Author's note: This is a (pretty long winded) personal account, and does not claim to be a representation of anyone else's viewpoint other than my own. -IP
"We've lost to New Jersey, we've lost to [other teams with poor records], but if we make a run in the playoffs, will you forget it? That's my question. … If we don't, then it's probably who we were all year -- an inconsistent team -- at least in the second half of the year. We'll find that out." -- Doc Rivers, April 9, 2010 (Via ESPN)
It started to set in after Christmas. Christmas was a good time, one could even argue the last 'good time' of the regular season. The Celtics had just given us the gift of a road win, without Paul Pierce, and to boot it was against the hated Magic who had already scored first blood on the year back in November. From there, we never really got our swagger back.
Next game was a loss to the Clippers. Then the Warriors. Then some 'alright' wins followed by a string of five losses in seven games. That's when it dawned on me. The "oh crap" moment. The moment when it really hits home...we're not as good as I thought we were.
The rest of the season I don't need to rehash in any kind of detail. We can run the highlights. Four games, four losses to Atlanta, who for the Celtics is like losing a wrestling match to your little brother. It was a confidence killer, at least to fans. Two more losses to Orlando. A 20 pt loss to Cleveland....and those were the 'good' losses. Those looked like the happy times when you measured them against the bad losses.
New Jersey won 12 out of 82 games all year. One of them was against the Celtics. That was the first game where I thought 'excuses are no longer valid'. The last eight games of the season consisted of seven 'should wins' and one toss up against Cleveland. The boys won the game against Cleveland, but lost to the Knicks, Wizards, Bulls, and Bucks. Home court boo-ings. Allegations of 'chemistry issues'. Losses, to the freaking Knicks. To say the Celtics limped into the playoffs is like saying Rudy 'just had a sack'. We all hoped for the best, but feared the worst. The bravest of us said there was no problem. There was admiration for their commitment, but pity too, because you knew deep down, it wasn't true. That's how it felt on Friday, April 16th. Then, the playoffs started.
The first game was encouraging, I suppose. Two points down after three quarters, then a fourth quarter with nearly five scoreless minutes from the Heat and good solid Celtics basketball in a tense playoff atmosphere type game, fight included. Nine point win, but it was at home, against the Heat. Temper those expectations, right?
The second game was more convincing. The 'Ticket Stub' made an appearance after Garnett had to sit for elbowing a loudmouth poser in Game 1. The game was an exercise in domination. A 44-8 run starting in the second. It was a massacre, and we reveled in it. Exclamations of "This is Celtic's Basketball!!!111!!" rang out in the forums, and rightly so. Two games does not equal four, thought, so the boys still had some work to do, but signs were to say the least, promising. You had to be the most hard boiled of cynics to remind yourself that 'this was just the Heat. We're supposed to blow them out'. Fans had been waiting for this win since Christmas, and it was enjoyed.
Many of us expected a game three loss. That's what the 'regular season' Celtics would've done. They would have lost the game they were expected to lose, and Miami, while they weren't supposed to win the series, they weren't going to roll over. And to be fair, they didn't.
They just didn't count on Paul Pierce outplaying Dwayne Wade at home. A game winner. Playoff basketball, baby. The Captain delivers. Dreams of 2008 begin to surface. We giggle like school girls, start talking about the first Celtics playoff sweep since..man I don't even know.
Game four was a bit of a let down, but it made sense. It wasn't one of those Celtics losses where you went to bed thinking "Why??.....Why??????" Dwayne Wade had to be a hero at least once, especially if he is leaving Miami (which he isn't). It wasn't a heart-breaker game, and like elite teams do, Boston knocked Miami out in game five without much muss. Rajon Rondo had the first of his '10 playoff franchise player games with 16 points, 12 assists, and 8 boards.
Game one, I did the preview. It was a 'heart over head' piece. My heart said we could steal it. My head said there is no way that the Celtics I saw during the regular season could take Game 1 in the Q. No way. Simply should not happen.
Turns out, my head was right. Not by much though, not if our boys held that lead. This was Game One in the Q. This was the game where Cleveland was supposed to make our boys 'respect their author-it-eye'. All they did was win a hard fought game, and squeak one out at home. That's the type of game where if the Celtics had played it and been the overwhelming favorites, Bill Simmons would be calling for Doc's head. Game one was a disappointment only because it was a loss. That sounds stupid but it gave us hope. It helped us believe that game two could happen, in the Q, against the false prophet LeBron. It laid the groundwork.
So fast forward past all the speculation to game 2. Point in fact (which i understand I'm using incorrectly. Move on, ty-PO police.) we knew the Celtics were not just fodder for the LeBron machine, we knew the LeBron Machine could be stopped, and our boys could do it. 13 points, 19 assists from Rondo. 22 points and 7 boards from Ray. 17 points, 3-4 from 3, and a bald spot from Rasheed Wallace. It all equals out to be an 18 point win and maybe the best 3rd quarter I've ever seen from the Celtics. Best third quarter I will ever remember anyways. Heck yeah. Game two was the game where that inner rational bully, that guy that watched every regular season game, that said "Good Luck, you're going to need it" heading into the playoffs, Game 2 is the game that shut him up. Game 2 was our "He's not a machine! He's a man!" moment.
The game was in a word...transcendawesomeity. I don't know the words. The Celtics, the Celtics fans, heck the now full bandwagon headed back to Boston with their heads high, ready for blood. Ready to show David Stern, and the Illuminati, and the people who faked the moon landing just who was boss, that no conspiracy could hold us down.
Then game three hit like a ton of bricks. LeBron played like people say he is supposed to. The worst playoff loss in franchise history. I'm man enough to admit I only watched three and a half quarters of game, and what I did watch I watched on mute while I consumed copious amounts of homebrew. If I had a nickle for every time I screamed in frustration 'OH COME ON!'...well I'd have a crap load of nickles.
This was a loss that would make even the strongest man doubt his team's resolve. Booed at home during a conference semi-finals game. It was in a word, sad. It was disheartening. It was also all part of the journey.
Game four, grab your rosaries. Cleveland comes into the contest up 2-1 coming off of a fresh completely one-sided win over the C's, they have just regained home court advantage, and LeBron James is coming off of his best game of the series so far. There is a pretty good chance the Celtics go down 3-1 on the series after the egg they laid on Thursday, and it was likely within the next week our boys in green could be sent home fishing.
Boston needed a hero if they wanted to make it a series, let alone advance. Rajon Rondo was that hero. 29 points, 13 assists, and 18 rebounds. I have that line memorized. Everyone probably has that line memorized. It was one of those "where were you" kind of games. I was at my parents house that Sunday, allegedly we had dinner at some point in there, but I don't remember that. I just remember the game. One game removed from the toughest home playoff loss in franchise history, the Celtics bounced back. THAT is what they've been missing all season. That kind of resiliency. In many ways I was more surprised by the toughness shown in this win than I was in the ability of the Celtics to steal one in Cleveland.
Boston headed back to Cleveland and absolutely demolished them. Repaid them for the massacre they left at the TD Garden by giving Cleveland their OWN worst home playoff loss in franchise history. I don't want to get too much into this game, because it was an utter blowout. Rondo and the Celtics beat Cleveland in Game 4, but it was a tough game that didn't gain any separation until the 4th quarter. In game five, Cleveland was done in the second quarter. They just quit. Even LeBron was phoning it in after the half. Just a slaughter.
The two bloodied teams headed back to Boston with the Celtics up 3 games to 2 on the series. The Celtics needed only one more win to advance...the Cavaliers needed 9 more wins to guarantee that LeBron doesn't leave this summer. In the end, after Game 6, nobody really stood out. LeBron got his triple double, but it wasn't enough. not after the Celtics had obviously now in retrospect broken the Cavaliers back in Game 5. Rondo had his twenty-ten, with assists, KG had his twenty-ten with rebounds, and basically the team won together.
The Cleveland series was more than just a satisfying way of 'flipping the bird' at David Stern and his hype machine. It was more than just another opponent on the way to another shot at immortality for the Celtics. It was a rejuvenation for me. I can't speak for any other fan, but I bet my experience is not singular. The 2008 playoffs were not about tempered expectations, they weren't about rationality. They were about destiny. Somewhere, our boys lost that. Whether it was in Garnett's bone spurs, or BBD's broken thumb, or Rasheed's cornrows or whatever...I lost that kind of unconditional support..that kind of love that you have for a team you just know is going to take it all. I didn't dislike them, and it wasn't like I lacked respect for them...I was just tired of being let down, if that makes sense. I lost the love. The Cleveland series brought that back to me.
As the afterglow of the series washed over me and people were saying their goodbyes in the War Room (WAR ROOM!) that's when it dawned on me. The 'oh crap' moment. The moment when it really hits home.....we're better than I thought we were...we're a lot better.
As I write this we're currently up 2-0 on the Orlando Magic, and we're heading back to Boston with hopes of a sweep but even that is a secondary goal, and an unlikely one. The Celtics haven't swept anyone since before Charles Barkley was skinny. But if you told me right now that the Celtics were going to stroll into Boston and beat Orlando by 25 points on Saturday, I'd believe it. If you told me that the Celtics were going to be the 2010 NBA Champions after sweeping the Lakers, I'd tell you that's unlikely...but I believe it could happen.