Top stories of 2010, No. 2: Celtics’ playoff run
|12.30.10 at 8:10 am ET|
For the final 10 days of 2010, WEEI.com will count down the top 10 stories of the year. In what was a memorable 12 months for all four of Boston’s major professional teams, there was a plethora of compelling storylines. The countdown continues with No. 2: The Celtics’ playoff run.
Check out our previous entries:
No. 10: Kevin Garnett’s return to form
No. 9: Patriots’ playoff meltdown vs. Ravens
No. 8: Marc Savard-Matt Cooke incident and aftermath
No. 7: Red Sox derailed by injuries
No. 6: Bruins’ playoff collapse vs. Flyers
No. 5: Patriots’ Randy Moss saga
No. 4: Red Sox’ signings of Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford
No. 3: Patriots’ resurgence
Also, make sure to cast your vote in WEEI.com’s poll for the 2010 Boston Athlete of the Year.
On June 17, 2010, the Celtics suffered one of the worst losses in their franchise’s history in Game 7 of the NBA finals against the Lakers. It was only the fourth time the Celtics had lost an NBA finals series and it was the first time they had ever lost a deciding Game 7. That it came against the Lakers in a game that was there for the taking only adds to the agony.
And yet this historic defeat also represented one of the great triumphs in team history, because exactly two months earlier when the Celtics took the court against the Heat to open the playoffs, not even Tommy Heinsohn himself would have predicted that they would have been four points away from an 18th championship.
Their improbable run to the finals defied all wisdom, both conventional and analytic, and breathed life into a franchise that spent the winter months of 2010 on a respirator. The Celtics went 27-27 over the final four months of the regular season and won only two of their last 10 games heading into the playoffs. The nadir came in a home loss to the lowly Wizards when afterward Doc Rivers uttered the quote that seemed to serve as their epitaph.
“If we make a run in the playoffs, will you forget [the regular season]? That’s my question,” Rivers said. “If we don’t, then it’s probably who we were all year — an inconsistent team — at least in the second half of the year. We’ll find that out.”
Amidst talk of Rivers calling it quits after the playoffs, and cries from the faithful to “blow it up” after the inevitable crash and burn, the Celtics took the court against the Heat and proceeded to begin the playoffs in much the same way they had ended the regular season. Trailing midway through the third quarter, the Celtics suddenly, and without warning, began to turn it on. They played the kind of defense that had been their trademark but had vanished over the winter.
Then, near disaster struck. Toward the end of what should have been a galvanizing win, Paul Pierce became entangled with one of his nemeses — Miami’s Quentin Richardson. In the ensuing scuffle, Kevin Garnett threw an elbow that got him suspended for Game 2. To add insult to injury, Richardson derisively called the Celtics “actresses.”
That could have been the end right there, but then Glen Davis came to the rescue in place of Garnett in Game 2 and Pierce hit the game-winner at the buzzer in Game 3. The Celtics finished off Miami in five games back at TD Garden, and the least that could be said was that the Celtics salvaged a bit of their reputations before the inevitable beatdown at the hands of LeBron James and the Cavaliers.
Looking back, it wasn’t until midway through Game 5 of the Cavs series when it started to become clear that the Celtics were about to do something momentous. True, they had stolen Game 2 in Cleveland and Rajon Rondo turned in a career-making performance in a wild Game 4 victory that evened the series. But it wasn’t until the Celtics walked back into Cleveland and choked the life out of James and the Cavs in Game 5 that people stood up and took notice. More accurately, the fans in Cleveland stood up and walked out en masse during the Celtics’ 32-point victory.
The C’s went for the knockout punch back at the Garden for Game 6, something that had eluded them all these months, and they were on to the conference finals having eliminated the 66-win Cavs and ending LeBron’s tenure in Ohio.
Standing in their way were the Magic, and the Celtics were once again heavy underdogs. But this was a completely different Celtics team. Even Rasheed Wallace, the much-maligned free agent signing, was reborn in the playoffs. Wallace pulled out his litany of old-man defensive tricks to frustrate Dwight Howard, while rugged center Kendrick Perkins did the rest.
The Celtics completed their two-game Orlando sweep after yet another Pierce game-winner, but the Celtics just couldn’t do this the easy way. Perkins racked up two technical fouls, earning an ejection in Game 2, which also put him at seven for the playoffs, mandating an automatic one-game suspension. The NBA reviews all technical fouls, and the second one seemed dubious. As the team returned to Boston, it awaited word on Perkins’ fate. Perkins was saved at the zero hour by the league office, and after winning Game 3 to take a commanding 3-0 series lead, the Celtics were on the verge of doing the unthinkable.
There would be one more hurdle left to clear after the Magic rallied to avoid the sweep and went home and won Game 5. The aftermath in the Celtics locker room in Orlando felt more like a hospital emergency room on New Year’s eve. Players slumped in their cubicles and bandages and ice packs littered the floor. Davis, who caught an ugly elbow from Howard that left him without a tooth and stumbling dazed and confused on the floor, stormed out of the locker room vowing to play the next game.
Redemption was waiting back in Boston and it featured Nate Robinson, of all people. Abandoned and forgotten at the end of Rivers’ bench, Robinson replaced a beaten-up Rondo and took over the second quarter, helping the Celtics recapture the Eastern Conference championship.
The Lakers would prove too much in the finals, especially once Perkins tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his knee in Game 6. With Perkins on crutches, the Lakers grabbed 23 offensive rebounds in Game 7 and won despite shooting 32 percent. The loss stayed with the Celtics throughout the summer, but in a twisted way, it also served as a catalyst for the Celtics to regroup and make one last run.
After debating for weeks whether to return for the final season of his contract, Rivers decided to give it another shot, citing a desire to get back to the finals. In short order, Pierce and Ray Allen re-signed for another tour. Jermaine O’Neal and Shaquille O’Neal signed on to give the Celtics a formidable front line, and they have emerged as contenders once again. We’ll never know for sure, of course, but there’s a good chance that none of this would have happened if the Celtics had gone out in the first few round of the playoffs.
The Celtics don’t do moral victories. They don’t hang banners for anything other than championships, and so there will be nothing hanging in the Garden rafters to remind people of this impossible playoff run. Perhaps that’s for the best. No one connected with the Celtics wants to remember the maddening ending to the season.
But for this team, the journey was ultimately more important than the destination. It made the careers of Rivers and Rondo, who both emerged from the shadows of the Big Three, helped codify the reputations of Garnett, Pierce and Allen as more than one-hit wonders, and set the scene for one more death or glory run to the finals. For two months in the spring, the Celtics made you believe the impossible was possible, and even though it ended in the cruelest of defeats, it was also a celebration of their resolve.
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