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.