Throughout the playoffs, Celtics coach Doc Rivers has consistently been preaching the same message to his players: Don't try to be the hero.
“We are who we are,” Rivers said before Game Five against the Cleveland Cavaliers. “We don’t need anyone to play hero basketball. We have to be a team. We’re good when we’re a team.”
While LeBron James was giving Rivers a clinic on what happens when your best chance of winning boils down to a glorified one-on-one game, Rivers was doing everything in his power to divert his team from adapting that game plan.
Understandably so. When the Celtics won their championship two years ago, Rivers trumpeted the concept of “ubuntu”—a South African term that boils down to mean “collective success” (or “enabling the community around you”).
For the Celtics’ Big Three to achieve their championship dreams, they needed to learn to pool their collective talents.
Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, and Kevin Garnett were all so used to being “the guy” on their former respective teams that meshing the three together could have exploded in a gigantic chemistry disaster (see: Vince Carter on the Orlando Magic this year).
Instead, the three learned to complement each other beautifully. K.G. would dominate on defense, Allen could knock down the dagger three-pointers, and Pierce would be the guy to get the ball in a one-possession game with 10 seconds left. Those defined roles led the Celts to their 17th NBA championship in franchise history.
This season, the Celtics had a new chemistry experiment to overcome.
As Father Time continued to harass and hamper the 30-somethings of the Big Three, young point guard Rajon Rondo asserted himself as the true leader of the team. While Rondo served as the ego-stroker in the Celtics’ 2008 championship run, he developed into a legitimate All-Star in his own right over the past year.
The only question remaining was this: Could the Big Three abdicate their collective throne in favor of Rondo? Could they keep their egos in check, decide not to try and take over a game by themselves, and allow Rondo to continue working his magic?
Rondo’s brilliance against the Cavaliers, to the tune of a 29-point, 18-rebound, 13-assist kind of night in Game Four, made it much easier for the Celtics to turn the offense over to him.
The Celtics were rolling with “ubuntu” after the embarrassing Game Three loss to Cleveland, and hadn’t looked back since…until Game Four last night against Orlando.
With Rondo limited by muscle spasms (so much so that he went back to the locker room with a minute left in the first half), the Celtics began relying on one-on-one possessions, largely with Pierce.
Never was this more evident than with the final play of regulation, when Pierce stood in isolation at the top of the key with seconds remaining. Instead of a high pick-and-roll with Allen (which Rivers drew up), Pierce lost control of the ball and never managed to get a shot off before the final buzzer.
"Half our team was standing next to Paul [on that play]," said Rivers. "We executed poorly throughout the game. We didn't make the next rotations, we didn't make the next pass. It was amazing how bad we were execution-wise and still had a chance to win that game."
Look, given that an NBA team has never come back from a 3-0 deficit in the playoffs, the Celtics shouldn’t be sweating too hard yet. Chances are, they’ll close this series out in Game Five or Game Six, and they’ll move onto the Finals to meet the Los Angeles Lakers for a ’08 Finals rematch.
Still, if the Celtics fall back in the same trap of playing “hero ball” again, the Magic could turn this into a series before we know it.
Even if the Magic can’t continue their back-from-the-dead routine, the Celtics’ Finals opponent just received the blueprint of how to beat the Green Machine.
"Each guy feels like they can make the shot to win the game for us," Allen said after Game Four. "Sometimes that's been at our team's detriment. So sometimes pulling back for all of us, like you come off, you have the ball, just swing it. Sometimes I might have a shot, but Kevin might have an easier one. Just plays like that. The unselfishness out there on the floor. When we're great, that's what we do.
"Nobody was purposely trying to dribble out the ball or take the last shot or do it all by themselves. Sometimes you get in the heat of the moment and you see a play and you try to make it. We just always have to remember to use each other."
Allen knows it. Rivers knows it. After three years of “ubuntu” and preaching teamwork, you’d have to think the rest of the Celtics know it. Yet, still, there was Pierce in the fourth quarter, going one-on-five on more than one occasion.
If the Celtics don’t remember what brought them success in the first place, they won't be hanging championship banner No. 18 in the rafters after this year.