Hard to imagine a reunion game in Boston sports history quite like this: where 40% of the opposing team’s roster was composed of former Boston players, with most having played on our team just the year before. Perhaps only in post-blockbuster NBA trade world is such an occurrence even possible.
This game offered up seemingly endless subplots: Al Jefferson, the former Celtic man-in-waiting (who had 39 and 15 Wednesday night against Phoenix), facing off against his trade counterpart and now MVP-in-waiting; the Artist-Formerly-Known-as-Toine dusting off his widening wiggle (former Walker acolytes may want to avert your eyes, it may not be pleasant); the reigning slam dunk champion returning to the site of so many of his turnovers; Ryan Gomes just one game removed from a career-best 35 points against Golden State; a resuscitated Sebastian Telfair (whatever happened to that gun-under-the-seat charge anyway?); and, the bane of those who insure NBA contracts, Theo "Eight Is Enough Games in Two Seasons" Ratliff, sure to be on the sidelines looking natty in his Stern-approved suit.
"Mismatch" was apparently the secret word for the opening of this game. The only sight more pathetic than Gomes staring into Kevin Garnett’s Adam’s Apple as Garnett went over him again and again, was Kendrick Perkins trying to stay with Al Jefferson. Garnett passed, shot, and dunked at will over the seemingly Lilliputian Gomes, while Jefferson left his godson’s papa bewildered in the post to the tune of 8 points in the first 5 minutes. The Celtics began throwing double and triple teams at Jefferson immediately following the first timeout with the score 17-15 Wolves, shutting Jefferson out for the remainder of the quarter. Rashad McCants and Telfair picked up the slack and kept the game going back and forth through the remainder of the quarter. Perkins got some consolation as the Wolves started to enact the cover-everyone-but-Kendrick defense, ending the quarter with 6 points. Remember the days of intense, relentless Celtic defense earlier this season? Well those days seemed a distant memory in the opening quarter tonight: the Wolves shoot 63% and finish with a 30-29 edge.
The Celtics started the second quarter with Tony Allen, Rondo, Pierce, Powe, and Big Baby on the floor. Pierce, playing more the distributor role for the second unit, fed Powe three times early in the quarter, twice for scores. Later, he found Perk for a couple of dunks. By the end of the half, Pierce had already racked up 6 assists, while taking only 5 shots. Ray Allen flashed back to his shooting struggles, missing the perimeter shots, then swooping in for his own rebounds, only to miss the short gimmes as well (Ray was only 1-9 in the half). Meanwhile, Gerald Green and Tony Allen battled it out to be the player with the greatest upside-downside swing. They seemed to match each other foul for foul, turnover for turnover. Each had their momentary flash of talent, quickly buried by the next huge gaffe.
Toward the end of the quarter, the Celtics’ starters re-entered the game, and gained some modicum of temporary control. The defense, while an improvement over the first quarter, did not stop the Wolves from taking a number of open perimeter shots (some of which actually went in). The Celtics ended the half up 50-47, largely on the strength of Perks’ interior play (14 points in the half) and KG’s perfect (4-4) shooting (for 10 points in the half).
The Celtics uninspired play continued into the third quarter with some ugly turnovers by Ray Allen and Pierce, Ray Allen missing from everywhere (save one wide open baseline jumper; he ends the quarter 2-13 for the game), and defense that was allowing Minnesota far too many good looks. The sold-out crowd was eerily silent given the build-up of this game. The whole quarter was inelegant all around, no big runs, no sustained good play; a tedious, uneventful episode in this budding rivalry (yeah, epic battles ahead!). The highlight, other than a nice drive and up-and-under by Jefferson over Garnett, may have come with Perkins at the free throw line and Garnett and Jefferson picking up double technicals for mouthing off to one another. Doesn’t get more exciting than that, does it? Well it didn’t in this quarter, until perhaps an offensive rebound by Leon Powe with 46 seconds left. Powe then drove uncontested to the hoop, scored, picked up the foul, and finished the three-point play. The Wolves entered the final quarter ahead 68-67 after Corey Brewer drilled a long baseline jumper in Pierce’s face (then let Pierce know about it) with three seconds remaining.
Sadly, the fourth quarter offered up more of the same. More than anything, this seemed to be a battle of fouls and turnovers (Pierce and Ray Allen would combine for 11 turnovers in the game). Doc kept switching out personnel trying to find the magic combination that would wake up and realize that they were playing the Timberwolves (for goodness sake) and take control of the game once and for all. To no avail; this one would come down to the wire.
With 6:19 left in the game, KG sustained some sort of abdominal injury and painfully limped his way to the locker room. The Celtics played on. Over the next three minutes (while the fouls and TOs continued), the Celtics gradually closed the gap from 6 points to three. With just under two minutes to go, KG returned to the game. With 23 seconds left in the game, the C’s took 5 attempts at the basket before Pierce got a put back to finally bring the Cs within one.
In the gift of the evening, Corey Brewer could not find an open man, and failed to inbound the ball (or call a time out) within five seconds, yielding possession to the Celtics. Ray Allen then missed a runner, but Perkins nestled in the put back to give the Celtics an 87-86 lead with 16.6 seconds left in the game. Once again, the Wolves inbound play was an adventure, as Jaric seemed befuddled and had to call the Wolves’ last time out in order to maintain possession. The Celtics had a foul to waste, and Perkins used it with ten seconds remaining. The Wolves finally managed to get the ball to Jefferson who found himself double-teamed. He passed to Telfair near mid-court, but KG knocked the dribble out of Telfair’s hands, fell to the floor, and managed to pass to ball to Rondo. And time thankfully expired. The Celtics squeaked by in the end: 87-86.
If there is such a thing as a bad win, this was it. The embarrassing elements were legion: Telfair dominated Rondo for much of the fourth quarter, and finished with 18 points and 6 assists (to Rondo’s 4 and 4); Antoine (who looked like a shell of his former self) actually stripped the ball at the top of the key from Eddie "I Am Not a Point Guard in Any League" House during the Wolves run in the fourth; the Celtics had 23 turnovers; the wings (Pierce and the Allens) shot a combined 10 for 40; and Garnett attempted only 1 field goal in the second half. In the end, the only bright spots were KG’s 16 rebounds, Perkins’ 21 points on an array of garbage hoops, and Pierce’s ability to counterbalance a generally horrid performance with enough grit to go 10-10 from the line, grab 9 rebounds, and hand out 8 assists.
Not all reunions are pleasant ones. The young Wolves made this night very uncomfortable for the reputed best team in the NBA.