersey, and suddenly everyone in the building seems to have his or her arms extended waiting to tear the roof off the place if the shot drops.

Miscreant Younger Sister of Son of The Guru pumps her fist after baskets for the Celts. Mother of Son of The Guru muses happily during the game, “It’s so loud in here.” Those two are experiencing their first Finals up close, and even the simplest moments are pleasures to watch.

The Guru himself steals the show with his patented grouchiness about our beloved team. The normally mild-mannered professor wonders “What the hell is he doing?” on several occasions with regard to Tony Allen’s curious behavior with the ball in his hands. He screams in frustration along with the rest of the crowd as the team misses opportunities around the rim in the first half. After Kevin Garnett goes up for a defensive rebound with only one hand for the umpteenth time, The Guru growls at me, “If you’re still thinking he’s playing a decent game, think again.” Seconds later, when Garnett corrals an offensive board and nails a turnaround jumper at the halftime buzzer, we agree that perhaps he’s playing an up-and-down game so far. Even my model of cool-headedness seems caught up in the rush of the Finals. Watching that show is as much a highlight for me as the game on the floor.

The fact that eventually we will spend the last two minutes on our feet waiting for the clock to tick down on a victory is great. But however this one ends, it won’t take away the moment Glen Davis gets an offensive rebound, pounds in a contested lay-up and draws a foul leading to a timeout. I stand by what I wrote in 2008 about stoppages:

The timeouts.  I’m a big believer that aside from actually winning the game, there isn’t a cooler phenomenon at a home game than seeing the team get on a big run that is capped with a shot that forces the opposition to use a time-out.  Between the loudness that results from the shot and the ensuing “Tiiiiiiiiiiiiiiimeout, [road team]” that comes afterwards, there is a moment when the energy level in the arena seems to hit a rarefied stratosphere.  For whatever reason, experiencing that had long been a big part of my dreams about a Finals game.

The third-cousin of the timeout is the and-one sans timeout, which still offers high excitement while giving the crowd extra time to revel before play continues. Paul Pierce’s is-it-a-block-or-a-charge-oh-yes-it’s-a-block lefty bucket-plus-one that draws Kobe’s fourth foul gives us one of those moments as well. For one interminable second, the airflow in the building comes to an abrupt halt as the official seems ready to point the other direction. When he stops, signals the bucket good and calls the block, there’s an audible whoosh as the faithful exhales and then bursts into blissful pandemonium.

That’s what going to the Finals as a fan is all about. It’s getting a chance to put names to faces of my Internet brethren among the Celtics faithful, chatting up Twitter pal and Celts super-fan KWAPT before the game and fellow CelticsBlog moderator Donoghus at halftime (both great guys). It’s about being one of nearly (there are always a few rogues) 18,624 undoubtedly different people united by a common love, watching our team play on the biggest of stages.

Above all, it’s about being one of four family members united by love for each other, getting to share in each other’s enjoyment of a special night.

The Celtics’ 96-89 win? That’s the sweetest possible cherry on top of a night that is already great.

***

Exhale. Time for some on-the-court ruminations:

  • The Infuriated Infant strikes! It seems my Finals trips bring out the best in undersized reserve power forwards. Two years ago, Leon Powe came up with 21 points in a 108-102 Game 2 win. This time, the Pugnacious Papoose that is Glen Davis pounded the Lakers inside all night. For all the oft-discussed trouble he has had finishing over length at the rim this season, for at least one night, the man conquered it: an outstanding 7-for-10 performance along with four offensive rebounds and a perfect 4-for-4 at the line to finish with 18 points and the honor of ringleader of the bench outburst that sparked the come-from-behind victory. Davis simply outworked everybody else inside all night. It was especially gratifying to see this after what looked like similarly hard work on the offensive glass (five offensive boards) but a fruitless 4-for-13 result in Game 2 thanks to the shot-blocking and altering done by Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum. While Bynum’s absence most of the way made a difference this time, Davis still gets plenty of credit for cleaning up against Gasol and Lamar Odom. Wonderful job.
  • It is only fitting that we follow the address of Large Baby with a few words about that of his diminutive bench-and-podium-mate. Nate Robinson submitted a fine effort, knocking down two threes and a pair of floaters and keeping his play under the control for most of the night. With only two exceptions, loved his work in this one.
  • The two Robinson exceptions: Jordan Farmar’s left wing three-pointer in the first half was purely a product of Robinson sliding away from him to try to double down on Ron Artest posting Paul Pierce and not recovering quickly enough when Artest kicked the ball back outside to Farmer moving along the perimeter. Not sure Pierce needed help in that situation. I also could have done without Robinson’s tech in the fourth quarter. I know it’s supposedly a take-it-all-or-leave-it-all product of the energy he brings, but he has to know better than to pop right back up into Lamar Odom’s space after drawing that foul. Whether he said anything or not, that’s going to be a taunting tech every time. Can’t afford to take a two-shot situation and effectively turn it into one in a close game. Fortunately, Derek Fisher missed the free throw, the second technical on which the Lakers failed to convert in the fourth.
  • Speaking of technicals and people who pick them up, Rasheed Wallace now joins Kendrick Perkins in being one away from suspension. He did, however, keep himself on the floor by frustrating Pau Gasol in the fourth quarter. Well done. His top-of-the-circles three-pointer came at a nice time as well, stretching a six-point lead to nine near the midpoint of the final period.
  • I know the bench has gotten plenty of attention both here already and elsewhere around the Web, but I would feel remiss not to put this in print just to let it sink in again for me, if not for you as well: The Celtics trailed by two points going into the fourth quarter of an NBA Finals game. Rajon Rondo, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett did not combine to play a second of the first 9:09 of the fourth, and the Celtics won. Awesome.
  • Rondo’s night was less than memorable for the most part, but his steal and lefty lay-in to extend the lead to eight with 31 seconds left all but clinched the game and left the crowd incredulous. Great read in the passing lane.
  • Watching Rondo warm up before the game, both The Guru and I noted that he looked better shooting from the right elbow than the left. This seemed odd to me because from an anecdotal standpoint, I felt like Rondo took most of his foul-line-and-beyond mid-range shots from the left side in games this season. So I did some checking: According to NBA.com’s terrific hotspots feature, Rondo took 61 shots from the zone nearest the left elbow this season and 23 from the zone nearest the right elbow. But his in-game work didn’t reflect what we witnessed in terms of effectiveness: He hit 39.3 percent of the shots from the left side and 26.1 percent of those on the right.
  • Loved the return to the old 3-1 high screen roll to close the first quarter. We saw a lot of this in 2008-09 with Paul Pierce and Eddie House as House’s renowned quick trigger regularly forced defenses to switch, allowing Pierce to back down point guards at the foul line and get to his beloved sweet spot on the right elbow with ease. This time, the Celtics ran it with Nate Robinson, both defenders stuck to Pierce, and he found Robinson rolling out to the left wing for a wide-open buzzer-beating three. Nicely done. For what should be obvious reasons, that set isn’t as effective with Rondo on the floor.
  • Just in case this is needed (and I really hope it isn’t): The previous sentence is not the seedling for some campaign for Robinson to start over Rondo or some evidence of a belief that the Celts are better with Robinson than their franchise point guard. We’re simply pointing out an area where Robinson’s skill set allows the Celtics to run one particular set in a way they can’t do as well with Rondo.
  • Great to see the Celtics get Pierce involved early after his shooting woes earlier in the series. He drove through the seam to pick up a foul on the team’s first possession and set the tone for a 10-point first quarter that included a couple of lay-ups (one of which came off a terrific feed on a bounce from Kevin Garnett in transition). While Pierce was largely quiet thereafter, he picked a fine time to re-emerge, answering two Kobe scoring possessions with his we’ve-seen-this-before right elbow jumper followed by the aforementioned lefty lay-up plus the foul. Paul flung two passes out of bounds and finished with five turnovers but still put together a fine performance.
  • Celtics’ bench: seven offensive rebounds. Lakers: eight offensive rebounds. The team that ranked 28th in the league this season in offensive rebound rate kept itself in this one early on with its work on the glass. Despite shooting a comparable number of foul shots and staying only a couple ahead in the turnover battle most of the way (finishing plus-4), the Celtics hung in during the portion of the game for which they shot less than 40 percent by virtue of the fact that they seemed to have a double-digit margin of field goal attempts taken over the Lakers all night, finishing a plus-12 in FGAs. Credit the green for 16 offensive boards in 42 chances, led by four from the Infuriated Infant and three apiece from Kevin Garnett and Kendrick Perkins. The shots began to fall late in the second half, and all ended well.
  • Felt like the Celtics worked to get good looks that simply weren’t dropping for most of the first quarter and then stopped moving the ball quite as well as the offense continued to sputter through the rest of the first half. Same result, greater agitation: Lots of over-dribbling, too much isolation, clock-burning and contested jump-shooting in the second quarter. Good shots taken by good shooters will eventually fall. Bad shots, not so much.
  • Kobe Bryant is really good. Ray Allen did just about everything legally possible (amid some conduct that may not have been so legal) to stop him in the first quarter, and Bryant still hit two difficult shots. He heated up from the outside late in the second quarter and again in the following half en route to six threes in 11 attempts and a 33-point night, a 33-point night on which Tony Allen gets some credit for frustrating him at times. Yup, that’s a frustrated Kobe who posted a 64.7 percent true shooting mark.
  • Lots of baffling decisions from TA offensively tonight, including a pair of ill-fated passes and a play on which he did a great job to get an offensive rebound and then appeared to decide to reward himself with a three-pointer early in the shot clock. Also got beat back-door by his man (Shannon Brown) for a basket that cost Nate Robinson a foul as well as he came to help Allen. But TA did make Kobe work down the stretch, had two big offensive boards and finished an and-one in the fourth. Also tripled The Guru’s blood pressure every time he touched the ball. Eventful night.
  • No question Andrew Bynum’s health is a huge question for the rest of this series. The young big man has shown the ability to be a major thorn in the Celtics’ side in this series even while playing through pain, and it would be a shame to see an injury further curtail his participation in the series as it did last night (he totaled 12 minutes in two short stints). Hope he’s all right.
  • Pau Gasol continues to be a problem. I would take him on my team any day.
  • Derek Fisher did not beat the entire Celtics team down the floor for any lay-ups in this game. After Tuesday night’s finish, that’s a major plus.
  • Ray Allen continues to look for his first made three-pointer since setting the single-game Finals record on Sunday, but he came up with two buckets early in the fourth quarter. We’ll take that.
  • Rasheed Wallace was called for five fouls in this game and reacted the same way to every one. It should come as a shock to no one that he received a technical by the fifth instance of this.
  • Minutes later, when Robinson got his technical, Wallace sprinted over to remove him from the fray, leading The Guru to pronounce, “Oh yeah, Rasheed Wallace is going to play peacemaker now. This is some sick team we root for.”

Sure is. But it’s our sick team, and it’s a team that finds itself sitting two wins away from a championship and two days away from hosting the first game of a best-of-three that will decide the title.

There have been worse times to be green.

5 comments

  • Wonderful to hear that you had such a great time, and thanks for bringing us a win, Steve. This is the time of year (at least when the Celts are still alive) that I turn into a mass of inertia, living from game to game. As always, it is fun to read your stuff…vicariously cheering and groaning along with you’re replay…

  • Glad you got to see such a great 4th quarter in person!

  • Great, great writeup Steve. I’m envious that you were there and not me…I made my maiden voyage to Boston for a game this past March (St. Patrick’s Day game vs. Knicks) and I desperately want to get back….taking in a Finals game would be the penultimate…..

  • thruthelookingglass

    Steve, that was awesome recap. Thank you! I really hope some of the players get a chance to read this and better understand that their work, what to them is day-to-day ordinary, is so special to us fans.

    In that regard, I sometimes feel like Glen Davis with his histrionic on-court celebrations is our representative on the court! It’s one of the reasons we are so ready to love this guy.

  • I’m glad you guys got to see a thrilling finish to the night. Thanks for sharing your experience with us Steve. I was so caught up in reading about .your time in the stands I was kinda sad to get to the part about the on-court stuff which is actually the part I was looking forward to before I started to read.

    Nice recap of the game too. I’d forgotten about your alternate names for Big Baby, Pugnacious Papoose had me cracking me up.

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