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Are Moral Victories Enough for the Celtics?

 

I was exchanging some emails with Jeff Clark of CelticsBlog when we started discussing this topic and realized we sort of disagreed. His thoughts, always well-written and worth your time, are here.

I’m surprised at how into the playoffs I am, considering the Celtics likely have no realistic chance to repeat as NBA champions. The Celtics’ goal this season was to win a championship. This isn’t 2002, when an unexpected run to the Eastern Conference Finals could be considered a moral victory. Moral victories wouldn’t cut it this year, so what’s the sense of squeezing out the last bit of Paul Pierce’s prime for the right to lose to Cleveland in the Eastern Conference Finals? When KG was pronounced out for the season, part of me thought, “This team’s window is closing fast. Let’s shut down Pierce and Allen and regroup for next year, since only championships matter.”

And yet, there I was in my apartment on Sunday, pacing around during dead time and closing my eyes as Ben Gordon’s three went up. I want this series, this dinky little first round series against the seventh-seeded Chicago Bulls. I want the next one, too, if the Celtics advance. Sports aren’t just about winning championships. A team can create another sort of history in defeat and through persevering when their is no apparent chance for a title–the kind of history that fans and players can reflect upon with pride when they remember the 2009 Celtics. 

Graydon Gordian of the Spurs blog 48 Minutes of Hell put it this way when mulling over how it felt, sans Manu, to be looking at a conference finals loss as a success: It’s not the same as winning a championship, but a “Do you remember when…” postseason push will punctuate Spurs history with the same lively bar stool banter that trophies provide.

Just try and imagine how much fun it would be–how proud the Celtics could be as a team–if they found a way, somehow, to fly to Cleveland for Game 5 tied 2-2 in the Eastern Conference Finals. It wouldn’t matter if they lost the next two games by 20 points. They’d have accomplished something we’d remember forever–triple-doubles from Rajon Rondo, 15-9 games from Perk, clutch threes from Ray and a gassed Paul Pierce demanding the ball and attacking the rim down the stretch. 

Some of the teams I remember most vividly in my lifetime are memorable because of the way they lost. The 1999 Mets, down 3-0 to the Braves in the NLCS, fought back to win games 4 and 5, the latter on Robin Ventura’s famous grand slam single. Do you even remember the 1999 World Series? 

The 1997 Kentucky Wildcats rode guys like Scott Padgett, Anthony Epps and Cameron Mills to overtime of the championship game after losing their best player (Derek Anderson) to a season-ending injury and most of their 1996 team to the NBA. That team had no business even sniffing a championship. 

You don’t think Minnesota fans are proud today that the 2004 T’Wolves found a way to stretch the Malone-Payton-Kobe-Shaq Lakers to six games despite missing Sam Cassell, their second-best player, for basically the whole series? 

That run by the T’Wolves silenced, at least for a time, critics who said KG couldn’t win in the playoffs. There was something heroic about watching KG work harder than anyone else on the court to lift a team that was less talented than its opponent. There is something heroic now about Tim Duncan throwing up 25 points on one leg.

A friend e-mailed me the other day asking me whether Paul Pierce needed to lead the Celtics deep into the playoffs to prove he could be a winner without KG. I told him, honestly, that I thought the question was sort of ridiculous. What more does Paul Pierce have to prove? But the reality is that, for a certain (misguided, if you asked me) segment of basketball fans, he and Ray Allen are both talented losers who couldn’t win the ultimate prize until they got an overwhelming collection of talent together.

A long run this year, and I don’t have to answer any more of these e-mails.

Yes, these are the Celtics, not the Wizards (Jeff’s choice for token Team that Would Go Crazy Over a Division Title), and I realize the standards for this franchise are justifiably high. But you can’t control injuries, and sometimes injuries make those standards difficult, if not impossible, to achieve. There’s nothing you can do about it other than to enjoy the ride the healthy players take us on. 

Is it ultimately futile if the team doesn’t win a title? Maybe. But what’s the fun in looking at the season that way? 

Besides, if they survive long enough, maybe KG will come back. Just kidding. I think.

  • http://www.celticsblog.com Jeff (CelticsBlog)

    while I'm on the other side of the fence in this debate, I must say, a long playoff run would make me feel very good

  • Isaac, from Spain

    Hey, i must tell you first that i'm a celticsblog.com reader from many years and i'm glad to discover your blog today and will visit it regularly. (Jeff, this doesn't mean i'm deserting from your blob lol)

    I'm on Jeff side this time. I won't be happy whenever we get out of the run this year at ANY circumstances. I don't mean i will be sad either, or lose my pride of being a celtics fan (so difficult in my country, due to Gasol fans, all we've seen in local tv from this playoffs are lakers and blazers matchs)

    I just say that if you drive 300 hp cars for some years, then you won't feel good when driving a 50 hp one even if it costs you $50.

    I'm 25 and a celtics fan since i was a child and enjoyed the last times of Legend. I was 2 years old when banner #16. I've gone through many years of losing teams and little moral victories to just be happy with a EC title.

    I won't be happy, but we don't have anything to prove to anybody this year. If #18 cannot happen this year, lets try it next year, but don't go mistaking paradise for a division title or so…

  • KOD

    There's real merit in defending a title with tenacity, and doing it no matter what hand you're dealt in terms of key injuries.

    Sure it is gravely disappointing that this Celtics team doesn't have KG and a fully-healthy squad to battle King James and Kobe for the crown, but that doesn't mean you shut it down and roll over.

    The Celtics have battled injuries seemingly all season, and yet Pierce, Allen, Rondo, House, Perk, and Big Baby have risen to the occasion and led this team in an admirable defense of their title – posting an impressive 62 win season and battling a young, talented Bulls team with nothing to lose and everything to gain in the league's best 1st round series in the NBA playoffs thus far.

    Celtic Pride is on display with this group right now, and before the book closes on this trying season, my belief is that Pierce, Allen, and Rondo will lead them as far as they can possibly go – with everything left out on the floor and no regrets. What more can we really ask of them?

  • Xete, From Spain

    Another Celtic fan from Spain here, though I don´t completely agree with my comrade. I was feeling extremely proud even as I was watching our guys lose, because seeing a group of players refuse to quit is one of those things that makes you feel something special for a team.

    There was a recent article by Bill Simmons that drew a comparison with the 86-87 Celtics and how they kept playing despite missing Walton, and McHale´s broken foot, and Larry playing 44 minutes per game… As Zach said, you can´t control injuries, and therefore, we can´t demand a championship, or a conference title. But go down putting up a fight? That´s exactly what they´re doing.

    Last year championship made me happy, but thi year…hell, this year i feel frickin´proud

  • http://celticshub.com Zach Lowe

    Hi all, especially from gorgeous Spain, where I had the pleasure of spending a couple of weeks in 2006.

    I decided not to use the '87 comparison because of that team came within two games (and a few breaks) of winning the title–meaning, despite everything, they had a real chance at it. I don't think this team does. But I see the comparison.

    And, Jeff–I'm glad you're not as grouchy as you seemed yesterday!

  • Isaac, from Spain

    i'm not saying at any case that i'm not proud of the team. i'm talking about the happinness of victory not about proudness!!!! I've got nothing to regret to the players if WE don't win.

    Where are you from xete?

  • Yo

    Yes, they are enough for me.

    I like this team as much or more then last years team. Im getting moral victories over rondo, perk, and BBDs improvement, the way they played all season and the heart they exude makes me proud and very happy.

    I think its annoying 'oh no this is the celtics, we are holier then though, and if it isnt a championship it isnnt good enough'

    Bull crap. this is one of the better celtics teams in 20 years, and its been moral victory for me just to watch them all year

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  • http://celticshub.com Zach Lowe

    @Yo: Last night's game was exactly what I was talking about in this post. That's a game we'll all remember.

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