The Boston Celtics are unquestionably the most decorated, accomplished franchise in NBA history, and arguably in all of sports. But not in my lifetime. Not in my brain bank.
As a 7 year old I remember watching those proud Celtics team’s of the late 1980’s/early 1990’s get old and lose their claim as an annual Eastern Conference power.
I watched my favorite player- Reggie Lewis- collapse on the court and later die due to heart complications.
I watched the ping pong balls bounce the wrong way in 1997 and a franchise center head to San Antonio.
I watched a cocky, arrogant college coach unequivocally ruin what could have been the beginning of a new golden age for Boston basketball.
And then I watched the worst season in Celtics history last year and yet another disastrous lottery night last May.
All I could do was hear the stories of the old teams and the old glory, watch the grainy tapes my Dad still has featuring predominantly white men in visually assaultive short-shorts, and look at the pictures of my parents at the old Boston Gahden, with their 80s mustaches and hair perms.
It was nothing but a myth to me. Until last night.
Win or lose, last night marked the first NBA Finals I have ever been involved in with my beloved Celts. It marked the beginning of a renewed rivalry with that West Coast squad in purple and yellow that I grew up hearing so much about. It marked, hopefully, the beginning of a classic Finals.
A look at some of the key factors of Game 1, ones that are sure to be consistent themes throughout this coast-to-coast battle for the crown:
The Stars: Did They Shine?
There’s no doubt that the star players in this series will go a long way in deciding who raises the trophy in the coming weeks.
The brightest star in this series, one Mr. Kobe Bryant, had a sub-par shooting night in Game 1. Blame it on tight rims, stingy Boston defense, or just an off-night from #24, but whatever it was, Bryant was not efficient or explosive on the offensive end. You better believe Doc Rivers and the Celtics were happy to give up 24 points on 26 shots to #24. They'll take that all series.
Pau Gasol, while not a super-star by any means, can dominate a game in his own way and is a perfect fit for Phil Jackson's fluid, triangle offense.
Gasol started off in a nice groove, but ended with just 15 points and 8 rebounds and was a non-factor down the stretch, when Kobe couldn't seem to muster up one of his trademark 4th quarter explosions. What's more, Gasol seemed over-matched defensively against Kevin Garnett, a match up you might see the Lakers go away from in Game 2.
The Celtics triumvirate of stars made a much bigger impression.
"The Big Ticket"- despite missing his last 10 jump-shots of the game- was a force all evening, anchoring a great defensive effort while also notching 24 points and 13 boards. His monstrous put-back dunk late in the 4th signaled the end of Game 1.
Paul Pierce, he of the dramatic knee injury and triumphant return, was a huge factor, both physically and emotionally, in Game 1.
Pierce had a horrid 1st half (3 points, 3 fouls) but responded immediately out of the locker-room with 6 points in the first 60 seconds of the 2nd half. That spurt ignited the crowd and got the Celtics right back in the game after a lack-luster end to the 1st half.
Then a knee injury of unknown severity crippled Pierce, but when "The Truth" returned, his two big three’s turned the emotional tide for good and sent the Boston faithful into a frenzy. Many point to these emotional back-to-back treys as the tipping point of Game 1, a point after which L.A. was unable to recover from.
Boston's third all-star, Ray Allen, poured in his third straight solid playoff effort despite being chastised for impersonating a super star earlier in the post-season. Allen had 19 points, 8 boards, 5 assists, and did a great job locking down Kobe and keeping him uncomfortable all night. Allen looked smooth and in control, a stark contrast to his performance in playoff games 1 through 15.
Although they weren’t the sole reason for the Celtics Game 1 triumph, the stars in green and white shined brighter than those in purple and yellow in Game 1.
Know your Role
There was much talk entering these Finals about how Kobe had pushed Los Angeles’ second unit to the point where they were now one of the Lakers’ defining strengths.
Well, not last night.
The Laker bench was very much a non-factor in Boston Thursday night, as Phil Jackson’s second unit of Vujacic, Farmar, Walton, and Turiaf contributed just 15 points in 60 minutes. Anyone who watched the game knows that Vujacic and Turiaf were the only noticeable bench players for L.A. in Game 1.
Farmar looked tense and nervous despite hitting the only shot (a running floater) he attempted, while Walton was dominated in the rebounding/energy department by the likes of Leon Powe and P.J. Brown.
The Celtics, meanwhile, didn’t get huge offensive out-puts from their role players, but their second unit undeniably gave the Cetlics a lift off the bench and in the trenches.
P.J. Brown was a force on the glass, James Posey played admirable defense on Bryant and hit a huge 3 down the stretch, and Sam Cassell contributed some instant offense in the 2nd quarter that helped preserve starter Rajon Rondo.
Neither of the second groups was superb in Game 1, but Boston’s bench contributed more intangible strengths throughout the contest and helped seal the win down the stretch. Look for the Celtics bench to be a huge factor in Game 2, with Paul Pierce and Kendrick Perkins still ailing from Game 1 injuries.
The Zebra Factor: Officiating
I can’t stand people who vehemently proclaim that referee’s don’t affect the outcome of basketball games. It’s just absurd. If there is any sport in which the officials have a substantial outcome on the minutes, roles, and styles of the players involved, it’s basketball.
A bad call here can send a super-star to the bench with 2 early fouls. A cheap call there can send a team into the bonus and control free throw disparities. A flagrant or technical call can ignite a crowd, take a player out of his game (although not a good one), and simply alter the scoreboard.
Anyone who doesn’t think the officials have been under justified scrutiny during these playoffs simply hasn’t been watching the games.
They've been awful at times, directly affecting the outcomes of certain games and the general ebb and flow of others. I for one am completely petrified of the Zebra's and their undeniable bias towards Bryant once the series shifts to Los Angeles. I mean, how could they not be with the Finals involving one of the league’s most star-studded marketing tools in Kobe?
In Game 1, there was (thankfully!) not much to report from the land of Zebras. I thought the Celtics got the majority of the ticky-tacky calls in traffic, but that is something that is sure to be reversed once the games shift to the West Coast. I expected more contact to be called in traffic for Bryant, but the refs were at least consistent throughout the game with their whistles in the lane and with incidental contact.
The Celtics got better production from their stars, better intangibles from their role players, and dictated the tone and style of the game. All three factors were key in Boston notching a Game 1 win at home.
It’s no surprise that the Lakers want to push the ball, force penetration, and make this series a first-to-120 points type shootout.
Conversely, the Celtics want to grind out a more physical style of basketball and limit Bryant’s penetration and, thus, his creative abilities in traffic. The less Bryant can create, the less his teammates will stay involved, and that is a huge determinant of Laker success or failure.
In Game 1, the Celtics played their style of basketball, were excellent with defensive rotations, and maintained home court advantage, despite turning the ball over more than L.A. and losing one of their stars for a period in the 2nd half.
A high-energy, high-drama Game 1 was just what this starved Celtics fan was craving after all those years of apathy and story-telling.
On to Game 2....