Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 30, 2010

The C’s Surprise Everyone Except Themselves

So for the twenty-first time the Boston Celtics will play for the NBA Championship. Their record of success in the Finals is staggering, having emerged the winner seventeen times in their previous twenty trips. On eleven of those occasions their opponent was the Los Angeles Lakers, the team that they will tip-off against at the Staples Center in Game One next Thursday. The Lakers are a dominant team themselves with fifteen championships of their own. More than any other, the Celtics-Lakers rivalry has defined the NBA through multiple generations. Russell, Cousy, Havlicek, Bird, McHale, Parish, Pierce, Garnett, and Allen. Mikan, Baylor, Chamberlain, West, Abdul-Jabbar, Johnson, O’Neal, Gasol, and Bryant. These two teams could populate a once and future Hall of Fame all by themselves. Even the great coaches of both teams are instantly recognizable: Auerbach and Heinsohn; Riley and Jackson.

That Los Angeles is in the finals is no surprise. They are the defending champions, having beaten Orlando four games to one last spring, and they were the class of the Western Conference throughout most of the 2009-2010 season. But that Boston is about to play for the title is a major surprise. Just ask Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, or Dwight Howard. Those three have to be almost as surprised as, well, me.

The Celtics started the regular season like a top contender, going 23-5 out of the gate. But after reaching that mark by beating the Magic in Orlando 86-77 on Christmas Day, Boston’s season descended into mediocrity. Over the last two-thirds of the season they were a middling 27-27. They began that skid by losing all three games of a west coast swing, including losses to the LA Clippers and Golden State Warriors, two teams who together would win barely more games over the course of the season than the Celtics would by themselves.

But what was most alarming about the Celtics through their post-Christmas decline was their inability to defend their home court. Through this period they were essentially the same team at home as they were on the road, going 14-13 at the TD Garden and 13-14 in hostile arenas. Thanks to the fact that they had been overpowering on the road during the first third of the season (13-1), the Celtics actually finished the 2009-2010 campaign with a better record away from Boston than at home. Certainly the low point for their fans came on February 27th, when the New Jersey Nets, a team that would win just twelve games all season, garnered one of those dozen by having their way with the Celtics on the parquet, winning 104-96.

There is a home court or field advantage of some degree in all professional sports; but basketball is one where it tends to be particularly significant, and especially so for the better teams. The Cleveland Cavaliers and the Lakers, winners of their respective conferences, had road records that were the same (Cleveland) and actually three games worse (LA) than the Celtics. But because of dominance at home the Cavs finished eleven games ahead of the Celtics in the East, while the Lakers’ regular season concluded with seven more wins than Boston.

As the regular season wound down, this home court mediocrity led a lot of observers to conclude that the Green were an aging team, suddenly listless and a step or two slow. The players responded by assuring fans that once the playoffs started they would be able to “flip the switch” and play at a higher level. At the time, I thought those comments were somewhere between wishful thinking and outright laughable. If it’s just a matter of flipping a switch, how about doing so in the third quarter of that execrable showing against New Jersey? No, it seemed certain that these old Celtics would likely have plenty of trouble against the Miami Heat, and would stand absolutely no chance against either Cleveland or Orlando.

Then the prognosticating ended, the playoffs began, and damn if the Celtics didn’t find that switch and flip it. They raced out to a 3-0 lead against Miami and Wade, with only one of the three being close, and went on to win in five. In the second round against King James and the Cavaliers, they took away Cleveland’s home court advantage by winning on the road (of course) in game two, then gave it right back again by getting pasted at home (of course) in game three. So they trailed 2-1, and had lost badly at home. Surely this was the expected beginning of the end.

Or not. Against everything that their mediocre post-Christmas record had led fans to expect, the Celtics blew past the Cavaliers three times in a row, two at the TD Garden sandwiching a 32-point blowout win in Cleveland. The 4-2 series win by Boston sent LeBron James into free agency and Cleveland Coach Mike Brown into unemployment.

Facing the Orlando Magic and Howard in the Conference Finals, Boston continued to roll along, winning the first two games in Orlando and the third at home. In NBA history, 93 teams had taken a 3-0 lead in a playoff series. All had gone on to prevail.
In Boston, where there are few fans who follow just one sport, everyone was aware that just days before, the Bruins had coughed up their chances at another Stanley Cup by allowing a 3-0 lead against the Philadelphia Flyers to dissolve into a seven game series loss. The Bruins demise began when they lost game four in overtime. When the Celtics, on the cusp of the NBA Finals, dropped game four to the Magic in overtime, Boston sports fans gulped. When the Magic won game five at home to close to 3-2, Boston sports fans held their breath. Never mind that in the NHL teams had, albeit rarely, come back from three game deficits. For that matter, never mind that what happens in one sport in a town really does not have some cosmic effect on what happens in another sport, even when the two teams play in the same building. Fans are fans. There is a reason why that guy in the second row of the balcony is wearing that ratty, smelly old lucky jersey. The fact that the reason is utterly irrational has absolutely no impact on his sartorial decision.

Maybe it was that guy’s lucky jersey. Maybe the Celtics just flipped that switch one more time. They won game six comfortably, and the epic rivalry of the NBA is once again about to be renewed.

Analysts will note that throughout these playoffs Rajon Rondo, the future face of the franchise, has continued to improve and impress. They will certainly note the far greater bench contributions that Boston has gotten than they did during the regular season from the likes of Nate Robinson and Glen “Big Baby” Davis. They will explain that these things could not have been foreseen. Really?

The Lakers will of course be favored, and more often than not, favorites win. Los Angeles has yet to lose a game at the Staples Center in this year’s playoffs, so Boston will have to break new ground in order to have a chance. Given their play at home, they might have to break new ground more than once. The Celtics really aren’t supposed to be here. Dywane Wade and Miami knew that. LeBron James and Cleveland definitely knew that. Dwight Howard and Orlando were absolutely sure of that. I knew that and wrote about it. Seems the only ones who didn’t know that were the guys wearing green and white. Seems all they knew was how to flip a switch.

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