Game 2: Night of a Lifetime

A Daily Babble Production

This is personal.

Disclaimer: I'm human, and there isn't much I can do to change that.  If you've come looking for just the nuts and bolts of the basketball end of the Game 2 experience, that's wholly understood, and in that case, please feel free to skip right on down to the bullet points at the bottom of the page.  But frankly, I'm overcome with emotion right now, and it's to the point that I would be remiss to talk about the parts of last night that went on between the lines without telling the story of everything else that made it unforgettable.

It's a story that starts with an excerpt from the piece that ran in this space the night before the playoffs began:

I'm shaking with excitement because I'm thinking about it how much it means to me to get to share this experience with the man some call The Guru, some call Whitey, a very few seem to insist on calling Howie and most call Howard -- the man I still address with the combination of three simple letters: Dad.  And while I don't purport to look too far ahead, I would be lying if I said I wasn't shaking with excitement about one other point regarding The Guru.  With the occurrence of a seminal moment in my life some years ago, The Guru promised our attendance at two future sporting events of my choosing.  Since that time, one of those offers has been used.  But on the night he made this promise, I also made one right back: "We are going to be there the next time the Celtics are playing at home in the Finals."  Times weren't exactly the best for the Celts at that point (in fact, they were downright putrid).  Ever the cooler head to my eternal fanatical self, The Guru laughed that wry laugh of his and shot me a thin smile: "Son, much as I appreciate your efforts to save me some money, this is my gift to you.  It's a gift I want to be able to see you enjoy while we're both alive."

Last night at the TD Banknorth Garden, that dream of a gift came to pass, and it did so in the most remarkable way imaginable.

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There are regular season games at the Garden.  There are playoff games at the Garden.   And then there are Finals games at home for the Boston Celtics.  There may not be another feeling like it.

For a native New Yorker, no matter what the situation is, it's always a pleasure just to finally arrive amidst the sea of green, to be surrounded by masses of fellow Shamrock diehards.  Walking in to the arena, taking a deep breath and inhaling that aura that comes with big games, seeing the trophy painted around the Celtics logo at mid-court, receiving "Beat LA" and "You Got Rondo'd" signs: Each aspect of the evening brought its own little jolt with it.  So did watching Game 4 of the 1987 Finals on NBA TV in the sports bar beforehand.

Fast-forward toward the general vicinity of game time.  Because that's about when the big jolts started coming.

The video montage before the Celtics came out onto the floor was nothing short of chilling.  The clips of Red, Russell, Bird, Hondo and the rest of the legends of the green were spliced in with the most magical moments of this season and shots of the team stretching out and getting ready in the tunnel.  I thought the "We're really here, the dream is actually coming true!" feeling had hit me beforehand, but when the montage came to a close, and the bells from the "Rocky" theme began as the JumboTron showed Ray Allen start the jog to the parquet floor, it was like being in a vacuum.  Just us, 18,622 other fans and the team with which we've spent so much of our time on this planet living and dying.  Whoosh.  Without warning, it felt like the air was gone.  Seeing this team come out -- Eastern Conference champions, playing for a title -- and seeing it live and in person, particularly with the only person I couldn't dream of being there without, was almost more than I could handle on its own.  The standing ovation was thunderous.

All of that only intensified during the introductions.  That video the Celts show with the "Lord of the Rings" theme before the players are introduced?  They aren't kidding around.   It's loud, clear and powerful, and the crowd responded.  The applause for each Celtic was ear-splitting.  "And at the other forward, 6-7, from Kansas" was the last thing either The Guru or I heard Eddie Palladino say for the evening.  It was truly just that loud.  Fortunately, ABC has shown us the line-ups enough this post-season that I might have been able to conjecture on my own that "the captain aaaaaaaaaaand The Truth" came next.

Standing there next to my father -- my lifelong hero and the greatest man I've ever had the opportunity to come across -- and thinking about the realization of a joint dream, I wished I could have seen the grin on my face right then.  It was wide as ever.

Then again, when I was done getting choked up about such apparently trivial concerns as "jogging from a tunnel to a basketball court" and "Kevin Garnett doing some goofy handshake with Eddie House," the fellas played a basketball game, and the grins just kept coming.

The noise in the building when Paul Pierce canned that first three to get the Celts on the board was fantastic.  Pumping a fist in celebration of a game-opening basket never felt so good.  But it's the smile on my father's face that I'll remember most.

The sense of urgency in the crowd that started at the opening tap and didn't die until the buzzer.  The crowd being on its feet for every big sequence.  The outstretched arms from what seemed like everyone in the building ready to make the "It's good!" signal every time a Celtic lined up for a trey (they hit 9 of the 14 they took, by the way).  The ovations for each player pulled from the game.  The roar after a big dunk or beautiful pass or blocked shot.  It was a level of excitement that suprassed any I'd ever felt at a sporting event prior, and that's before we even got into the timeouts.

The timeouts.  I'm a big believer that aside from actually winning the game, there isn't a cooler phenomenon at a home game than seeing the team get on a big run that is capped with a shot that forces the opposition to use a time-out.  Between the loudness that results from the shot and the ensuing "Tiiiiiiiiiiiiiiimeout, [road team]" that comes afterwards, there is a moment when the energy level in the arena seems to hit a rarefied stratosphere.  For whatever reason, experiencing that had long been a big part of my dreams about a Finals game.

Game 2 didn't disappoint in that department either.  There were no fewer than three of these sequences over the course of the game: Paul Pierce's three to cap a 10-0 run to start the second quarter and give the Celts a 30-22 lead; Ray Allen's three to extend the Celts' lead into double-digits at 47-37; Leon Powe's lay-in off of a Rajon Rondo lob to put the Celts up 20 late in the third.  In all three instances, the crowd rose to its feet and remained standing for the duration of the timeout.  The cheering was raucous.  Forget "Field of Dreams."  This was heaven.

Sure, the fourth quarter was a bit of a rougher road than we would have liked, but it ended just in time for the Celts to pull out a win, and while the struggles in the fourth could remain significant moving forward in this series, they aren't what will stand out in my recollections.

No, that distinction is reserved for the individual whose presence made this all mean what it did.  Basketball has been my father's game for as long as I can remember, and it's easily the event that gets the usually mild-mannered educator most animated.  Getting to see him join in the "Let's go Cel-tics" cheer, getting to see him yell for his personal favorites -- Posey and, yes, Leon Powe -- hearing his frustration with the decision-making in the fourth quarter, sharing that rueful and disbelieving grin after Leon's coast-to-coast dunk in the fourth quarter, hugging him and watching him smile as I yelled, "We did it!" -- that's what this was all about.

It was a special feeling to watch the Celtics play Finals basketball with 18,622 other fans.  It thrills me to no end that the Celtics won this game, that I've gotten to see this team that so regularly dictates the flow of my days win a game at the very highest level.  But no matter the result, what means the world to me is that I had the opportunity to experience the Finals -- and this wonderful season in general -- with my dad.

To Mike Pettoruto, who was integral in helping us obtain the tickets, I thank you with the utmost gratitude.

To The Guru -- to Dad -- I love you.

*    *    *    *    *

Being a fan is in so many ways shaped by personal experiences.  In most cases, we don't know the players personally.  We might have geographic ties with the organization.  We might not.  It's the myriad of ways in which we experience fanship that makes it special for each of us.  You've taken the time to read my story today, and truth be told, I'd love to hear yours.  Feel free to shout back in the comments section about what this season has meant to you and what's made it special in your life.  It would be a pleasure to hear from you.

*    *    *    *    * 

On to the Game 2 observations:

  • Leon!  For the second game in a row, it was that less touted (but apparently quite pesky Laughing) Celtics bench that got the job done, and in a pleasant surprise, it was Leon who led in a big way.  Crunching the numbers yields absurd efficiency: 14 minutes played, 7 field-goal attempts, 21 points scored.  Leon was the team's most consistent force in getting to the rim and to the line whenever he was on the floor.  He had two monster dunks to cap the third quarter, and his coast-to-coast dunk through the entire Lakers' defense was just plain silly.  It was his night to shine, and that's exactly what he did.  The only way to make the night better for him would have been if the Celts could have pulled away for good without blowing so much of the lead in the fourth, Doc would have been able to get Powe back on the floor only to pull him again near the end to get him the ovation he more than earned.  Ah, there will be more ovations to come in the future.  Great night, Leon!
  • Worth remembering is that by no means was the bench performance a one-man show.  P.J. Brown had another excellent evening, playing energetic defense, drawing a charge from Lamar Odom and cutting beautifully on the offensive end.  He went 3-for-4 from the field and was a game-high plus-20.  Meanwhile, James Posey hit a big three and two freebies to help seal the game at the end and continued to bust his gut defensively throughout.  Best wishes to Sam Cassell on recovering from his sprained wrist.
  • I'm not instigating a debate about the level of the officiating one way or the other, but for the sake of observation, it bears noting that calls were consistently being made late on both sides.
  • Once again, awareness of three-point shooters became an issue defensively.  The Lakers hit ten threes for the game, and seven of them came in the fourth quarter.  Several of the looks they got were largely uncontested or at least not strongly challenged by the defender in the area.  While Kobe Bryant hit one trey, most of the damage was done by his supporting cast of shooters, and this seems particularly inexcusable given the situation in the fourth quarter.  The Celts were up close to 20 points for most of the quarter, meaning that the only way the Lakers were likely to get back into the game was via the long ball, which is exactly waht they did.  At that point, it seemed intuitive that the defensive focus would have to change from not letting Kobe get his to limiting 'extra points' for the Lakers (no threes, no and-ones, no technicals).  Bryant wound up scoring his share anyway (because he's a great player, and sometimes great players heat up), but it felt like the Celts allowed too many wide-open looks for perimeter shooters because of their over-exertion in sending double teams at Kobe.  In the first three quarters, this approach makes some measure of sense, but given the Celts' lead in the fourth, I'm not sure I buy it.  The folks in green need to know where individuals like Sasha Vujacic and Vladimir Radmanovic are at all times, or they will be asking for trouble.  Here's hoping the fourth quarter scare will be the last of the issue.
  • It was a tale of two Rondos.  For the vast majority of this game, he was an absolute joy to watch.  He played energetic basketball on both ends of the floor, and he really earned his 16 assists.  The passes to Paul Pierce for a lay-in underneath the bucket and the drive-and-dish to Leon Powe at the end of the third in particular were absolute beauties.  The block-plus-dunk late in the first half initiated mass hysteria in the building.  All that said, the man shot just 2-for-6 from the foul line and seemed extremely tentative as the game closed up later on.  His passes became shakier, and it he looked visibly less than confident with the ball in his hands.  In order for him to be able to be a true asset on the floor late in games, he needs to get over that.  But he's also 22, and he played a heckuva game.  The end-of-game stuff will come.  The rest was a sight to be seen.
  • The other problem from that rough fourth quarter: In addition to playing the score rather than the game (thanks, Jeff Van Gundy) on the defensive end, once the game got close it seemed that the C's once more went into panic mode offensively.  Lots of one-on-one, too much dribbling from everyone to touch the ball, sloppy passes, substandard looks at the basket.  This team has a lot of weapons, and that calm confidence that says, "We can get ourselves baskets when we need 'em," can still be elusive on occasion. 
  • Paul Pierce is a rather tough dude.  He's a tough dude who also played a very efficient basketball game last night.  He looked great on his threes and was clutch at the end of the game once more.  Another superb overall performance from the captain.
  • Even with Kevin Garnett having another inordinately rough night from the field (7-for-19), this team really shot the lights out overall:  52.9 percent from the floor and 64.3 percent (9-of-14) from the outside.  Makes it a lot easier to win that way.
  • No way around it: KG needs to attack the rim.  The Big Ticket has the ability to dominate Pau Gasol, and no matter how his shooting touch is treating him on any given day, he can guarantee himself that success by looking to get into the lane and finish from right around the cup.  It's likely to result in a lot of dunks and foul shots, both of which would make life even more pleasant for the Celts.
  • Ubuntu strikes again: 36 made baskets, 31 assists.  This was epitomized by a four-possession sequence in the third in which Rondo found Pierce for a back-door lay-in, KG fed a cutting P.J. Brown for a lay-up, Rondo hit Ray Allen for a corner three and Rondo lobbed Powe a pass for a lay-in on the fast break to stretch the lead to 20.  Teamwork is beautiful.
Two wins away from the ultimate prize.  Surreal. 
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