Today's game means everything, and it means nothing. It's a return to the scene of a nightmare, and it's the first opportunity to extract revenge. It will provide the Celtics with self-destructive thoughts, and it will provide the Celtics with equally inspirational thoughts. You don't ever get over a loss like The Game That Must Not Be Named. But you can use it to drive you to new heights.
The Celtics are already different than last season, in so many ways. Kevin Garnett regained the full use of his leg. Paul Pierce, the same. Ray Allen's performing like his shots are rim-seeking missiles, and Rajon Rondo has become -- the last two games excepted -- the NBA's premier passing guard. Glen Davis has become a more consistent force on both ends of the court, and Kendrick Perkins returned (quite quickly, I might add) with a healthy gait, not to mention a chip on his shoulder as big as a brick or a boulder. Add 21 feet of centers (I include Jermaine O'Neal in this tape-measure activity) and the Celtics, though possessing the same nucleus as last season, have taken on an entirely different look. An improved look, I'd say. The look of a team designed almost solely to beat the Los Angeles Lakers.
When Danny Ainge reworked his roster this summer, memories of Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum playing keep-away danced through his head. Those same memories will inflict Boston with every step they take in Los Angeles. The Staples Center now has ghosts. So does the city. So does the trainer's room, and the locker room, and the court. An unpleasant aroma now fills the Celtics' nostrils, the scent of bitter defeat, the scent of being *this close* but still falling short.
When I was a sophomore in high school, my basketball team lost the regional quarterfinals by two points. The team that beat us went on to win the state championship. My team went home, with tears streaming down our faces. We had lost on what was called a "buzzer beater," but the local news reviewed the video that night and the game-winning shot was actually released a full second after the final horn. It was the type of loss that left two of my teammates banging on the door of the referee's locker room, demanding that we replay the bogus ending. The type of loss when the opponent celebrates, and I sat there watching, taking the whole scene in and forgetting nothing. The type of loss that eats away at your intestines and tugs at what's left of your heart. The type of loss that makes you vow you'll never lose like that again.
I'm not comparing my own defeat to the Celtics' defeat in June. The Celtics' loss was on a far bigger stage, in a far more important game, and my high school regional quarterfinals competition cannot compare. But I know what it's like to come so close one season, and I know what it's like to return the following season with a steely focus shaped by revenge. Losses like the one the Celtics experienced at once provide debilitating pain and the most rejuvenating motivator in sports.
Part of me feels like I'm returning to the scene of the crime, today. Another part of me feels like I'm preparing for a game myself; like I'm preparing to run onto the Staples Center court, participate in layup lines, and then throw dagger three-pointers that will break LA's heart and lead to a Celtics 'W.' Today's game means something, in a way that no Celtics regular season game has in more than twenty years. At the same time, in the grand scheme of things, it means almost nothing. Not that it feels that way.
As Rajon Rondo said, "It's just another game." But we know better than to believe he actually feels that way. If I woke up this morning ready to lift mountains with my bare hands, imagine how the Celtics feel. They're the ones who remember the pain better than anyone. They're the ones who will revisit the Staples Center locker room today, the same locker room where tears poured down their faces and thoughts of "what if?" raced through their heads. They're the ones who will step onto the Staples Center court, where, the last time the Celtics played there, Bill Russell handed Kobe Bryant the Finals MVP Award while confetti rained down from the rafters.
As for the opponent that ended my sophomore year in such crushing fashion? My team played them six times during my last two seasons. We didn't lose to them once, knocking them out of the playoffs both years. And revenge never got old.