When you watch a game as a sports fan in certain situations, it’s easy to spot the confidence of a champion.
They have an aura around them that dismisses panic when the obstacles pile up. Instead of turning around at the road block, a champion faces a barrier and chips away at it until toppling it over.
The Celtics last night put the league on notice that they are still the defending NBA Champions. They absorbed the Mavericks haymakers in the first half and punished Dallas with body blows in the 2nd half until Paul Pierce came in with the knockout punch in the 4th quarter to finish off the Mavericks.
The Celtics had plenty of excuses to pack it in for this one:
The excuses were perfectly packaged and waiting on the counter to be sent. All the Celtics had to do was mail it in. Instead the excuses were discarded in favor of a gritty victory.
A comeback like this gives credence to the notion that every game counts for the Boston Celtics this season. Home court advantage will likely decide whether or not the Celtics will see the Finals again this year.
As fellow CelticsHub.com contributor Zach Lowe noted the race for the top spot in the East lacks any real margin of error. The Celtics know they can’t afford to give away any games with the daunting notion of a game 7 waiting for them in Cleveland in a few months if they do stumble.
Doc Rivers seems to have come to terms with this notion and he managed the team last night accordingly. He let Ray Allen play through an injured thumb. He played Kevin Garnett through three fouls in the 2nd quarter. He got himself tossed in the 3rd quarter to motivate his club.
He knew the stakes of this game and was aggressive to make sure the Celtics did not fall too far behind in the first half as the Celtics came out sluggish with the Big Three shooting miserably and turning the ball over at an alarming rate.
Ray was clearly off his game initially due to his thumb injury going 2/5 in the first half. (He ditched a thumb brace after a couple early turnovers) Paul Pierce was inconsistent finishing around the basket to the tune of 3/10 shooting. Garnett missed five shots in the first four minutes and was beaten repeatedly on the defensive end in an impressive first half by Dirk Nowitzki.
With an underperforming trio of stars Rajon Rondo single-handedly stepped up in the first half to ensure the deficit was kept under control. He showed no signs of fatigue after a 43 minute performance last night in taking the ball to the rim without hesitation and contributing all over the floor.
Rondo has his triple double through three quarters and finished with an astounding line of 19 points 15 rebounds and 14 assists sure to make his fantasy owners giddy.
What impressed me even more about Rondo’s performance is that it came on the road. Rondo has a clear deficiency in his home and road numbers which was one of the main contributors in the Celtics road woes during playoffs as Rondo tended to be ineffective in these games. Last night however was the first time I can remember where Rondo stepped up to the plate in a hostile venue to put the team on his back when they needed him too.
The Celtics started a second half down 11 but the wheels were put in motion early for a comeback. The tone was set early in the half too. On the first possession of the 2nd half Erick Dampier flatted Rajon Rondo with a monster pick in the backcourt.
The Celtics responded on the other side of the floor with Kendrick Perkins seeking payback by knocking down Jason Kidd on the very next possession. The play would help set the table for further fireworks later in the quarter.
After a strong initial start to the quarter, the game appeared to be slipping away for the C’s in the 3rd as they faced a 15 point deficit going into a timeout. Many have argued that the Rivers ejection inspired the Celtics to a victory and I do not dispute that at all. It was a smart move by a savvy coach to help keep his players inspired and motivated for the final stretch. I do believe though there was another play that got things going for the C’s.
(6:20) The Celtics come out of a timeout down 15. On the ensuing possession Ray Allen makes a bad pass and turns the ball over to Dirk Nowitzki resulting in a 2 on 1 for the Mavs. Josh Howard however misses a contested layup and while Dirk gets the rebound, he is falling out of play forcing him to desperately fling the ball back on the court. Rondo retrieves the wild pass and brings the balls down the court for a 3 on 2 break. Rondo dishes it to Perkins who throws the ball up for big KG alleyoop finish.
This play resulted in a four point swing, bringing the lead down to 13. It also seemed to fire up the Celtics as they continued to go on a 7-0 run cutting the lead to 8 and forcing a Dallas timeout. That lead remained stagnant up to the KG-Nowitzki exchange and Rivers ejection but it is clear that the Celtics were successively chipping away at a Dallas lead long before that exchange.
The Celtics ended the game with a vintage Paul Pierce performance circa 2001. Zach Lowe just had a great piece on his top 5 clutch playoff games and if I made a list, this game would have to be up there for consideration in his top 5 regular season clutch efforts.
The Celts made no secret to where they were going in the 4th with Pierce scoring 18 of the team’s 30 points in the quarter. Pierce was a different player in the 2nd half playing more patiently and finding a groove that makes him one of the best players in the league. Dallas refused to double Pierce throwing Jason Kidd, Josh Howard and Devean George among others at number 34 down the stretch to no avail.
Rick Carlisle lamented his stubbornness after the game on how he guarded Pierce stating that the loss was, “on him.” The game though reminded me of the Celtics pre 2007, when Paul Pierce would feel disrespected upon a team deciding to single cover him and respond by taking over a game. It hasn’t had to happen as much with the Big Three in town but Pierce proved he could still deliver the goods all by himself in the final frame.
One final note on last night’s game: It didn’t show up in the box score but one can not overlook the stellar play of Leon Powe in the 2nd half once KG went down with 5 fouls. Powe played the final 15 minutes of the game until fouling out with 30 seconds remaining. His defense on Nowitzki was spectacular throughout this stretch, making what had been a dominant
Dirk to that point hesitant shooting the ball which contributed to a stretch where Dirk missed seven shots in a row. Slowing the seven footer down was crucial in allowing the Celtics to get back in this game.
Powe’s efforts on the glass can not be overlooked as well as he secured seven rebounds in his 22 minutes, including several big defensive boards in traffic down the stretch in the 4th quarter. A huge contribution during a night that will allow the Celtics to sleep well until playing another juggernaut in Utah next Thursday.