Back on May 1, a funny thing happened: The Celtics blew Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, before responding with a convincing 104-86 win in Game 2 behind 17 points from none other than.....Rasheed Wallace. Okay, maybe "behind" is a stretch, considering Rajon Rondo dished out 19 assists, Ray Allen poured in 22 points, and Kevin Garnett added 18 points and 10 rebounds. But it cannot be denied that Wallace's production was a significant factor in the first of four victories over the Cavaliers, leading to a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals.
Think back to the days leading up to Game 1 of the Cleveland series. A fair amount of faith had been restored in the Celtics after ousting the Miami Heat in five games, but this was the series. This was the East's supposed best team sporting the league MVP. The Celtics would of course need to battle through the Cavs if they wanted to keep their championship hopes alive. It would be a grueling and immensely difficult series, and every single win was absolutely crucial. It got to the point where I heard a decent amount of people saying things like, "Hey, if we can beat the Cavs we can handle everyone else who's left." Which is why, after Rasheed factored into the Game 2 win in such a significant way, I asked myself: "Did the underlying importance of that win just justify the signing of Rasheed Wallace?" After all, consider how important that win was. It prevented the Cavaliers from going up 2-0 in the series; it served as the first victory of the series for the Celtics and tied things up at 1-1; without that win, maybe the Cavaliers still demolish the Celtics in Game 3, putting the Celtics in a backbreaking 3-0 hole; without that win maybe the seeds of doubt don't begin to creep into Cleveland until later in the series, potentially allowing for a Game 7 on the Cavs' home court. It was a vital win, as was every other one that came in that series, and it was largely due to the play of Wallace. But was it enough for us to collectively come out and say: "Hey, signing this guy wasn't a total mistake"?
Because if that one win was not enough, what would it take? Would it take a championship? Is a championship the only thing that will cause us to admit that signing Rasheed Wallace was not a mistake? Because, quite frankly, if the C's do in fact win the title this year, it will be that much easier to live with two more years of Rasheed, regardless of the team's outcome in those seasons. Will it take just defeating LeBron and the Cavaliers? What about defeating the Orlando Magic? Will an NBA Finals appearance be enough? Will simply helping the Celtics get to the Finals be enough, under the assumption that the rest of the crew can take it from there? Before we decide that, let's discuss a few things.
Just prior to the start of the playoffs, a general consensus was forming regarding Rasheed Wallace: Win or lose, at season's end, he had to go. Admit it, his play was incredibly underwhelming and grew increasingly frustrating as the season went on, and the way he carried himself went against practically every personality trait this core of Celtics had prided itself upon the previous two seasons (intense defense, hard work, and an all-out hustle all-the-time attitude). He maintained his stance that he would contribute in the playoffs (when it mattered), but all of that talk was being uttered throughout a regular season that was not instilling much hope for success in the postseason, so his statements carried far less weight.
And as the seeds of doubt were being planted by many in the 2009-2010 Boston Celtics, the signing of Rasheed Wallace appeared to be one of Danny Ainge's worst decisions as the man in charge of Basketball Operations, due to both the horrendous year he was having, along with the longevity of his contract. The Celtics had agreed to a two-year deal with the 35-year old power forward/center, with a player option for a third year, which Wallace would most surely exercise. The thought of sitting through two more seasons of Rasheed Wallace was a torturous burden to bear. It was something you didn't want to have to think about, but ultimately couldn't escape.
There were those who had not given up on the Celtics' season prior to the playoffs, but the faith in Wallace had still been lost, and the Celtics would just have to win in spite of him. I had never given up on the Celtics as a team, but I was so frustrated by Wallace that I came very close to writing a lengthy piece titled "Rasheed Wallace Has to Go", which would have been my argument that the Celtics would have to ship him off this summer by any means necessary, regardless of the outcome of the playoffs, even if it just meant cutting him and still having to pay him. They just needed to get him out of the locker room.
Ultimately, I decided against writing that, and also decided, for reasons I still don't understand, that I would give Rasheed the benefit of the doubt until the playoffs. So instead, I wrote this piece called 'Last Shot for 'Sheed', which allowed me to unleash some of my frustrations. It was a challenge post of sorts, reminding him (I always assume Rasheed reads all of the articles I write about him) that he said he would assert himself come playoff time. So the Celtics played the Heat, and Wallace posted the following numbers: 13.2 minutes, 3.8 points, 2.0 rebounds, 40 percent shooting, zero percent shooting from three-point nation (granted he only took two three-pointers the entire series) 2.2 personal fouls. As all of this was tragically unfolding before me I was kicking myself for not writing the "Rasheed Wallace Has to Go" article. His uninspiring play was stomach turning, because the assuredness of his revitalization in the postseason was not coming to fruition. He was not performing at a higher level. If anything, he was performing at a worse level, compared to the already dismal level we had seen throughout the regular season. Disappointing, to say the very least. There was still little to no evidence that said signing Rasheed was not a mistake.
Then, he practically came up empty in Game 1 against the Cavaliers (13 minutes, 2 points, 2 rebounds, 3 personal fouls), which resulted in Doc Rivers finally calling him out publicly before Game 2. Practically everyone was down on this guy, from several different Celtics bloggers, to Bill Simmons, to the vast majority of the fans. And it was all completely warranted. He had done nothing to instill a sense of confidence in us, and had done even less to make that contract of his seem worth it.
But, as it turns out, after coming up big in Game 2 against Cleveland, Rasheed also ended up playing a critical role in Games 4 and 6. I was at Game 4 and believe me when I tell you there was a noticeable pep in Rasheed's step at the start of the fourth quarter. Trust me, after watching him slog up and down the court the entire regular season, it was easy to tell when he was actually hustling, just like it's easy to tell when Ray Allen's shooting form is off. This was not the same Rasheed, and even though he might not have impacted the box score too heavily, he did an admirable job of fighting on defense and on the glass, and his overall energy level helped the Celtics notch things up at two games apiece.
As for Game 6, he played a pivotal role in the fourth quarter, bodying up Anderson Varejao, executing that ridiculous over-the-back save under Cleveland's basket (come on, like you expected that from Rasheed?), and draining that demoralizing three-pointer in the left corner with 6:08 to play, which was followed up 15 seconds later with a fast break slam from Kevin Garnett, capping off a crucial 10-0 run for the C's and putting them up 88-74.
The Celtics eventually won the game and the series, and Rasheed was lauded for his 13-point performance in what was arguably the Celtics' most important playoff game since 2008. Suddenly, out of nowhere, we went from, "I can't believe we signed this guy in the first place" to "There's no way the Celtics win that series without Rasheed", which brings up an interesting question: Was defeating Cleveland enough for us to admit that signing this guy was not a mistake?
Yes. And here's why:
Think back to the state of this team and its fanbase around the middle of April. Think back to how many people lost faith in this group before the playoffs even started. Now look where this team is. They have a 1-0 lead in the Eastern Conference Finals and are a mere seven wins away from the 18th championship in franchise history, and the second in three seasons. The Celtics were not supposed to defeat LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. This was the MVP's year to finally win it all. The King was supposed to get his ring. The Celtics' season, on the other hand, would end, and a troublesome offseason would be looming on the horizon. But none of that happened. The Celtics won, and while I won't go as far as saying it was because of Rasheed's play (Rondo, Ray, and KG were too important in that series), I will say that the Celtics would not have won had he not stepped up when he did. Which means, we have reached the point where we can say the Celtics' season would be over without Rasheed Wallace. So, regardless of how he plays from here on out, he still was instrumental in the Celtics making it this far, which in my eyes justifies his contract. Now, of course, a championship is the ultimate justification. If the Celtics do end up winning it all no one will ever question signing him. But even if they fail to win everything, Rasheed still passes the "We Wouldn't Have Made it As Far As We Did Without Him" test.
Now, if you're still not sold, if you think I'm writing all of this one series too early, take comfort in the fact that Rasheed looks fully locked in at this point. His defense on Dwight Howard was instrumental in the Celtics' Game 1 win yesterday, and his 13 points were icing on the cake. He thoroughly disrupted any sort of offensive rhythm Howard was hoping to develop by playing with a tenacity that Orlando's big man did not appear capable of dealing with. Rasheed appears to be on the verge of another consistent series, which means, if the Celtics do indeed advance to the NBA Finals, and he plays as significant a role as the one he filled yesterday throughout the Eastern Conference Finals, there's practically no way we can question the signing.
For me, Cleveland was enough because of the magnitude of that series, but I can understand some fans needing to see Rasheed help throttle the Magic as well. That's fair. Either way, despite a horrendous first 88 games of the season, and despite a general sense of loathing towards him for the majority of those 88 games, Rasheed Wallace is a key reason why the Celtics are so close to procuring another title, which means signing him last summer might not have been such a bad idea after all.