Take pleasure in what they're giving us
The time has come to appreciate the lovable spunk of this Celtics team.
There is no Kevin Garnett, nor is there a Leon Powe. James Posey and P.J. Brown are home watching on the high-def. The entire experience is different this year.
"I told them, 'We're not the prettiest team, guys, clearly,' " said Doc Rivers. " 'We're grinders. There were a lot of times we could have quit and given up, but we didn't.' "
You mean, like, when they were down 14 with 8:48 to go? Or when they were down 10 with 5:39 left?
They fell behind, 10-8, and spent the next 39:40 trying to take the lead, finally doing so on a classic deep curling three by Ray Allen with 1:20 to go. Then they made all the right decisions (specifically, when and how to foul) and all the right defensive plays in an interminable final 80 seconds, turning what would have been a discouraging loss into one of the great playoff wins in their glorious history, a 92-88 triumph that gives them a 3-2 series lead over the Orlando Magic and thus ensures more spring basketball, more happy North End eateries and drinking establishments, and more general civic merriment.
On an evening punctuated by the glad tidings from Raleigh (would Red have appreciated Bruins highlights up on the big screen?), the Celtics took a long time to figure things out. For 3 1/2 periods, they simply could not string together enough stops to provide legitimate competition for an Orlando team that seemed to have too many people capable of scoring at will. Trading hoops at 9-11 points down won't cut it, and that was about the best the Celtics could do until Doc Rivers made a fateful decision with 4:55 remaining. That's when he replaced Stephon Marbury, Eddie House, and Brian Scalabrine with Rajon Rondo, Paul Pierce, and Kendrick Perkins.
That may sound like the logical thing to do, but the fact is those guys, Marbury in particular, were not playing all that badly. This was the Marbury night Rivers had been predicting for two months. "He'll win us a playoff game," Doc kept insisting, and if Marbury did not necessarily win it, he made sure it would not be lost by packaging 12 points into the first 6:05 of the fourth quarter.
The other life-saving player was Glen "Big Baby" Davis, who started slowly but steadily played his way into the game with 16 of his 22 coming in the second half. He and Marbury combined to score the first 20 points of the final period.
"That unit kept us in the game and gave us hope," said Rivers. "I mean, that game could have gone from 9 to 15. Instead, they just hung in there and made shots for us."
But it was still a 10-point deficit after a Hedo Turkoglu runner made it 85-75 with 5:39 left. But Davis knocked in a pair of jumpers and suddenly it was 85-79 and Stan Van Gundy was calling time to settle things down. Could he possibly have imagined he had already seen the final Orlando basket?
But he had. For when the Magic put the ball in play after the timeout, Allen stripped the heretofore unstoppable Rashard Lewis (19, but it looked and felt like 39) and Pierce converted one of those you-have-absolutely-no-chance-of-stopping me drives at the other end and now the Celtics were 6 points into what would turn out to be a 13-0 run that was all sparked by defense and included three consecutive Orlando possessions in which a shot never even threatened to hit the rim.
It was all very simple, really. When the Boston Celtics absolutely, positively had to get stops, they got stops.
They also had the benefit of the doubt on an apparent Rondo air ball that was ruled as a legitimate shot attempt, and not, therefore, a 24-second violation. And the officials went deep into let-'em-play mode at just the right time, with a no-call on a Turkoglu excursion to the hoop particularly galling to the Magic.
"You can write and comment on it," said Van Gundy. "That's your job."
OK. The Celtics got some very big benefits of some very important doubts. How's that?
"Look," said Van Gundy. "You're playing Boston. They're the defending champions. That's the way it is."
Still, there was some pretty good D being laid down.
"The tough call for me was going back with the starters," said Rivers. "I just thought they knew the stuff better down the stretch. And so that's why I did it.
"And I really thought because our starters kind of know each other better, our defense was better down the stretch. It was phenomenal. It came down to multiple stops, multiple scoring, and, finally, offensively, we started moving the ball."
So there was Allen dropping a nice pass down to a slicing Perkins for a layup (85-83). And, of course, there was Ray Being Ray, running left-to-right along the baseline, making a nice curl, receiving a well-timed pass from Rondo and, of course, drilling the go-ahead three, and never mind that he was 2 for 10 when he took it.
"Great players have the ability to forget," Rivers pointed out. "All of us average guys and average players can't forget that stuff. But great shooters, great players, they keep thinking that next shot will go in, and that's Ray. That was Ray tonight."
But what might have pleased the mentor most was the tidy maintenance job in the final 9.5 seconds as the Celtics were trying to protect that 86-85 lead.
The fun began when Eddie House, inserted for obvious reasons, made two free throws (88-85) after being fouled at 8.5. Pierce gave an immediate foul to Lewis, who made both (88-87) at 7.3. Allen was fouled at 6.2 and he made his two (90-87), with Van Gundy calling his last timeout.
Davis grabbed Dwight Howard at 5.9. The big guy made the first and deliberately missed the second, with Big Baby grabbing the needed rebound in heavy traffic at 4.6. Baby swished 'em both, and the Magic were finished.
"Clearly, we've improved in that regard from the Chicago series," Rivers said. "We made the right fouls. Our rule is foul in that situation under nine seconds. We knew they'd run out of timeouts."
Of course, it helps if your guys make the freebies, and what Doc had the pleasure of witnessing was six swishes in six attempts.
Doc is just hoping his gutty troops have at least one more in them.
"I don't know if people appreciate what these guys are doing," he said. "The minutes, the legs. There's only so far we can go."
It's 2009, not 2008. Don't forget it.
Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com.