Wednesday, June 18, 2008
Boston Cheers as Celtics Rout Lakers
The sights, smells and happy chaos were familiar, as if borrowed from another era and another arena: Stale cigar smoke filled the air. Champagne soaked the locker-room carpets. Green and white confetti was everywhere.
Red Auerbach was not present for the moment in which the Boston Celtics restored their lost glory, but the party they threw Tuesday night at TD Banknorth Garden was unmistakably stamped with his outsize personality.
The Celtics did not just beat the Los Angeles Lakers, they crushed them – and left no doubt that the Larry O'Brien trophy belonged back in Boston after a 22-year hiatus.
Accompanied by chants of "Seventeen!" the Celtics routed their longtime rivals 131-92 to close out the finals in six games. Sixteen green-and-white banners will soon have company in the rafters.
Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce – three stars who had known individual glory but not gratification – will soon have their first championship rings. So will Coach Doc Rivers, who deftly blended their talents after they were united last summer.
It took Pierce, the longtime Celtics captain, 10 years to get here. Garnett waited 13 years for the moment, Allen 12. They all checked out of the game together, with 4 minutes 1 second left. They could not hug each other enough.
"Knowing that you were at rock bottom a year ago today, and to climb all the way to the top, this is a dream come true," said Pierce, who averaged 21.8 points in the finals and was unanimously named the most valuable player. "I'm going to cherish this forever."
They earned the moment with relentless defense that held Kobe Bryant, perhaps the game's premier scorer, to 40 percent shooting in the series. He had 22 points in the finale but just 11 points in the final three quarters.
Unbridled emotion came over the Celtics as the final buzzer sounded. Eddie House, the sharpshooting reserve, fell to his knees at one free-throw line. Garnett kneeled at center court and kissed the Celtics logo.
"I just want to say, other than my kid being born, this has got to be the happiest day of my life right now," said Garnett, one of the greatest power forwards of his era, whose intensity helped transform the Celtics this season.
In the din and the smoke, the Celtics paid homage their franchise patriarch.
"This win is for Red Auerbach," Wyc Grousbeck, the managing partner, said during a raucous trophy presentation on the court.
Moments earlier, Grousbeck had been shown on the video scoreboard chewing on a cigar, to the delight of the crowd.
After a taut series of wild comebacks, near-comebacks and tense fourth quarters, the finale proved anticlimactic – albeit exhilarating for the 18,624 green-clad fans, who hardly used their seats all night.
The Celtics had an 11-point lead in the middle of the second quarter, a 23-point lead at halftime, a 31-point lead by the middle of the third and very little to worry about for most of the night.
Allen buried the Lakers with his 3-point stroke and finished with 26 points. Garnett set the tone with a 10-point first quarter and finished with 26 points, 14 rebounds and 4 assists. Pierce had 17 points and 10 assists.
The Lakers never did win a road game in the series, and the Celtics finished their run with a 13-1 record at home. The 39-point margin of victory was the largest for a title-clinching game.
"We're disappointed," said Lakers Coach Phil Jackson. "Our fans are disappointed. I think everybody is disappointed that we didn't get a game out of this, give ourselves a chance."
The game was lost in the first half, when the Lakers failed to grab a single offensive rebound and shot 29.6 percent from the field. Garnett mowed over Pau Gasol, Allen bounced back from a poked eye (courtesy of Lamar Odom) and the Celtics put the game away early, with a 35-14 second quarter.
"We just didn't have it in us, I guess, tonight to be able to match that effort and that intensity," said Gasol, who finished with 11 points and 8 rebounds.
The story of the series, and the season, was the Celtics' commitment to relentless defense. They turned Bryant into a jumpshooter, made him work for every point and forced his teammates to do something spectacular. With few exceptions, they were not up to the task. Odom and Gasol seemed to shrink in the face of the Celtics' ferocity. A young bench anchored by Sasha Vujacic and Jordan Farmar seemed overmatched and outwitted by a Boston bench that featured the savvy veterans P.J. Brown and Sam Cassell.
After much prodding, Bryant conceded that the Celtics' defense was the best he had seen in the playoffs.
"Just upset more than anything, frustrated," Bryant said. "But I'm proud. I'm proud of the way that we performed all year. I'm proud of my guys. I'm proud of the effort that we gave."
The city was primed for the moment. The arena boomed with "Beat L.A." chants in the first quarter. They booed Bryant's image on the scoreboard even earlier — during the national anthem. Fans amused themselves early in the fourth quarter by singing "Where is Kobe?"
The championship was ready to be claimed Tuesday, if only the Celtics could fight through exhaustion, attrition and whatever Bryant unleashed upon them. Over 48 hours, the Celtics had endured a sobering Game 5 defeat, a delayed flight and a sick child, all layered on top of the accumulated aches from a long playoff run.
Allen's youngest son had fallen ill in Los Angeles two nights earlier, which led him to miss the team flight back to Boston. Pierce played the final five games of the series with a sprained knee. Center Kendrick Perkins finished the series with shoulder and ankle injuries and point guard Rajon Rondo with a sprained ankle.
It took 26 games for Boston to win the championship, an NBA record. They were not always the most convincing contenders, going 3-9 on the road and requiring seven games to beat Atlanta and Cleveland in the early rounds.
But the Celtics were persistent, and unified, staying true to the South African theme of "ubuntu" that they established last fall. The word, introduced to the team by Rivers, literally means "I am because we are" and was invoked when the Celtics opened training camp, with the newcomers Garnett and Allen joining Pierce.
"They came in with no egos," Brown said. "Everything was about one thing — they came here to win a championship. It went throughout the whole team. Everybody bought in."
As an added bonus for the Celtics, they denied Jackson a 10th title, which would have broken his tie with Auerbach. That was, Danny Ainge admitted, a fringe benefit: "We wanted to keep Red's nine championships intact and not let Phil pass him."
Ainge was a vital role player when the Celtics won their last title in 1986 and is now their general manager. He absorbed Auerbach's wisdom, acquired the kinds of players who were worthy of his legacy, then watched them dismantle the franchise's greatest rival.
"Beating the Lakers," Ainge said, "is an added bonus. Yeah."