The Celtics were a disappointing 16-17 heading into a Rondo-less showdown at MSG. (Remember, in January we didn’t know about and hadn’t accepted our Rondo-less fate…) Things weren’t exactly looking good for our C’s, who were facing a 23-10 Knicks team who were looking pretty damn legit.
I was at that game, and I can say now that it was one of the best live basketball games I’ve ever seen in my life.
I was also in attendance for games 1 and 2 of this 2013 First Round playoff series, and these losses only cement the January 7th game as one of my favorites of all time.
Avery Bradley had just come back, and he was a beast. Between AB and KG, we had the two most fierce and tenacious players on the court. Honestly, I don’t think even a diehard NYK fan would debate this. I was sitting 20 rows back, and you could feel their intensity, their will to win, their complete determination to ensure that the Knicks didn’t score a single bucket. Look back at the tape: AB was going after JR like his life depended on it. KG was telling Melo that his wife tasted like honey nut cheerios, and in the meantime was pulling down every big board and contesting or making every big shot. And Paul Pierce? He looked like The Truth in slow motion, but still every bit as true; an almost mythical competitor who you just knew was going to find a way to put the ball in the hoop enough times to win a basketball game.
Fast forward to April 23rd, and the picture looks different.
(This is the moment where I hit the super pause button, and make sure that every fan out there knows that I STILL BELIEVE. I have no doubt whatsoever that we will win this series and at least push, if not beat, the Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals. Still, I gotta call it like I see it after 2 games…)
The question of who is the most tenacious team is a tossup. Suddenly Kenyon Martin looks like a less skilled but more determined and more valuable version of Brandon Bass. Tyson Chandler looks like a less skilled but equally tenacious and equally valuable version of Kevin Garnett. It seems like Avery Bradley suddenly realizes that he’s really important, and this realization has robbed him of that gunslinger, defensive beast, "who the fuck cares, I’m playing in Rondo’s shadow anyway" mentality that made him an absolute nightmare for JR and the Knicks in January.
And then there’s Paul Pierce.
(Once again, a caveat: if the Celtics somehow get swept [this is not happening], and PP never plays in another playoff game again, I will remember him as the man who SAVED the franchise, bled green, and is one of the great Celtics and great NBA players of all time.)
That said, these two games were heartbreaking to watch. If The Truth had simply lost athleticism or explosiveness, I would be in bed already and this post would never exist. What Paul seemed to lack these first two games was hunger. Some of those second half turnovers were just atrocious, and he didn’t seem to even care. He didn’t seem to want it the way a champion wants it.
You know those subconscious thoughts you’re just not supposed to have, the thoughts you push away but are undeniably there and are undeniably affecting the way you live your life? I had a horrible intuition at the end of Game 2 about the inner psyche of our beloved Paul Pierce. He looks around and thinks to himself: "Melo, you have surpassed me as an elite superstar. Your supporting cast and system are more or less equal to mine, and I don’t genuinely believe that I’m competing for a title anymore. You’re not either, to be totally honest, but I’ve already got my ring, so go get yours, youngin."
I hope my intuition is wrong. I hope that Paul and the C’s will bounce back, and I believe that they will. But it will require the tenaciousness we saw on January 7th, that fierce, electric energy that true competitors know and crave, that instinct that says "I want this more than you do, and for that I’m going to beat you." That energy has been the Celtics drug for a nice 5 year run, and I don’t want to see the run end.