There's a reason why Doc Rivers often calls the NBA a "make / miss league." One of the most interesting aspects of basketball is that on any given possession, you can play the best possible defense, and sometimes your opponent is still going to make the shot. Nothing you could have done about it. Although the well worn cliche goes "defense wins championships," great offense still beats great defense on an individual basis.
Add to this fact the reality that this Celtics team, as impressive as they can be at times, has virtually no margin for error. In order to beat a good team, a lot of things have to go right for them, and not much can go wrong. Well, tonight in Game 6 at the TD Garden -- maybe the last home game of the New Big 3 era -- very little went right for these Celtics; to make matters worse, a lot went wrong.
Sometimes it's just not your night. That's what the Celtics players and fans have to tell themselves after tonight's game, because there's not much else that can fairly be said. It is not as if they stepped out onto the floor and gave an unfocused, lackluster effort from the opening tip. They did not give up numerous second chance points. They didn't stagnate offensively. They didn't settle for jumpshots when they had the option of going inside. We've seen them have nights like that before, nights when from the opening tip it's clear -- they didn't come to play (cue highlights of Game 6 in Philadelphia).
To my eyes at least, it looked as though the Celtics were fighting hard, sticking to their game plan and not panicking even as the Heat lead steadily grew over the course of the game, fighting again and again to try to cut the lead down. They made hustle plays, they didn't give up any easy buckets at the rim, and they never hung their heads. As tired as they must have been, they didn't give in and collapse until nearly half way through the fourth quarter, when the last of those many rallies was answered with yet another quick flurry of Heat shots.
Rondo, ever mercurial, who is so often the barometer of this team, actually played quite well. Indeed, his 19 points in the first half alone, going mano a mano with James, would have been far more impressive if he hadn't scored 22 in the first half a few games ago. He pushed the break and looked locked in. Even though the Celtics weren't gaining much ground, he kept trying to make great plays. He did have a number of turnovers (7), but many of those came from trying to make big plays to get the team momentum, not from carelessness. He bounced straight back from mistakes or misses with reasonably consistent defensive effort. He looked like he was "getting past the mad," as Doc Rivers often tells him to do, despite the fact that he had frequent reason to get mad over the course of this game. He did all this even though on numerous occasions he was matched up defensively with a 6'8'', cold-blooded, muscle-bound Gila monster with lazer sights for eyes.
Ah yes, about that Gila monster -- also known as LeBron James. You might look at his stat line and think that he simply had his way with the Celtics defense. He shot an utterly absurd 19-26 from the floor, scoring 30 points in the first half alone. At one point, he was 10-11 from the field. The term "automatic" has never seemed more appropriate. Yet if you watched the game from start to finish, you saw that for the most part, the Celtics were successful in executing their defensive gameplan against LeBron James. They forced him into a lot of contested mid-range jumpshots, often over two defenders. He even took a handful of threes. Nearly all of them were pretty much exactly the shots that the Celtics wanted LeBron to take. The problem was, tonight LeBron couldn't miss. When that happens, as talented as James is, you have to just throw your hands up and say, "Whatever. This is just not my night." What else is there to do?
The fact that the Celtics didn't do that is a testament to their will -- their "grit and balls" which we've heard so much about. Given the fact that James was shooting basket-seeking missiles from his finger tips while nobody in green other than Rondo or Bass could throw it in the ocean, the Celtics had no business being in this game as long as they were. A lesser team would have folded sometime early in the second quarter, when it was clear LeBron was just having "one of those nights."
So don't call it a blowout. The Heat did not thoroughly outplay the Celtics. Despite the final score, they did not embarass them, or run them out of the building. This was not like Game 6 of the 2010 finals, when a Celtics team totally deflated by the loss of Kendrick Perkins, who was downed by a devastating season-ending knee injury early in the second quarter, was basically laughed off the Hollywood stage that is the Staples Center.
The Heat, as a team, were not very good. Their second leading scorer was Dwyane Wade, who scored 17 points on 17 shots -- nearly half of which came in the fourth quarter after the game was no longer in question. Nobody else scored in double digits, or even grabbed double digit rebounds. While James shot an otherworldly 73% for the game, the rest of his team shot just 18-50, good for 36%.
The Celtics, meanwhile, shot 42.7% as a team. The teams were about even in free throw attempts (the Heat made 3 more). The teams were roughly equal in turnovers. The Celtics actually had 10 more points in the paint, and 10 more fast break points (though at least half of those came in garbage time). The Celtics were pretty terrible offensively, but we've long known that this is a team that depends very heavily on its defense to spur its offense. Since there weren't a whole lot of missed jumpshots for the Celtics to turn into offensive mismatches, it's not surprising that they had trouble scoring.
Essentially, LeBron James beat the Celtics more or less by himself. Tonight, it felt as though Jesus Christ and a host of seven foot angels could have come down from Heaven, put on Celtics jerseys, and played against the Heat, and LeBron still would have hit practically all of his shots and broken their spirit by the fourth quarter. He was just that good.
If you took away just a handful of LeBron's makes -- take your pick out of any of those turnaround contested jumpers and pull up threes -- and gave the Celtics just a few makes on any of countless wide open misses, this might have been a very close game early in the fourth quarter. A couple calls going the Celtics way, a big three pointer or an alley oop dunk to fire up the crowd, and suddenly the Celtics would have been swaggering, cursing, and yelling their way to victory. But it didn't happen that way. That's why they call it a make / miss league.
Sometimes it's just not your night. Tonight, it was LeBron's night, and nobody else's.