I wrote in Tuesday's Globe about the emotional and financial contributions of Boston-area professional sports teams and athletes to the city in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon terror attacks. But it's not just professional sports figures who have been compelled to pitch in through athletic endeavors.
Tyrone Croom was at Abe & Louie's restaurant on Boylston Street on Marathon Monday. He was sitting on the patio, enjoying a gorgeous day and watching runners head for the finish line.
Croom got up and went inside to use the restroom. That's when the first bomb went off. The second, which was planted outside the nearby Forum restaurant, exploded 12 seconds later. Croom was hustled out a back entrance of Abe & Louie's along with other patrons.
He knew he was lucky, especially when he saw a girl with pellets lodged in her leg and a blank expression on her face sitting on the ground, frozen in pain and fear. He knew he wanted to help those who had not been as fortunate as he had been.
So, Croom, the president of CroArt lacrosse, an organization that promotes the sport and provides playing opportunities through tournaments, camps, clinics and club teams, resolved to turn a preseason scrimmage the CroArt All-Stars had scheduled with the Boston Cannons professional lacrosse team into a benefit game for those affected by the Marathon bombing.
"Afterwards, I was like, 'Should I have gone back in, should I have gone back to help?' It was just eating away at me," said the 39-year-old Croom, who grew up in Sudbury and now resides in Falmouth. "On Tuesday, I called the Cannons and said, 'We have this scrimmage coming up. Let's make this scrimmage more special than it is.' They said let's get on it and make it whatever you need."
The two sides played the benefit game at Harvard Stadium on Saturday night.
"It was a special day to see the players and fans all enjoy each a fun evening at Harvard for one common goal, raising funds for those affected on Marathon Monday," said Croom.
Croom and the Cannons deserve a stick salute of their own.
There have been bigger sporting events in Boston that have saluted the indomitable spirt of the city and honored both the victims of the attack and the heroes who emerged from its aftermath, but there hasn't been one featuring a local professional sports team where all the proceeds went to charity.
The lacrosse scrimmages are usually free, but spectators at the game were encouraged to contribute a $10 donation, with the funds going to The One Fund Boston, the charity announced by Governor Deval Patrick and Mayor Tom Menino to aid the victims of the Marathon bombing. Players from both teams also made a $20 donation each to the fund.
Croom said unofficially the parties have raised approximately $15,000 so far. The fundraising is not over.
The Cannons are still selling "Boston Strong" T-shirts on their website until Thursday, with 100% of those proceeds going to The One Fund Boston, and there is a donation page on GivingSomeThing.com.
"Nothing is too small, nothing is too big," said Croom. "This is our way of contributing. We're reaching out to the lacrosse community and to everybody. Even if you're not a lacrosse fan, and it's your first foray into the game."
If lacrosse is good enough for Jim Brown and Bill Belichick, it's good enough for the rest of us.
The Cannons, Boston's entry in Major League Lacrosse, and the CroArt All-Stars usually scrimmage a few times in the preseason to help the Cannons prepare for their regular-season games.
The Cannons open their regular season on Sunday against the New York Lizards in Hempstead, N.Y.
Several players on the Cannons have also played in the CroArt men's post-collegiate league, which features players who have played college lacrosse at the Division 1, 2 or 3 levels.
Cannons midfielder and Wellesley native Mike Stone, who has played with CroArt, pledged $10 for every goal scored in the game. His pledge was matched by the Cannons and CroArt.
Stone is the co-founder of GivingSomeThing.com, a website that matches non-profits with donors. He set up the online donation page on the site, with the money being funneled to The One Fund Boston.
Stone has a friend who had both of his legs amputated from injuries suffered serving in Afghanistan. That same friend crossed the finish line of the 117th Boston Marathon on his handcycle.
"It took him two years of recovery to get there and it was an incredible achievement," said Stone in a statement. "Back at the finish line hours later, I knew immediately that many others would soon be embarking on similar journeys. Let's support these victims by contributing to The One Fund through this special initiative by the lacrosse community. This is what makes our game special."
In the wake of the Patriots’ disheartening 28-13 AFC Championship game loss to the Baltimore Ravens last Sunday there has been a search for the common thread that has led to the unraveling of the Patriots’ Super Bowl-or-bust seasons in 2007, 2010, 2011 and this year.
I wrote a little bit about the Patriots’ offseason outlook today in my column in the Boston Globe. My feeling is that as vital as any personnel additions or decisions the Patriots make this offseason is changing their mentality.
If there is a common yarn from the Patriots’ playoff losses from 2007 to now it’s a long-running problem. The connection in all the losses is a lack of explosive plays in the running game, an inability to physically impose their will on opponents when it matters the most.
In the Patriots’ losses to the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLII in the 2007 season, the Ravens in the 2009 playoffs, the New York Jets in the 2010 playoffs, the Giants again in Super Bowl XLVI last season and the Ravens this season, they’ve failed to produce a single rush of 20 yards or more.
The longest rush is 17 yards by BenJarvus Green-Ellis in Super Bowl XLVI.
The Patriots’ longest rush in Sunday’s loss to the Ravens was 9 yards. That’s a familiar number. It also represented the long run in the 33-14 beatdown Baltimore put on the Patriots in the ’09 postseason.
In the shocking 28-21 AFC Divisional loss to Vociferous Rex and the Jets during the 2010 season, the Patriots had a long run of 11 (twice), but that came on handoffs to wide receivers Julian Edelman and Brandon Tate. The long run by a running back that day was a 10-yarder by Green-Ellis.
The paucity of big plays in the running game in these losses is a particularly incisive point because all these teams basically abandoned their base defenses to defend Tom Brady. They put an extra defensive back or two on the field and dared the Patriots to run.
As colleague Greg A. Bedard pointed out in his excellent film review of the Patriots-Ravens AFC title game clash, Baltimore played just three snaps of base defense all game.
Quoth the Ravens gameplan: "Run on us if you can."
At the beginning of the season, Brady said that the Patriots had made a pledge to be able to run the football against what he termed lighter fronts, defensive alignments that sacrifice a linebacker or a down lineman for an extra defensive back
"You know we’ve made a commitment to running the football and you saw it today," said Brady, after the Patriots rushed for 162 yards in the season-opener against Tennessee on Sept. 9.
"...When you can control the tempo of the game, it really helps out the rest of the team. It helps special teams. It helps defense. You just can’t drop back and throw it 50 times a game. Right around 30 passes a game is where you want to be."
The Patriots threw it 54 times against the Ravens on Sunday.
This is not a Brady bailout. His performance was tepid at best against Baltimore, a team that seems to be TB12’s Kryptonite.
But do you know how many touchdown passes Brady threw during the Patriots’ first Super Bowl run, the Improbable Dream of 2001? One more than Bono, whose band will always be the musical accompaniment for that memorable win.
Brady threw a TD pass to David Patten in Super Bowl XXXVI. That's it. Cue the blaring U2.
The first multiple-TD pass playoff game of his career didn’t come until Super Bowl XXXVIII against the Carolina Panthers. Brady tossed three touchdown passes in that game, and undressed the Panthers secondary like they were part of Janet Jackson's breast-baring halftime show with Justin Timberlake.
(By the way, Ms. Jackson did for Super Bowl halftime shows what avaricious Wall Street bankers did for sub-prime loans.)
In their first Super Bowl win, the Patriots averaged 5.3 yards per rush against the St. Louis Rams. Antowain Smith had a long run of 17 yards, but Patten, a wide receiver, had a 22-yarder.
The second Big Game had a big run of 23 yards by Kevin Faulk on a day when the Patriots, despite averaging just 3.6 yards per carry, ran the ball 35 times against Carolina.
The trophy trilogy, completed against Philadelphia, featured a 25-yard run from Corey Dillon, who rushed for a franchise record 1,635 yards in 2004.
There is a common thread in the Patriots’ playoff losses. It’s the fraying of the commitment to and execution of the running game.
So, blame Brady all you want. But the formula for winning championships now is not the one the Patriots used earlier in the millennium.
Like their playoff opponents, that’s something the Patriots can’t run away from.
With the Red Sox playing the Orioles in Baltimore get ready for a round of paeans about the renaissance of former Red Sox general manager Dan Duquette and his resurrection of the previously awful O's, possessors of the second wild card and poised for their first winning season since 1997.
These stories may mention what has become popular and pervasive revisionist history -- that former Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein won the 2004 World Series largely with and because of what Duquette left behind. They may also mention that Duquette built the Zakim Bridge, spurred development in the South Boston Seaport and solved the MBTA's budge crunch.
Not only is crediting Duquette for '04 ignoring the fact Epstein was responsible for the acquisitions of David Ortiz, Keith Foulke, Curt Schilling, Bill Mueller and Kevin Millar and made the most significant trade in franchise history this side of Babe Ruth to New York to set the stage for Red Sox Nation's deliverance. It also stands in direction contradiction to the idea that Duquette deserves plaudits for rebooting baseball in Baltimore right now.
If Epstein, who became Sox GM in 2003, won with Duquette's players in '04 then Duquette is definitely benefiting from a hefty inheritance now.
I've always found this winning with somebody's else's players argument to be a selective and insidious debate. Why should a GM be penalized for talent that is already on the roster? Rarely do people mention that Patriots coach Bill Belichick inherited Willie McGinest, Tedy Bruschi, Ty Law and Troy Brown, but Epstein is supposed to share co-billing with Duquette for the two World Series wins on his watch?
The Duke devotees can't have it both ways. You can't say Epstein only won because he was bequeathed Pedro Martinez, Manny Ramirez, Jason Varitek and Derek Lowe from Duquette, and then turn around and say Duquette is the best thing to happen to baseball in Baltimore since Camden Yards.
Adam Jones, Matt Wieters, Nick Markakis, J.J. Hardy, Chris Davis, Jim Johnson, even wunderkind Manny Machado all belong to previous Orioles regimes.
Duquette has made some significant moves to bolster the Baltimore pitching staff, trading Jeremy Guthrie to Colorado for Jason Hammel and reliever Matt Lindstrom, importing Taiwanese lefthander Wei-Yin Chen, who has emerged as the Orioles' ace, from the Japanese Central League, and in classic Duke fashion picking righthander Miguel Gonzalez off the minor-league scrap heap. (Gonzalez was in the Red Sox organization last year and went a combined 0-7 with a 5.40 ERA.)
I always thought this was Duquette's greatest strength -- taking baseball's lost souls and turning them into talent found. Duquette was into sustainability long before it became a corporate buzz word. He would recycle players discarded or discounted by other teams. Nobody could spot a baseball bargain like the Duke, who put the defibrillator paddles to the career of Tim Wakefield and unearthed finds like Troy O'Leary, Brian Daubach and Rich Garces during his Red Sox days.
Duquette was also the original stolid, laconic, unsentimental organizational leader around here. He was stonewalling the media long before a certain hooded football coach made it a managerial meme. Whether it was to placate then-manager Jimy Williams or not, it was Duquette who ordered Johnny Pesky out of the Sox dugout in 1997.
It is possible for a general manager to come into an organization and effect change by overhauling the culture and not necessarily the roster. Duquette has done that with the Orioles, although manager Buck Showalter began the attitude transplant by challenging and in some cases insulting the big boys of the American League East.
Duquette deserves consideration for Executive of the Year for what he's done with a previously feckless franchise, but he might not even be the best executive in the Beltway, never mind all of baseball. Washington Nationals GM Mike Rizzo has turned the Nats from a national laughingstock into the team with the best record in baseball.
He might not even be the most deserving Amherst College alumnus of the award. Pittsburgh Pirates GM Neal Huntington, an Amherst graduate like Duquette, has the Pirates holding down the second wild card slot in the National League and on the verge of their first winning season since 1992, an act of personnel prestidigitation so miraculous it should draw the interest of the Vatican.
Don't forget the guy who was the original choice to succeed Duquette in Boston, Billy Beane.
Beane has the Moneyball mojo working again. The A's, baseball's perpetual paupers, are nipping at the heels of the Orioles for the second wild card slot, despite dealing their top two starters, Gio Gonzalez and Trevor Cahill, and All-Star closer, Andrew Bailey, in the off-season in cost-cutting moves; not getting a single inning from established starters Brett Anderson and Dallas Braden; and seeing Opening Day starter Brandon McCarthy miss a month and a half with shoulder soreness.
Duquette's best argument for Executive of the Year is that he's upgraded the Orioles starting staff. Still, Baltimore ranks 24th in the majors in starters' ERA. The Nationals lead the majors at 3.22. The A's are seventh at 3.84 and the Pirates are 14th at 4.08.
Duquette didn't deserve to be exiled from baseball after guiding the Red Sox into the modern era and three playoff berths during his nine-year tenure. He's too shrewd an evaluator. Like so many of the reclamation projects he plucked, Duquette never gave up on his dream of returning to the big leagues. Bravo.
His perseverance has paid off for the Orioles, and he has done an excellent job with the O's. But hailing him as the architect of the baseball revival in Baltimore while lavishing him with retroactive primary credit for the Red Sox' World Series wins is hypocritical.
Like Duquette's infamous "More days in first place" line, it simply doesn't compute.
TB12's 35th B-Day is a reminder he won't be around forever.
So, what do you get for the 30-something man who has everything -- a supermodel spouse, a Hall of Fame career and a movie star aesthetic? If you're the Patriots, you get him the one thing he needs but doesn't have -- a defense.
That's a luxury Brady, now entering his 13th season, last had several tonsorial selections and a few diva wide receivers ago. Brady is undoubtedly a better passer now than he was when he quarterbacked the Patriots to three Super Bowl titles in four seasons from 2001 to 2004, but the only trophies he has to show for it are a pair of MVPs.
Those early-to-mid aughts title teams lifted the Lombardi Trophy because the offense and the defense carried the load equally. Now, Brady mostly carries the defense. The Patriots aren't going to win another Super Bowl until Brady and a good offense cease to be their best defense.
Even in the almost perfect season of 2007, when Brady was rewriting the record book with an offense that visited the end zone so often it could have claimed residency, the Patriots defense held up its end of the bargain.
The '07 defense ranked tops in the league in pass defense, allowing 190.1 yards per game, and had an AFC-best 47 sacks. It surrendered 288.1 yards per game, the second-lowest total in franchise history since the advent of the 16-game schedule in 1978. It gave up 17.1 points per game, an impressive number considering teams knew they had to score early and often to have any shot against the 16-0 pass-a-palooza tour.
If there was a prevailing school of thought that it was foolish to try to win a shootout against Brady it was dispelled last year by a Patriots' defense that was sliced up like a birthday cake by opposing passers in the team's four losses.
New England nemesis Eli Manning beat the Patriots twice last year with dramatic drives for the Giants and completed 75 percent of his passes in Super Bowl XLVI. Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger completed 72 percent of his passes and racked up 365 yards passing. The other defeat came at the hands of Harvard's Ryan Fitzpatrick, who threw for 369 yards to help the Buffalo Bills erase a 21-point deficit.
Coming off a Super Bowl appearance last season in spite of having both the 31st ranked total defense and pass defense (out of 32 teams) in the NFL, the refrain in Foxborough is the same one it has been for the last three seasons -- juggernaut offense, question-mark defense.
The defense is already a bit defensive about that depiction.
"In one ear and out the other. That's how we like it back there. People are going to say whatever they want to say," said safety Patrick Chung, when reminded the questioning of the defense has become a yearly occurrence. "Everybody has their opinions, but in one ear out the other, get better, play ball. Go from there."
The first step to solving a problem is admitting you have one and coach Bill Belichick did that this offseason.
Perhaps, it was an epiphany that Belichick had right around the time he was ordering his team to let Giants running back Ahmad Bradshaw have free entrée into the end zone in Super Bowl XLVI because it was the only shot he had of getting the ball back in Brady's hands. But the Patriots doubled-down on defense in the off-season.
They traded up in the first round of the NFL Draft not once, but twice, to acquire pass rusher Chandler Jones and linebacker Dont'a Hightower. The team used six of its seven draft picks to address the defensive side of the ball, trying to put a tourniquet on a unit that bled yards last season, if not points (21.4 points per game, a respectable 15th in the NFL).
Belichick also dipped into free agency, signing safety Steve Gregory, defensive lineman Jonathan Fanene and edge rusher Trevor Scott, and acknowledged in April that the team had to shift its defensive philosophy to better combat a league with more comfortable air travel than a G5 private jet.
Hopefully, all those additions and a bounce-back year from erstwhile Pro Bowl cornerback Devin McCourty add up to improvement this season because the play clock is ticking on Brady's championship window and thus that of the Patriots.
The current rosary-gripping defense isn't just taking years off the life of fans, it's taking years off of Brady's shelf life.
The Patriots' favorite foils, the Colts, learned the hard way what happens when the epoch of your franchise QB unexpectedly comes to a screeching halt, as Peyton Manning's neck injury precipitated a total teardown in Indy this offseason.
Following up Brett Favre with Aaron Rodgers or Joe Montana with Steve Young is the quarterback succession exception, not the rule.
All the Patriots have to do is look south at the division-rival Miami Dolphins, who have been a QB junkyard since Dan Marino threw his last pass and berated his last offensive lineman in 1999. Brady entered the league in 2000 and since then the Dolphins have used 18 different quarterbacks. That number could rise if David Garrard or rookie Ryan Tannehill beat out Matt Moore this season.
Proof it doesn't take much to go from halcyon days to Hugh Millen redux.
Brady has made a career of performing under pressure, but the pressure to win now is on the other side of the ball.
For once the NCAA didn’t hide behind its rule book or some obscure bureaucratic bylaw. It applied the rule of common sense and did the right thing.
If someone in a position of power at Penn State had done that a lot more than a football program would have been spared.
You know the conduct at Penn State was completely indefensible when the NCAA, as compassionless and stultifying an organization as exists in sports, can pitch its tent on the moral high ground.
What happened at Penn State, where former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky was allowed to use the pull of football to systematically sexually abuse boys, wasn’t about a violation of some picayune NCAA rule. It was about a violation of basic human decency.
That’s what the NCAA held Penn State accountable for on Monday.
The governing body of college athletics dutifully and righteously dropped the hammer on the football program in Happy Valley.
The NCAA fined Penn State $60 million, the equivalent of one year of gross revenue generated by the football program, with the money going towards an endowment for programs aimed at preventing child sex abuse; It imposed a four-year postseason ban on the Nittany Lions, which includes the Big Ten conference championship game; stripped the school of 20 scholarships per year over a four-year period (2014-2018) and limited their incoming recruiting classes to 15 scholarships, instead of 25 for four the next four years; put the Nittany Lions on probation for five years and forced Penn State to vacate all victories from 1998 through 2011.
That last sanction means that not only has Penn State removed the statue of Joe Paterno from outside Beaver Stadium, but Paterno has posthumously lost his stature as major college football’s all-time winningest coach, his victory total culled from 409 to 298.
Penn State didn't get the death penalty, but as a football power it's now on life support thanks to these sanctions.
Scholarships players are the life blood of college football. They are the oxygen that a program breathes, and Penn State is going to be gasping for air the next few years.
Not only are they going to have fewer scholarships available, but the players currently on the team are free to transfer to other Football Bowl Subdivision schools without sitting out a year.
When calculating the stigma on the program, the competitive shackles that have been put on it and the inability to play for any championship, what 17- or 18-year-old kid in his right mind is going to commit to putting on one of those famed white helmets, which now seem so sullied?
Saying you coached Tom Brady is only going to go so far for Penn State coach Bill O'Brien on the recruiting trail.
Good luck to the former Patriots offensive coordinator who stepped into this morass by taking the Penn State job in January. He has to compete with Urban Meyer at Ohio State and Brady Hoke at Michigan with a program that has been stripped of its scholarships and its tradition.
But O’Brien is not a victim. We already know who the victims were in this case -- those who were violated by Sandusky while Paterno and Penn State administrators stood idly by.
That's why the fine is not nearly steep enough. In addition to the $60 million, the NCAA should have mandated that Penn State pay a percentage (10 percent, say) of its football revenue into the endowment for the next 20 years.
If the Penn State community gets to keep benefiting from having major college football, so should the types of people it failed to protect.
The reality is that no matter what the NCAA imposed on Penn State it wasn’t going to please anyone.
Anything short of demolishing Beaver Stadium, abolishing the football program and deflating every football in a 100-mile radius of State College, Pa., was going to be too lenient for those who feel there is not a punishment on earth suitable enough for Penn State.
Those who feel the NCAA is overstepping its bounds by disciplining a school for criminal violations will feel a dangerous and unnecessary precedent has been set.
The former group doesn’t understand the NCAA is in the business of semi-pro athletics, not higher education.
The latter group doesn’t understand that moral dereliction of duty and lack of institutional integrity need to be punishable by an enforcement manual that features a four-letter word more important than NCAA -- Life.
"We cannot look to NCAA history to determine how to handle circumstances so disturbing, shocking and disappointing," said NCAA president Mark Emmert in a statement. "As the individuals charged with governing college sports, we have a responsibility to act. These events should serve as a call to every single school and athletics department to take an honest look at its campus environment and eradicate the 'sports are king' mindset that can so dramatically cloud the judgment of educators."
The NCAA was never going to impose the “death penalty” on Penn State.
It’s doubtful the NCAA will ever use it again. The results were so disastrous at Southern Methodist University, the only school to receive the sanction. A recidivist rule violator, SMU had the guillotine drop on its program for the 1987 season and decided to sit out the entire 1988 season as well because the NCAA restricted them to seven games that year.
A perennial top-20 program in the early and mid-80s, SMU has never been the same.
Although the program has turned the corner in the last three seasons under head coach June Jones, the repercussions of that ruling reverberate 25 years later.
Putting Penn State in the (death) penalty box for a year was a Pandora's box the NCAA didn't want to open.
The NCAA wasn’t going to risk alienating its constituents, who would have to re-do their schedules, or its television partners, who would have lost content, just to claim higher moral high ground. We’re still talking about the NCAA here, after all.
Not as jarring as the death penalty, the sanctions are still onerous.
The NCAA has done what Penn State would not -- stand up and do the right thing.
Wes Welker took a leap of faith when he signed his franchise tag tender in May. On Monday, the deadline for franchised players to sign a deal for more than their one-year franchise figure, his leap landed with a splat and without a lucrative long-term contract, his show of good faith and in his faith in the Patriots going unrewarded.
Welker dropped the ball on these negotiations (insert bon mot about his reception gone awry in Super Bowl XLVI here). He sacrificed his leverage the same way he has so selflessly sacrificed his body over the middle the last five seasons, signing his $9.515 million franchise tender two months ago.
Welker's pledge to do the right thing was his undoing. His relatively modest contract demands -- he would have done a deal for three years and $22 million, $5 million less than the deal Randy Moss got in 2008 -- weren't met. The team's best offer was two years, $16 million.
It was not a coincidence that the three franchised players who won their multi-million dollar staring contests on Deadline Day and got profitable new pacts -- Chicago Bears running back Matt Forte, Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice and Jacksonville Jaguars kicker Josh Scobee -- all balked at signing their tender. The only recourse a player has is withholding his services or threatening to withhold them.
So, the financially-savvy folks in Foxborough won yet another contract debate, but at what cost? They have sent a powerful message by not rewarding either Welker's production or his unfailing fealty. Playing nice with the Patriots doesn't pay off. Playing hardball does.
Buying wholesale into the Patriot Way, catching more passes than any player in the NFL since 2007 (557), rushing back from a career-threatening knee injury in 2010, and setting a franchise-record for receiving yards last season (1,569) is worth nothing more than gratitude and platitudes at the negotiating table.
If you look at the veteran players who have earned long-term contracts from the Patriots through the years, the majority of them took truculent stances, fired warning shots through the media or staged some sort of boycott.
Vince Wilfork didn't get his five-year, $40-million deal from the Patriots in 2010 until he abstained from voluntary OTAs (organized team activities) before the 2009 season, and then following it called the franchise tag "basically a slap in the face."
In 2010, a displeased Logan Mankins, deprived of free agency by the machinations of an uncapped year, publicly accused owner Robert Kraft of reneging on a contract pledge and demanded a trade. He then proceeded to engage in a protracted sit-out, missing training camp and the first eight weeks of the season. Mankins got the franchise tag following the season, and then got a six-year, $51-million extension last summer.
Even Tom Brady had to express some displeasure before getting a deal.
It would certainly seem that loyalty and production don't get the Patriots' attention like anger and intransigence do.
Now, it's worth noting that the Patriots have made strides toward changing their business philosophy, recognizing their hard-line stance ended up costing them more money in the end with both Wilfork and Mankins. The team pre-emptively lavished top-of-the-market extensions on both linebacker Jerod Mayo and tight end Rob Gronkowski.
Mayo received a five-year, $48.5 million contract extension last December and Gronkowski got a six-year, $54-million extension tacked on to his rookie deal in June. The Gronk deal has some contractual window dressing; the Patriots can opt out of it in 2016 before the salaries spike and $37 million of the pact is due from 2016 to 2019.
Welker, 31, might only make sense to the Patriots as a one-year rental. The team is loading up for another Super Bowl run -- this offseason had a 2007 feel to it -- and the Patriots have to figure out how to retain tight end Aaron Hernandez, whose contract is up after next season.
There is something unseemly about draining a player of all his best years and not properly compensating him for it. But that's the business Welker is in, the business of sports, where human beings are commodities.
The other message the Patriots delivered by not locking up Welker is they deem him replaceable, maybe not directly as a slot receiver nonpareil, but replaceable. Much like the Patriots offense morphed after the trade of Moss and the loss of the long ball in 2010, the Patriots could adapt and score without Welker.
The additions of Brandon Lloyd and Jabar Gaffney (a Brady favorite who is signed through next season) along with the tandem of Gronk and Hernandez, a hybrid tight end-wide receiver who can do many of the things Welker can, could inspire coach Bill Belichick to believe that Welker is not indispensable.
It would also follow a general philosophy the Patriots have employed during the TB12 era of not splurging on the wide receiver position. The Patriots' offense is about who is throwing the ball and not who is catching it. Moss's deal remains the most lucrative the Patriots have handed a wideout. It has not hurt them, save for 2006.
Few are protesting on Welker's behalf. If a player is woefully underperforming relative to his remuneration, like a John Lackey, there is a torrent of commentary about how he is overpaid, among other often harsher invectives.
But when a player like Welker, who long ago outperformed the five-year, $18.1 million contract he signed to join the Patriots in 2007, has sufficiently outpaced his pay stub for years and gets stiff-armed when he tries to collect, there is either apathetic silence or a salute to the franchise for its business acumen.
When the Patriots are involved there is a healthy dose of the latter.
The Patriots have "won," avoiding paying Welker for past performance, but in the process they might find that they've made future negotiations more contentious and costly.
Ray Allen handled his introduction as a member of the Miami Heat/ official exit from the Celtics with grace and gratitude.
It would be nice if Celtics fans could do the same.
Laundry is all you're rooting for if you are now feverishly condemning a player who two months ago was revered as part of the tapestry of a beloved team. He's still the same dead-eye shooter. He's still the same diligent, polished professional. He is still the same articulate spokesman for juvenile diabetes, which has afflicted his son Walker. He still has the same affinity for the city, fans and franchise.
"I'll always be a Celtic no matter what," said Allen, who referred to the Celtics as "us" in his Heat intro on Wednesday. "...I don't care what people say about me. I'll always stay true to the city of Boston and the fans there. They've been great to me. I'll always consider that place home."
The man with one of the game's all-time sweetest strokes has left a sour taste in the mouth of many Celtics supporters, bypassing Boston's two-year $12-million offer to ink a three-year, $9-million-and-change deal with the Heat.
Fine. But Based on the hue and cry that has gone up about Allen hooking on with the Heat you would think that he had renounced his entire five-year tenure as a Celtic, pawned his championship ring for a couple of Jet Skis he can tool around Biscayne Bay on, and called Rajon Rondo a dangerous socialist.
OK, so that's hyperbole. But so are the cries from the Parishioners of the Parquet that Allen has committed an unforgivable act of perfidy, forsaking logic, loyalty and an additional $3 million to join the hated Heat.
If you liked or admired Allen before, you still should. It's just impossible to root for him because he's on the Celtics' most heated rival. Understandable.
What I don't get is why some fans are taking it so personally and taking shots at the NBA's all-time leading 3-point marksmen.
Was it not universally acknowledged that when the Big Three epoch came to a close Allen was the most likely to depart? Allen simply did it on his terms and not those of Celtics president of basketball operation Danny Ainge.
If the Celtics' trade deadline deal with Memphis had gone through, a swap that would have sent Allen to Memphis for O.J. Mayo, the result would be the same. The reaction would not, however.
When a player gets traded or has his name swish about in trade talks like a glass of Chardonnay at a wine tasting it's just business. But when a player executes his right to play elsewhere, it's a personal affront and an act of basketball betrayal, so much so that the owner of the team goes on local radio and punctuates a statement about how he'll remember the player by saying he'll remember that he left the Celtics for the Heat.
Really, Wyc? That's as memorable as Allen scoring 51 points against the Chicago Bulls in the playoffs in 2009, or hitting seven 3-pointers in Game 6 of the 2008 NBA Finals a day after his son had been diagnosed with diabetes, or the game-winning 3-pointer he sunk against the Toronto Raptors in just his second game as a Celtic?
(Check out the celebration after the Raptors win. It looks like the Celtics just won the NBA title.)
Allen made the type of decision that owners and organizations make all the time -- a business decision. He did what was in his best interests, just like the Celtics were doing what was in theirs by exploring trades for him in 2010 and last year and offering him a two-year deal instead of the three-year deals they gave Kevin Garnett and Jason Terry.
Allen concluded that if he were going to accept a diminished role as a reserve it was easier to swallow elsewhere. He determined that being fourth on the marquee in Miami behind LeBron, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh was preferable to taking a back seat in Boston's Core Four. He surmised he would have more reliable crunch-time minutes with Miami than competing for those minutes with Terry and Avery Bradley. He concluded his professionalism had begun to be taken for granted by the Celtics.
It would make sense if Allen were a bit irked that the team gave Terry, who will turn 35 in September, a three-year deal. At age 35, Allen garnered a two-year, $20 million deal from the Green in 2010.
Allen bears responsibility for this basketball break-up too. He shouldn't be airing dirty laundry on his way out the door and doing a drive-by on Rajon Rondo's reputation.
He should understand that Bradley's emergence is just part of the circle of life in the NBA. He should recognize that Garnett is a sine qua non part for the Celtics.
But Allen was always the member of the Big Three/Core Four who had to sacrifice the most -- shots, minutes, pride -- and he was always the one most easily sacrificed by the team in trade proposals.
That's an uneasy existence, and it's one that will make a player overly sensitive to slights, both perceived and real.
Allen was also the player most directly threatened by the ascension of Rondo. It's not surprising that they wouldn't have a good relationship. It had to rankle Allen, a pro's pro, that he was being supplanted on the masthead by a player whose occasionally peevish behavior can border on unprofessional.
Allen had lost both his standing in the team's hierarchy of stars and his starting role after Bradley played so well in his ankle-injury absence.
He decided that if he was going to enter a step-back phase of his career he wanted to do it with a new team.
However, he's still the same old Ray, even in somebody else's laundry.
It's seems fitting that as we're on the cusp of a holiday that celebrates freedom we talk about the NBA, which is in the midst of its free agency period, a perilous time that's tries men's souls and their knowledge of the Byzantine collective bargaining agreement. No luxury taxation without mid-level exceptions and Bird rights representation is not quite as catchy as the original rallying cry.
Here are a half-dozen hoops thoughts:
1. The decision to bring Ray Allen back to the Celtics is going to be dictated by role, not remuneration.
It's questionable whether Allen would be content taking a backseat in the backcourt, especially with the Celtics bringing in Jason Terry on a mid-level exception deal.
Allen is the consummate professional. Publically, he handled losing his starting spot to Avery Bradley in a dignified matter, but there was enough chatter from folks around the team about his displeasure with becoming a reserve that it raises questions about him accepting a diminished role moving forward. One of the single most important developments of last season was the unexpected development of Bradley. Making any move that blocks the growth of Bradley, who is coming off shoulder surgery, is counterproductive.
The NBA's all-time leading 3-point marksmen is committed to exploring other options; he's scheduled to take visits to both the Miami Heat and the Los Angeles Clippers this week, neither of which can offer as much green as the Green. The Celtics have a two-year, $12 million deal on the table. But the Clippers, who can pay up to $5 million a year, could offer Allen a starting role. Miami, which can squeeze Allen in with the tax-payer mid-level exception of $3 million per season, can't do that. It can provide an opportunity to knock down wide open jumpers and win another NBA title without having to fight Terry and Bradley for crunch-time minutes.
2. The famed Three-Year Plan is really the only one the Celtics have. While the extension of the championship window has a lot to do with the Celtics remarkable renaissance last season, it's also a reminder of the reality of Boston as an NBA destination. Big-name, in-their-prime NBA free agents or free-agents-to-be aren't walking through that door, even if it is to play for the most storied team in the game, to play under coach Doc Rivers and to play with Rajon Rondo.
The Celtics simply don't have the lure of Los Angeles, Miami, New York/Brooklyn, Dallas, or even Chicago. That's a reflection on the climate of the city (meteorologically and socially) and the misplaced priorities of certain members of this generation of NBA players. It's also why the Celtics are so eager to bring the band back together -- because there is little alternative.
3. Celtics first-round pick Jared Sullinger's something-to-prove attitude should fit right in on a team that has a trademark on defying conventional wisdom.
Sullinger was introduced to media for the first time Monday, and it was obvious he was irked by his precipitous drop in the draft and the characterization of him as an unathletic power forward with a bad back.
Remember that there were questions about Rob Gronkowski's balky back when the Patriots drafted him in 2010. Some teams took Gronk, who sat out the entire 2009 college football season after surgery for a bulging disc, off their board, the primary reason he was available to the Patriots in the second round. If Sullinger can have half the impact on the Celtics that Gronkowski has had on the Patriots then the Celtics have another first-round draft steal.
4. After watching the NBA Finals, I had to revise my point guard rankings and put Rondo ahead of Russell Westbrook.
Both had huge games against the Miami Heat in defeat -- Rondo scored 44 in an overtime loss and Westbrook had 43. However, the Heat had a harder time containing Rondo, who averaged 20.9 points and 11.9 assists while shooting nearly 49 percent from the floor in the conference finals, than it did Westbrook (27 points, 6.6 assists, 43.3 field goal percentage) because when Rondo got into the lane Miami didn't know if he was going to score or distribute.
That dual-threat created a quandary for the Heat that created offense for other Celtics.
Whereas Rondo got his teammates involved and got them easy baskets and open looks, Westbrook, a fearless scorer, failed to find a way to get teammate James Harden more involved in the Finals. Harden scored in single digits in three of the five games of the series and it would have been four if he hadn't tallied 11 points in garbage time of Game 5. The majority of that responsibility belongs to Harden, but part of a point guard's job is creating for others and piloting the team.
5. Kendrick Perkins's role as guardian of the rim has been overstated since his departure.
Another leftover Finals thought, Miami's victory once and for all dispelled the misguided notion that if Perkins had still been on the Celtics when they faced the Heat in the 2011 playoffs he would have prevented LeBron James and Dwyane Wade from getting to the rim.
Miami averaged 45.2 points per game in the paint in the Finals and 44.3 percent of their points came in the paint. Against the Celtics in the 2011 Eastern Conference semifinals, Miami scored 39.4 percent of its points in the paint and averaged 37.6 points per game in the paint. Perk blocked three blocks in the NBA Finals, or half as many as Wade.
When the games were on the line Perkins was most often on the pine, not clogging the lane. He didn't play at all in the fourth in three of the five Finals games and was on the court for 12 seconds in another (Game 2). Perk logged a total of 6 minutes and 11 seconds in the fourth quarter and scored two fourth-quarter points while pulling down one fourth-quarter rebound.
6. The NBA is a great league with a great product, but its offseason and free agency period has to be among the most convoluted and stultifying for fans to follow.
Deciphering federal tax code is easier reading than comprehending the esoteric CBA, a confusing maze of loopholes, exceptions and codicils. You practically need to be an expert in jurisprudence to know what your team can and can't do.
Few pro sports CBAs are simple documents, and they're all full of provisions and qualifiers. But the NBA's is the worst. Most fans of the NFL, NHL and major league baseball can quickly acquire at least a basic understanding of what their teams will and won't be able to do to augment their rosters via trades or free agency. What other sport needs a "trade machine" to tell you whether a deal can be made or not?
With last year's lockout, the league and the players missed a great opportunity to simplify and streamline the CBA to make player procurement easier for fans to follow. Perhaps, the NBA is just following the American way because one concept this great country embraces nearly as much as freedom is bureaucracy.
It hit me this week like a Louisville Slugger upside the head that the biggest winner of Roger Clemens's federal perjury trial besides the Rocket and his homespun, unctuous attorney Rusty Hardin was none other than Barry Lamar Bonds.
Clemens's acquittal Monday on all six charges of perjury, obstruction of Congress and making false statements was a yet another home run for baseball's ersatz all-time home run king, 762*, a number that has as much significance now as the count of calories in a bag of Cheetos.
You see Clemens and Bonds are now a package item when it comes to admission to the Hall of Fame. They comprise a two-for-one (Faustian) bargain of presumed performance-enhancing drug users. To permit one to enter the sacred halls of Cooperstown without the other would be the height of hypocrisy by Hall voters.
Just as Clemens and Bonds can't be separated from the era they played in, symbols of its dishonor, their Hall of Fame candidacies can't be separated from each other.
Bonds always had a more boorish and off-putting act than Clemens, who still has a lot of friends in this town, but they're both megalomaniacal, mendacious, and among the best to ever play the game. The differences are that one was a pitcher and one was a hitter, and that one is white and one is black. That's it.
In the wake of Clemens's exculpation, the sentiment has been that although few believe Clemens is telling the truth about not using PEDs there is now a path for him to be enshrined in the Hall of Fame. It won't be next year, when Clemens and Bonds are both on the ballot for the first time, and it might not be for a few years with names like Frank Thomas (2014), Pedro Martinez (2015), Randy Johnson (2015) and Ken Griffey Jr. (2016) coming on the ballot.
But unless voters decide to apply a universal just-say-no stance to any ostensible steroid or human growth hormone users the Hall call will happen for Clemens. And so it should for Bonds as well.
Bonds was also the focus of a federal trial. It was for his implication in the Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative. The San Francisco Giants slugger admitted to using BALCO substances called the "cream" and the "clear" but maintained he didn't know they were steroids.
He testified before a grand jury in 2003 that he thought the substances were a pain-relieving cream and flax seed oil -- a fib bigger than Bonds's humongous head. Bonds was convicted on a charge of obstruction of justice last year and sentenced to a whopping 30 days of home confinement.
Making the case that there is a difference between Clemens and Bonds when it comes to the Hall of Fame because one is a convicted felon and the other isn't is the splitting of intellectual hairs. It's voters passing off their responsibility to federal jurors.
Being a better liar, having a better lawyer or facing a less credible accuser doesn't make you a more deserving Hall of Famer.
I would put both Clemens and Bonds in the Hall of Fame. They're in a different class than Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro and Sammy Sosa. Those players would be Hall of Famers solely because of their admitted or test-revealed PED use.
McGwire had one Hall of Fame skill, power, and it was enhanced, perhaps created, by steroids. The old Big Mac would floss his teeth with the post-career version of McGwire.
PED peddler-turned-whistle-blower Jose Canseco played his first full season in Texas in 1993, a teammate of Palmeiro's. From that point, Palmeiro, who tested positive for steroids in 2005, averaged 36 homers per season and ended his career with more home runs than Ted Williams, Willie McCovey, Mickey Mantle and Reggie Jackson.
Sosa, who tested positive for a performance-enhancer in 2003, juiced himself and his bats to reach the sacred 600-home run plateau, ending up with more 60-homer seasons than anyone in baseball history, three. Before 1998 there had been two 60-homer seasons in the history of baseball.
Clemens didn't accumulate a record seven Cy Young awards or 354 wins or 4,672 strikeouts purely on Texas work ethic. Bonds, who had never hit 50 homers in a season, before he slugged a record 73 in 2001, is an arriviste heir to Henry Aaron's home run throne.
But both players have a timeline of greatness that predated PED accusations.
Clemens won 192 games, three Cy Young Awards, four earned run average titles, and an MVP award during his 13 seasons with the Red Sox. He finished second in the American League Cy Young in 1990, when he lead the majors with a 1.93 ERA. He led the American League and/or the majors in shutouts five times between 1987 and 1992.
Even if Dan Duquette was right and Clemens was in the twilight of his career in 1996, when he left Yawkey Way, a few more 10-win seasons and Clemens was Cooperstown-bound.
According to the book "Game of Shadows", it wasn't until after the 1998 home run fraud perpetrated by McGwire and Sosa that an envious Bonds began using steroids. At that point, he was already a three-time MVP, an eight-time Gold Glove winner and the only member of the 400-400 club (411 homers and 445 stolen bases).
I believe Clemens and Bonds cheated, but they cheated history more than their contemporaries, many of whom were also 'roiding up during a disgraceful era of baseball.
Before and after any chemical enhancement, Bonds and Clemens were among the greatest players of their generation. They've left voters with the unenviable task of parsing how much of their accomplishments were based on God-given ability and how much resulted from modern chemistry.
Drawing that distinction is a worthy pursuit, but separating Bonds and Clemens is not.
Life is full of what-ifs, and sports is no different.
It's hard to watch Kevin Durant in the NBA Finals and not wonder what if? What if instead of burying jumpers and opponents' hopes and unfurling his arms for finger rolls like a human measuring tape in Oklahoma City, Durant had taken his talents to Causeway Street?
It's the ultimate hoops hypothetical, one that is interesting to contemplate with Durant's Thunder facing the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals and the Celtics at an organizational crossroads. Would Boston have been better off with a decade-plus of Durant's singular talent or five (and counting) glorious, memorable, enjoyable years with the Big Three, whose basketball biological clocks have been ticking from the moment they were assembled.
Imagine wiping away the last five years of Boston basketball, all of it -- no Big Three, no Banner No. 17, no Ubuntu, no Kevin Garnett pounding his chest and the boards, no Ray Allen raining 3-pointers, no resurgent runs to the 2010 NBA Finals and 2012 Eastern Conference finals.
In exchange for forfeiting all of that you get the joy of watching Durant, already a three-time NBA scoring champion at the tender age of 23, author unadulterated greatness and evoke the zeal and zeitgeist of the Bird Era.
Durant and the Big Three are inexorably linked. It was losing out on the possibility of picking Durant (or Greg Oden) that gave rise to the Big Three in the summer of 2007.
The Celtics were an ignominious outfit during the 2006-2007 season, dropping a franchise-record 18 straight games. Pierce was unhappy and hurt, withering on the vine with the Celtics mired in a combination of immaturity and futility.
These Celtics were green in every sense of the word. If you've blocked out these dark days I have four words for you: Sebastian Telfair, point guard.
The one saving grace for the Celtics was that they finished with the second-worst record in the league and the second-best chance at landing the No. 1 overall pick.
Five years later, the choice is a no-brainer, and it's easy to lampoon Portland for picking Oden No. 1. But back then it was hotly-debated. (Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge has always been a bit nebulous on whether he would have selected Durant or Oden. I have it on good authority that it would have been Durant.)
No one knew that Oden was the Benjamin Button of NBA centers and a direct descendant of Sam Bowie. Durant was a frail, lithe, scoring machine from the University of Texas who couldn't bench 185 pounds.
The disappointment was palpable in the city the night of May 22, 2007 when deliverance became disappointment. The Celtics, who had a 19.9 percent chance of getting the No. 1 pick, instead ended up with the fifth pick. Portland, Seattle (now OKC) and Atlanta had the ping-pong balls bounce its way.
Ainge then went to Plan B, as in Big Three, acquiring Allen from Seattle (now OKC) and Garnett from Minnesota.
Some Celtics fans were incensed the team had parted with power forward Al Jefferson, a cross between Moses Malone and Kevin McHale in their minds, to acquire Garnett.
There are likely fans who feel the same way about swapping the Big Three era for a Durant epoch -- that it's hoops heresy.
Admittedly, it's difficult to take a sure-fire championship off the board, but Durant has a chance to win multiple titles.
He is as unguardable a player as there is in the league, a nearly 7-foot shooting guard/small forward who shoots over the top of smaller players with unlimited range and glides past those of equal height with ease. Not even LeBron James can stop him without fouling.
Durant has scored 36 and 32 points in the first two games of the Finals, and shot 57 percent from the field.
"KD is an unbelievable talent," said James. "I think we all know that, we all see that. He can make every shot on the floor."
I respect, admire and applaud the Big Three. They deserve all the parquet panegyrics they received this postseason for their resolve, resilience and unbreakable esprit de corps. But ... a 10-year title window is better than a three-turned-five-year one.
There was a mercenary quality to the Big Three. Pierce was always ours, but strangely wasn't embraced like prior great Celtics until Garnett and Allen arrived.
Garnett and Allen became true Celtics, but they belonged to someone else first. They were Hessians who raised the franchise from the depths and a banner to the rafters. We borrowed their greatness, forged elsewhere. KG belongs more to Minnesota than to us, and Allen's best years were spent in Milwaukee and Seattle.
The Celtics got a fast-food championship. There's nothing wrong with that, but it's not the same fan experience as what's happening in Oklahoma City.
Or what could have happened in Boston. The Celtics would have started out with a starting five of Durant, Jefferson, Rajon Rondo, Pierce and Perkins. That's three young stars in their primes, the best pure scorer in franchise history, and a rugged center/enforcer.
Instead of playing with a trigger-happy point guard in Russell Westbrook, Durant would have Rondo, the best table-setter this side of Martha Stewart. Instead of playing with a Pierce facsimile in James Harden, he would have the real thing. Instead of having no post presence, he would have had Jefferson.
The thought of Durant spotting up on the wing where Allen does now or taking alley-oop passes from Rondo or running the pick-and-roll with Jefferson is enough to elicit saliva.
Maybe Pierce would have asked out, not wanting to be part of another rebuilding effort. But one look at Durant's talent and he would have thought twice.
That's what the possibility of having Durant in green makes you do.
The Celtics' loss to the Miami Heat in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals Saturday night was the end of a dream, the end of the season and, in all likelihood, the end of an era, South Florida serving as the sepulchre for the union of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen.
The enduring legacy of the Big Three (or Core Four, with Rajon Rondo) goes beyond hanging Banner No. 17 in the rafters and always hanging tough in the face of adversity. It's restoring the phrase Celtic Pride to the organization's lexicon, making basketball relevant in Boston again/Boston once again relevant in basketball and finally, ushering in the era of NBA superfriends.
It was Boston's Big Three that begat, necessitated really, the Miami mercenaries that sent them home on Saturday. The fourth quarter of Game 7, when Miami's triumvirate outscored the Celtics', 28-7, was like watching a bulky laptop try to compete with an iPad. The Celtics had been supplanted by a newer, sleeker, more advanced model with a faster processor and more capability.
It was not a coincidence that during the 2008 Summer Olympics, less than two months after the Big Three won the NBA title, LeBron James, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh first hatched their plan to ultimately unite their talents in South Beach. The Heat's unholy trinity, formed two summers later, was in direct response to the Celtics.
Now, it's Boston's turn to formulate a response to the Heat's trio. The question that must be asked is how to do the Celtics, eliminated by Miami in back-to-back seasons, beat the Heat? Rebuild and hope to hit the free agent lottery in 2013 and/or 2014 or reload?
It's not standing pat and bringing the Big Three back intact for an encore. That's a nice notion, but not a winning one, so says NBA history.
The early 1970s New York Knicks were supplanted by the Tommy Heinsohn-coached (where do you think he got his ever-lasting ire for referees?) Celtics in 1974. The classic Big Three Celtics of Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish gave way to the Bad Boy Detroit Pistons in 1988. Those Pistons were preempted by Michael Jordan's Bulls in 1991. The Core Four Celtics usurped Chauncey Billups' Pistons, who had advanced to six straight Eastern Conference finals.
What all those clubs have in common is that they never bounced back to beat the teams that superseded them.
Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge said he plans to offer contracts to free agents Kevin Garnett, 36, and Ray Allen, who is slated for ankle surgery Wednesday and his 37th birthday next month.
If the Celtics can coax a resurgent Garnett, who averaged 19.2 points per game and 10.3 rebounds per game in the postseason, back in green for another season then the idea that the Celtics can attempt to merely retool San Antonio-style instead of rebuild has validity. The Celtics have no viable replacement at center for Garnett on the horizon and legitimate NBA big men are scarce.
If KG retires or decides to bang his head into the basket support and pound his chest elsewhere then dark days are ahead for the Parishioners of the Parquet, including a possible trade of Paul Pierce. In that Banner 18-razing scenario, Rajon Rondo really is, as hizzoner referred to him, "Hondo." It was John Havlicek who served as the bridge connecting the Russell-era Celtics and the title teams in the mid-70s.
There was a reason that Allen was red-eyed and reflective in his post-game presser. He has likely played his last game in green, the most dispensable of the Big Three at this point. The Celtics already have his successor in Avery Bradley, whose emergence was the most significant development of the season.
Allen, who will draw interest around the league, is not returning unless he takes a hometown discount in both contract value and length and a reduced role to match.
Funds for Allen would be better spent trying to upgrade elsewhere. Making a run at restricted free agent centers Roy Hibbert and JaVale McGee could be worthwhile, but RFAs on the level of Jason Thompson of Sacramento and J.J. Hickson of Portland might be more realistic big man options.
Brandon Bass worked out well, but overpaying to retain the power forward, who is likely to exercise his opt-out, would be regrettable, especially because for chunks of the playoffs coach Doc Rivers was loath to use him late in games.
More athleticism and depth are essential to the Celtics. A healthy Jeff Green who resembles his Oklahoma City animus would certainly help there. Green is technically a restricted free agent, but after the Celtics stuck with him through his heart ailment it's hard to believe he wouldn't reciprocate their loyalty.
Rondo proved this postseason he can be a go-to scorer when needed (see: Eastern Conference finals Game 2), but the Celtics still need more players who can create their own offense against Miami.
Ainge has always been infatuated with O.J. Mayo, a restricted free agent. He reportedly tried to send Allen to Memphis for Mayo at the trade deadline.
Mayo was a highly-hyped high school hoops prodigy who drew comparisons to LeBron, but has never lived up to that promise as a pro. Still, he can be a volume scorer -- he averaged 18 points per game his first two years in the league -- who can get his own shot. He is also a career 37.5 percent 3-point shooter.
Mayo has been marginalized in Memphis. In Boston, he'd still be coming off the bench, but with a green light to shoot.
The Celtics have also been linked to San Antonio RFA Danny Green, who besides having a perfect name is a strong defensive player who can stroke the three.
The Celtics also have a pair of first-round picks in a deep draft (No. 21 and No. 22) to play with.
Ainge has a lot of options to improve his team, but Year Six of a Three-Year Plan isn't really one of them.
As Kevin Garnett said in the guttural scream he let out after the Celtics won the NBA title four years ago, anything is possible -- especially when we're talking about these Celtics.
It's possible to have instant chemistry and win a championship. It's possible to go 27-27 to end the 2009-2010 regular season and then return to the NBA Finals as a No. 4 seed. It's possible to be six minutes away from another title and watch it evaporate in Los Angeles. It's possible to be down 2-0 to the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference finals and rally with three straight wins. It's possible to have the head-case Heat on the ropes and then submit your worst performance of the playoffs in the potential clincher on your home floor, getting blown out 98-79 to set the stage for a climactic Game 7 in South Florida.
And, yes, it's possible to take your talents and full suitcases -- "Pack for a week" was the practical and impudent message on the dry-erase board in the Celtics' locker room -- to South Beach and win a Game 7.
These Celtics are equal parts endearing and maddening, underestimated and overconfident, unflappable and indignant. They're a team at odds with the odds and constantly courting adversity.
"This team has been about adversity all year long," said captain Paul Pierce, who turned in a 4-for-18, 9-point dud in Game 6. "You know so this is not going to be nothing new. It's been tough for us all year long to get to the point that we want to be at. Why wouldn't it be tough now? Winning is hard. Getting to the Finals is hard, and this is as hard as it gets. I think we're prepared for it."
I can't tell you that the Celtics are going to win Game 7 in Miami. This series has been too unpredictable and too full of Maalox moments. Both teams have a right to feel like they should have won it already. The Celtics easily could have won Game 2 in Miami. The Heat was a Dwyane Wade 3-pointer away from stealing Game 4.
The Celtics have outplayed Miami for the bulk of the series. The Heat can point to the fact that they've twice had dominant, virtually wire-to-wire wins.
I will say with virtual certainty that the Celtics will submit a better effort in Game 7 than they did in Game 6 Thursday night at the Garden.
Win, lose, or for those of you watching in Maine, tie, in Game 7, the Celtics are going to do it huffing, hustling and scowling. There are horror-movie villains who have died easier than a group that has come to define Celtic Pride.
A silver lining from last night's loss is that the Heat still hasn't proven it can withstand the pressure of a rubber-glove tight, elimination game.
The 1972 presidential election was more contested than Game 6. The Celtics trailed by 13 at the half and never cut Miami's lead below double-digits in the second half.
The most damning stat of the playoffs for Miami is this one -- the Heat are 0-6 when trailing after three quarters. All the front-runner talk is not just a media creation. Whether Miami has the requite reservoir of mental toughness and execution under fire to succeed in the crucible of a close Game 7 is still open for debate.
What is not up for debate is that LeBron James had a signature moment in Game 6.
The NBA's resident Atlas, James had the weight of the basketball world on his shoulders, and he shrugged it off. LeBron was supposed to be a big-game choker and the Celtics were supposed to have a stranglehold on the series, but LBJ grabbed control of this game and never let go.
The Decision-maker missed his first shot, a 19-foot jumper, then hit his next 12, before finally misfiring again with seven seconds left in the half, when he attempted a long 3-pointer over Mickael Pietrus. In between he scored 30 points.
The biggest play James made though wasn't a field goal; it was a foul drawn. James gave Pierce a taste of his own medicine with 5:40 left in the second quarter, coaxing the captain into the air with an upfake and then launching into him. That was Pierce's third foul. It took him out of the game, both literally and figuratively.
Pierce never found the flow, shooting a ghastly 2 of 12 in the third quarter. At the end of three quarters, Pierce had as many field goals (three) as personal fouls.
James finished with 45 points and 15 rebounds, while dishing out 5 assists and a heaping helping of crow for his critics to dine on. It was the first time in his career that when his team faced elimination on the road it came away with a victory. James had been 0-4 in such situations, including a pair of losses at TD Garden, the latter of which closed the curtain on his Cleveland career and spurred his move to Miami. His teams are now 3-6 in elimination situations.
LeBron bucked conventional wisdom to extend his season. Sounds familiar, huh?
Sadly, it's possible that Thursday night was the last time we'll see Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo on the TD Garden court together, a cruel notion considering the effort they submitted was in no way representative of what the last five years of Celtic basketball have been about.
It's possible that they'll do in Miami what they've done so many times -- beat the odds and extend their championship window -- and we'll be watching them in Game 1 of the NBA Finals on Tuesday night in Oklahoma City.
At this point, anything really is possible for a defiant team that defies prognostication.
It only counted as one game, but Game 4 felt like four different games crammed into one.
There was the one where the Celtics made Miami's defense look like it was being played by a bunch of parking cones and opened up an 18-point lead, the one where Miami mounted a steady comeback while the Celtics steadily missed shots, the one where the teams swapped big shots and the lead in the final eight minutes of the fourth quarter, and the one that served as the coda, with both Paul Pierce and LeBron James, who hadn't fouled out in his previous 106 playoff games, stunningly relegated to spectators after fouling out in overtime.
"Words can't even describe the type of game it is," said Paul Pierce, who had a team-high 23 points, despite fouling out 38 seconds into OT.
He's right, but we'll try. It was bizarre, schizophrenic, dramatic, engrossing, nerve-wracking, heart-stopping. That last adjective is courtesy of Dwayne Wade, who missed 10 his first 12 shots and, fitting for this game, nearly sank the game-winner in overtime. Wade (20 points) had the Parishioners of the Parquet checking their pulse after his potential game-winning 3-pointer had a brief dalliance with the basket.
It was the type of game the Celtics had to win, and they did, 93-91, to even the Eastern Conference finals at two games a piece. It could also be a turning point in the series. If you're a Celtics fan you can look at this series two ways: one is that the Celtics could easily be up 3-1 after outplaying Miami in all but Game 1, and the other is that they could be staring at a 3-1 deficit today if Wade had delivered.
However, there is only one way to look at the shifting of the pressure in the series heading into Game 5. The Celtics, who returned home down 2-0 and facing the end of their season and an era, have put the burden of proof back on the Heat and James.
This series is not only a contrast of styles; it's a contrast of personalities. The Celtics are a team that thrives on doing things the hard way. The Heat is at its best when it can hit the basketball version of the Staples easy button.
It's no surprise that Miami dropped to 0-5 this postseason when trailing after three quarters.
If this series is determined by mental toughness then the Celtics have a clear edge. The Celtics had ample opportunity to bemoan their fate in Game 4, especially after Pierce fouled out 38 seconds into OT, and instead bared down.
"We're built for adversity," said Keyon Dooling. "We've gone through so much that our personality has taken on being a resilient, grind-it-out-type of team."
It's a trait the Celtics have had since the union of Kevin Garnett, Pierce and Ray Allen.
No one would describe the Heat that way. They're viewed as South Florida frontrunners, the team that thought it was entitled to not one, not two, not three, not four... titles.
Miami has to prove, as it did against the Indiana Pacers, that it can stop griping and complaining and start competing. Rajon Rondo's halftime verbal shot at the Heat rang true after the game, when James was asked about fouling out for only the fourth time in 796 NBA games (playoffs and regular season).
"I don’t foul out," said James. "If I’m going to foul out, that sixth foul, I wish I would have earned it and it had actually been a foul on me. Whatever."
James and the Heat have to demonstrate that they're not the rabbit-eared bunch that wilted and waned at times last year, including in the NBA Finals against the Dallas Mavericks.
There are already signs of cracks in Miami's mental armor. A team that shot 77.5 percent in the regular season from the free throw line is shooting 64.9 percent in this series. LeBron has missed 17 of 46 free throws in the series, including 14 in the last three games.
LeBron's baggage -- the accusations, some unfair, that's he lacks resiliency, fortitude and the indomitable will to win of Kobe or Jordan -- has become the Heat's basketball cross to bear. James is the most persecuted and picked apart great player in NBA history, and now that judgment is upon his entire team.
Like his headband, these criticisms press on James's head.
Today, few are recalling there would have been no overtime, no final act in the drama, if James hadn't sunk a clutch 3-pointer to tie the game at 89. The topic of discussion is that once again LeBron passed the ball and passed on an opportunity for a signature game-winning shot, skipping a pass to Udonis Haslem after he was double-teamed on the final possession of regulation.
The diffident label is one that LeBron can't escape. He won't be able to until he wraps his hands around the Larry O'Brien Trophy. He gets it from critics, fans and, in the most visceral display, opponents like Indiana reserve guard Lance Stephenson, who clasped his own neck following a missed James' free throw to express a sentiment that many have expressed about James -- he's not clutch.
That perception becoming reality was one of the Celtics' great hopes in this series. In order to get inside LeBron's brain, the Celtics had to give him and his team something to think about. Now, they have.
"We understand what it takes to win, but no one said it was easy," said James. "This is great. This is what the postseason is all about. It's about adversity and ups and downs. Like I said, you never get too high, and you never get too low. We look forward to Game 5."
That would sound more believable if it came out of the mouth of KG, Pierce, or Rondo. James could be sincere, or it could be false bravado to mask mounting anxiety.
We're about to find out.
It was fitting that Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett all did their post-game interviews in the same claustrophobic sliver of the Celtics locker room, a parcel of wood-paneled space between the door to the trainer's room and the post-game spread. They talked in the same manner that they had played -- with their backs against the wall.This was the last stand for the Core Four and everyone knew it. A loss to the NBA's South Beach nouveau riche and this Boston basketball revival was over. Nobody in the NBA comes back from down 3-0 and no team, no matter how gritty, is likely to accomplish it against a team with LeBron James and Dwyane Wade in its employ.
These Celtics have made a habit of beating the odds in spectacular fashion -- the 24-point comeback against the Lakers in Game 4 of the 2008 NBA Finals and the unexpected 2010 run to the NBA Finals the two best examples -- but they knew what they were up against this time.
A profound and profane Garnett called it "desperation basketball." Call it preservation basketball after the Celtics scored a 101-91 victory over Miami Friday night at TD Garden.
"We're a team that is very, very, very, very gritty," said Keyon Dooling. "We just continue to hang in there. We're confident. We came out and we treated this like it was a Game 7. We wanted to leave everything on the court."
The parquet panegyrics for this group were already being prepared. But as Pierce, Allen, Garnett and Rajon Rondo have done so many times over the last five years when pushed to the brink they dug in their heels.
Garnett had his 11th double-double of the postseason, finishing with 24 points, 11 rebounds and eight impressive knuckle push-ups after being fouled hard by Udonis Haslem. Pierce needed 21 shots to score 23 points, but was a perfect 7 for 7 from the free throw line. Rondo (21 points, 10 assists, 6 rebounds) continued his evolution into the Green's go-to guy, scoring 8 points in the fourth. Allen had another reassuring shooting night, going 4 for 8 for 10 points.
Sunday's Game 4 looms as another got-to-have-it game. Lose that one and it's likely that all is lost in the series. But the Celtics deserve at least a day to savor their triumph over the Heat, especially because there was the fear that Miami had already absorbed Boston's best shot in Game 2, an instant classic, highlighted by Rondo's 44-point tour de force and Miami's 47 free throw attempts.
Coach Doc Rivers tried to spin that deflating overtime defeat into a cause for confidence, pointing out what the Celtics could do better.
The first item on the checklist was getting the ball to Garnett, who shot just 6 of 18 in Game 2. KG was fed early and often. He scored three of the Celtics first six baskets and had 12 points on 5 of 6 shooting at the half.
Another area of home improvement for the Celtics was the bench. Dormant and dominated by Miami in the first two games, the Celtics' reserves answered the call of duty this time. Led by Dooling, who had five of his 7 points in the first quarter, the Boston reserves had eight points in the first quarter, or one more than they had in all of Game 2, when Miami's bench players outscored them, 25-7. More important was the defensive energy they displayed in helping to hold Miami to 27.8 percent shooting in the second quarter.
Rivers exhumed little-used forward Marquis Daniels with sublime results. The lithe Daniels sliced through the Miami defense with shrewd and opportunistic cuts and finished with 9 points. Daniels had played a total of seven minutes in the previous six games. He logged 7:24 in the first half Friday night, helping the Celtics build a 55-42 halftime lead.
"Marquis was phenomenal tonight. Keyon Dooling was phenomenal," said Rivers. "Every guy actually that came off the bench contributed for our basketball team. We needed it tonight."
The best news for Celtics fans was that scales of NBA justice seemed to tip in their favor. After two somewhat dubiously officiated games in Miami, the personal fouls in Game 3 were dead even at 24. James and Wade, who combined for 35 free throws in Game 2, took five in Game 3, all belonging to James (1-5). The duo had five fouls at halftime, one more than in all of Game 2.
Early on it looked like James was headed for an NBA Classics evening, dropping 16 in the first quarter. He finished with a mere 34. If it weren't for Bron-Bron's brilliance this game would have been a total blowout.
The Celtics led by 22 at the end of three quarters, but James made all manner of shots in the quarter to keep Miami from getting completely massacred. That proved important when the Heat used a 16-2 run to cut Boston's cushy lead to 91-82 with 5:41 to go. The Heat would creep as close as 95-87.
Many were wondering what Rondo would do for an encore after Game 2. It was not the stuff of Celtics lore, but rather a harmonious blending of facile facilitation and efficient offensive production. It was Rondo as maestro, instead of virtuoso.
Rondo is self-aware enough to realize now that he can no longer defer to the Big Three in the fourth quarter. It's his time and his team now.
"He's been timely in the scoring category all playoffs. He's had some big fourth quarters," Dooling said. "Obviously, we ask him to do a lot. He has to facilitate, make sure everybody gets off. We expect him to score his points. We expect him to rebound. We expect him to be a masterful play-caller. That's what happens when you pursue greatness."
The Celtics had heart. But they left TD Garden with something even more valuable.
"It's a series now. They have hope," said Miami forward Shane Battier.
Rajon Rondo is right. The Celtics do need to toughen up if they're going to be more than Ocean Drive roadkill for the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference finals.
Allowing a virtual layup line as the Celtics did in Game 1 -- Miami had 19 layups -- is utterly unacceptable.
But the answer is not coming out tonight in Game 2 and turning AmericanAirlines Arena into a mosh pit, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade into tackling dummies and Miami's slam dunks into body slams. That's not the Celtics' game, especially with designated enforcer Kendrick Perkins now applying his frontcourt frontier justice in Oklahoma City. Perk was quite the deterrent Tuesday night when the Thunder allowed 120 points to the Spurs, no?
The Celtics are a tough team, but their don't-mess-with-us mien hasn't been defined by physical prowess as much as mental fortitude. That's the type of toughness the Celtics need against the Heat, the kind that allows you to prevail in a hostile environment against the odds, the kind that plants a seed of doubt in the opponent's psyche.
These Celtics are tough because they don't quit. They're undeterred by age or injury. They're hyper-competitive and uber-stubborn. That's the toughness advantage that Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Rondo, Ray Allen and Co. are supposed to enjoy in this series.
It's also what was missing from Game 1 once Miami pulled away in the third quarter. The Celtics became stagnated and frustrated. Trailing by 11, Boston's first four possessions of the fourth quarter of Game 1 went: Keyon Dooling hopeless 3-pointer, Ray Allen missed 20-foot jumper, Brandon Bass brutal missed jumper and Mickael Pietrus 24-foot prayer.
The closest shot was Bass's 17-footer, and this was with both Garnett and Rondo on the floor.
Rather than heeding Rondo's call to send James and Wade to the floor, I'd rather see Rondo and Pierce go to the free throw line, something that never happened in Game 1.
Going Olivia Newton-John ("physical, physical") with the Heat is not a recipe for success for the Green. It was the Celtics who became distracted when faced with physical play in their last series. In Game 4 against the 76ers, they blew an 18-point third quarter lead in part because Evan Turner and his cohorts resorted to chippy tactics. Afterwards, coach Doc Rivers declared his team lost its composure.
A bruise and bang strategy has already failed against the Heat in these playoffs. The Indiana Pacers tried to rough up the Heat. All they did was awaken the two-headed monster of LeBron and D-Wade.
Indiana's Tyler Hansbrough did exactly what Rondo has endorsed, sending Wade to the deck with a hard foul in Game 5, drawing blood -- and the Heat's ire. It didn't slow down Wade, and the Heat punked the Pacers with a pair of retaliatory flagrant fouls via hitmen Udonis Haslem and Dexter Pittman, prodding Celtics legend and Indiana president Larry Bird to label his team "soft"
The approach completely backfired on the Pacers, as it inspired Miami.
The way to undermine the Heat and make its best players uncomfortable is not to create physical challenges but mental ones, which is what Indiana did by outplaying them and taking a 2-1 series lead.
The Heat are labeled as fragile front-runners, a team that wilts under the weight of impossible expectations, endless enmity and enormous egos. When confronted with adversity they become unhinged.
Who can forget Wade heatedly bickering with coach Erik Spoelstra in the huddle during the Heat's Game 3 loss to the Pacers? Remember Spoelstra announcing that Heat players were crying in the locker room after a loss to the Bulls last year? How about Wade caterwauling after that same defeat that "The world is better now because the Heat is losing."
Mental stress is much more damaging to the Heat than physical stress. LeBron, one of the three most physically imposing forces in the history of basketball along with Wilt Chamberlain and Shaquille O'Neal, is built to withstand such punishment. There are gymnasts who don't roll on the ground as much as Wade, who seems to complete every acrobatic drive to the hoop with a trip to the floor.
Beating up the Heat isn't the way to beat them. Making them feel the pressure of their unfulfilled promise and confront the idea of another season without a championship is.
The only way for the Celtics to do that is to have KG, Rondo and Pierce produce offensively because the best defense against Miami's relay-race run-outs is a great offense. It's harder to run on made baskets.
The Celtics have now played six playoff games against the hated Heat and lost five. The one game they won came last year, when the Celtics Core Four outscored Miami's unholy hoops trinity of James, Wade and Chris Bosh, who is sidelined with an abdominal injury.
For the Celtics to win against the Heat last year four had to be greater than three. It wasn't and they lost.
The math is different this year because of Bosh's absence and Allen's ankle injury, but the Celtics Three and a Half Men have to be greater than Miami's dynamic duo. LeBron (32 points) and Wade (22) outscored Rondo, Garnett and Pierce by a score of 54-51 in Game 1.
That can't happen.
The great fear, however, is that James is now immune to any type of psychological warfare from the Celtics. He laughed in KG's face in Game 1 when Garnett was taunting him.
Monday night was the ninth time that James has scored 30 or more points against the Celtics in the Big Three Era in 19 playoff games. James now has a winning record against the Celtics in playoff games -- 10-9. The Jedi mind tricks might no longer work.
The Celtics have to make the game tougher on James and Wade, but acting tough isn't the answer. Displaying their trademark mental toughness is.
The Celtics' Eastern Conference semifinals series with the Philadelphia 76ers has been a series of lost opportunities. Now, it has the potential to be a series that is just lost.Reaching Game 7 for the Green has been like mindlessly following the siren song of a GPS to an unfamiliar address. You don't really grasp how you got there, but all that matters is that you arrived. So the Celtics are playing an elimination game tomorrow at TD Garden instead of taking their talents to South Beach for Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals against the Miami Heat.
The Celtics are on the precipice of squandering a 3-2 series lead and an open invitation to reach the Eastern Conference final for the third time since 2008 after an 82-75 loss in Game 6 that was to basketball what City Hall Plaza is to urban aesthetics.
There are those who will point to the Celtics' uninspired first half of the regular season and their current collection of maladies (Avery Bradley's season-ending shoulder injury, Ray Allen's ankle and Paul Pierce's knee) and say the team has overachieved.
Painting the Celtics as the Little Team that Could makes for a nice story. However, in a postseason without Derrick Rose and Dwight Howard and with the Heat potentially sans their sole reliable big-man, Chris Bosh, bowing out to the upstart 76ers is not an acceptable denouement.
It simply is not, especially when you consider that the only reason this peculiar series is going the distance is because the Celtics have made goodwill donations to each of Philadelphia's wins.
In Game 2, the Celtics shot 23.5 percent in the third quarter. They basically ignored coach Doc Rivers' game plan and Kevin Garnett for three quarters. They battled back to take the lead late in a see-saw affair and still had a chance to tie trailing by 3 points with 12 seconds left. But Kevin Garnett was whistled for an illegal screen and Philly stole an 82-81 win.
In Game 4, the Celtics stormed out to a 14-0 lead against a Sixers team that had bowed its heads waiting for the guillotine to drop. They led by 18 in the third quarter. However, the Celtics shot just 11 of 35 in the second half and Rivers stuck with his small lineup too long in the fourth, as the Sixers escaped with a 92-83 win.
Game 6 saw an uninspired Celtics club deliver one of the worst-shooting performances of the New Big Three era -- 33 percent.
Further illustrating the point that the Celtics' losses in this series have been as much about their play as the 76ers is that Philadelphia's field goal percentage in its wins (41.2 percent) is lower than in its losses (43.8 percent). The 76ers have averaged 85.3 points per game in three victories and 89 points per game in three losses.
The 76ers have come up with some clutch shots and big plays from Andre Iguodala, Evan Turner and Jrue Holiday. But the degree of difficulty involved in this series has largely been of the Celtics own doing.
It's easy to peg the Celtics procrastinating personality as the culprit, but it's also tied to their on-court identity.
Rivers' oft-repeated mantra is it's a make-miss league. Viewed through the prism of his own jump-shooting team, it really is. In the Celtics' three wins in the series they've shot 49.1 percent from the floor. In three losses they've shot 39 percent.
The Celtics are a make-miss lot because they're a jump-shooting one. According to NBA.com stats, 26.6 percent of the Celtics' points in the playoffs have come on mid-range shots (defined as outside the paint, but inside the 3-point line). That's the highest percentage of any of the remaining playoff teams.
During the regular-season, the Celtics were tied (with the Sixers) for the NBA lead in percentage of points that came on mid-range shots (27.2 percent). In Boston's wins in this series they've averaged 44 points per game in the paint. In the losses, it dipped to 24.7.
The Celtics ranked second-to-last in the league in percentage of points in the paint (38.1 percent), only the New Jersey Nets scored a lower percentage of their points from inside the paint.
That's a tough way to make a living, especially with a team whose stars have a lot of mileage on their NBA odometers.
The player most adept at getting into the paint for the Celtics is point guard Rajon Rondo. That's why Rondo, a tepid performer in Game 6, will determine if this is it for the current Core Four.
The mere idea of the trio of Garnett, Pierce and Allen having their run ended by a team that is the eighth seed in the East, went 10-14 over its final 24 games, and has been blown off the court twice by the Celtics in this series, makes one want to bang their head against a basket support like KG does with his calvous dome.
Losing to LeBron James and Dwyane Wade in the conference final is an honorable demise for the New Big Three era -- anyone still think the Pacers would be a tougher opponent for the Celtics? -- but losing to the 76ers is a dishonorable and disappointing end.
Sorry, but like Pierce, that's a hard truth.
Six months ago, when the season tipped off on Christmas Day at Madison Square Garden, if any of the Parishioners of the Parquet had been told that they could sign up a binding contract that would ensure the Celtics' path to the Eastern Conference finals was the Atlanta Hawks and the 76ers they would have brought their own pen or signed in crimson if necessary.
Game 7 is a destination the Celtics shouldn't have arrived at, but they're taking the route they always do -- Hard Way.
They're a make-miss team in the ultimate make-miss game. Either they make it to the Eastern Conference final or they miss a golden opportunity.
During the Celtics' gratifying playoff run, Kevin Garnett has become a basketball version of David Ortiz. Counted out, Garnett has staged a remarkable revival, evoking some of his best days.
The Big Ticket and Big Papi are kindred souls of Boston sports. Both are 36 years old, both came to Boston from Minnesota, both have been doubted, dismissed and labeled diminished -- or worse -- as they approach the final straightaways of their distinguished careers.
Garnett is never going to average 24 points or 13.9 rebounds per game again, as he did during the 2003-04 season. Ortiz is never going to drive in 148 runs, as he did in 2005, or slug 54 home runs, as he did in 2006. But that's not the point.
The point is that both KG and Big Papi are performing at a level that few thought they would be able to reach at the advanced stages of their careers. They are defying aging with open defiance of both Father Time and those who had written their epitaphs.
They are also redefining what it means to be past one's prime, their excellence in lockstep with their contempt for their naysayers.
KG and Big Papi's renaissance fare was on display Monday night at roughly the same time, as they helped propel their teams to important victories, separated by 404 miles and a few channels on the cable box.
Garnett, who has hopped in the hoops Delorean to become the go-to scorer for the Celtics in the postseason, dropped 20 points on the Philadelphia 76ers on Monday evening, as the Celtics took a 3-2 series lead with a 101-85 victory that put them one win away from a place few thought they would be three months ago -- the Eastern Conference finals.
With the Red Sox trailing the first-place Baltimore Orioles, 5-2, in the sixth inning, Ortiz jump-started a Red Sox rally with a mammoth home run that sailed out of Camden Yards, landing on bordering Eutaw Street like an artillery shell with seams.
That was the spark for a three-run sixth that allowed the Sox to tie the game. The Red Sox went on to claim an 8-6 victory -- their 9th in 11 games -- to pull back to .500 for the first time since April 30. Suddenly, a season on the brink may be on the brink of turning the corner.
Perhaps, then it was fitting that after the big win in Baltimore, Ortiz channeled his basketball counterpart in vituperating his detractors.
Ortiz was asked by ESPNBoston's Gordon Edes about the team meeting he called on May 11, a season-altering assembly in which the law was reportedly laid down to the team's laggard starting pitchers. It came the same night that Josh Beckett was boxed around by the Cleveland Indians in the wake of his ill-timed tee time.
Ortiz, the longest-tenured Red Sox, was indignant at the notion that up until that point anyone questioned his leadership -- or anything else.
"I don't get no respect," he told Edes. "Not from the media. Not from the front office. What I do is never the right thing. It's always hiding, for somebody to find out."
It was hard to read those words and not think of Garnett's public censure of the media 11 days earlier, after he dropped 28 points and 14 rebounds in the clinching-game of the Celtics' first-round series with the Atlanta Hawks.
A rejuvenated KG admonished his doubters, the ones who thought such dominant performances by him were only found on YouTube or NBA Classics on NBA-TV.
"...It's almost like you guys are shocked," said KG. "Like this ain't what I do every day, like this ain't what I was made for. It does come off disrespectful at times. I put a lot of work and time into this, and there are certain levels I expect from myself.
"I take this very seriously, so you guys calling me old...you have no idea what you are doing when you say those 'old' comments. I appreciate that. I don't read your columns, but it gets back to me."
You're welcome, Kevin.
Both KG and Big Papi turn the slightest questioning of their ability into a personal affront. Despite the difference in their public demeanors they're both intensely proud men. It's part of what makes them great, and has allowed them to thumb their noses at athletic actuarial tables.
It's obvious from his comments that Ortiz is still embittered by the fact the Sox have resigned him to playing for his contract each year and the way he was treated in 2009 and 2010, when glacial starts had commentators dancing on his grave and NESN asking fans if he should still be the DH.
He's not only still with the Sox, but atop the American League leaderboard. Ortiz ranks in the top 10 in the American League in batting average (.333), runs batted in (30), home runs (10) and on-base percentage (.402). Only Josh Hamilton has a better AL slugging percentage than Ortiz's .616 and his 1.019 OPS is third-best in the AL.
The once-declining DH leads all of major league baseball in extra-base hits with 25, and since the start of the 2010 season, only five players have more extra-base hits.
Garnett has averaged 19.3 points and 10.5 rebounds this postseason. The rebounding total matches what he put up during the 2007-08 playoffs, when the Celtics won Banner No. 17. He has twice as many blocks this postseason (18) than he had all of last postseason, and is just two blocks shy of his total from the 2009-10 postseason. That was accomplished in 23 playoff games.
Usually, in sports if something is too good to be true, it turns out it's not. We've learned that disappointing lesson too often, too many times.
Hopefully, Garnett and Ortiz are age-old exceptions in every way because it's too enjoyable to watch them buck the odds and carry their teams.
Whenever the best-point-guards-in-the-NBA debate -- a polarizing topic that raises voices at barbershops, office cubicles and places of bibulousness while turning the closest of friends into intellectual combatants -- is conducted, the strongest point made against Rajon Rondo in comparison to his peers is his lack of consistent points.
Rondo's contemporaries like Chris Paul (the man he was nearly traded for), Deron Williams, Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook and Tony Parker not only have to deliver the ball, but deliver points on a nightly basis for their teams to succeed. It's non-negotiable that if those guys don't score consistently their teams can't win.
Playing with three future Hall of Famers, Rondo's scoring has been a luxury, not a necessity. His shortcomings as a shooter muted by the Celtics' acclaimed trio. Feeding both the ball to and the egos of the Big Three has been his primary job.
But that has changed in these playoffs, and it certainly changed Wednesday night in the Celtics' 107-91 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference semifinals. With Paul Pierce diminished by a sprained medial collateral ligament in his left knee, and Ray Allen playing on a gimpy ankle, suddenly it has become incumbent upon Rondo to score.
With Pierce previously struggling in the series and at the start of Game 3, missing his first six shots, the Celtics needed Rondo to pick up the scoring slack. He grabbed the rope and tied the 76ers in knots with daring drives to the basket that made you think they should change the name of H-O-R-S-E to R-O-N-D-O.
Rondo submitted 23 points, 14 assists, and 6 rebounds with just one turnover. He shot 9 of 16 from the field, and most impressive was a perfect 4 for 4 from his personal waterloo -- the free-throw line.
A restive Rondo confronted the challenging of scoring like he did that hapless camera man in Atlanta.
"Teams dictate their defense by trying to play off of Rondo," said Celtics coach Doc Rivers. "When Rondo becomes an offensive threat then Kevin [Garnett] becomes a better offensive player. Ray and Paul are better offensive players because you can't spend the game trying to help off him.
"I thought he really set the tone for us."
What we are witnessing is the evolution of Rondo. Still only 26, he is like a tree that is growing and sprouting branches in new directions.
In Game 3, he wasn't facilitating and occasionally overpassing. He was dictating and totally taking over. Rondo scored 13 of the Celtics' 28 first-quarter points on 5 of 8 shooting.The NBA's assist champion registered only one in the first -- and it was a good thing.
Rondo scored 11 straight points for the Celtics in the first quarter. That bought time for Pierce to awake from his slumber and slam home a pair of dunks late in the quarter in a 25-second span that ignited both the Captain (24 points and 12 boards) and the Celtics.
"Offensively, Rondo really carried a great part of the load, and [KG] did also," said Pierce.
Rondo doled out five assists in the first half to go along with 17 points, tying him with Garnett, who finished with a team-high 27 points, for the team lead at the half.
But then in the third quarter, when the Celtics pulled away, Rondo turned back into an adept distributor with six assists in the quarter. It was a masterful performance. The Celtics shot 65 percent in the second quarter, and then followed that up with a 62.5-percent third quarter (10 of 16).
Games like these are more impressive than the triple-doubles for Rondo. The triple-doubles play to his established strengths -- rebounding and passing. He's always going to fill up a stat sheet with numbers like it's a Dow Jones stock ticker.
At times in the past, Rondo has been a timid shooter, but in these playoffs he has shot the ball without hesitation and with conviction. He might have been too eager to score in the clutch at the end of Game 2, as he appeared to wave off an open Allen.
Using his man as a free safety is now perilous strategy. Rondo scored 20 or more points eight times during the 66-game regular season. He has done it three times in eight playoff games.
Those are games that give us a glimpse of the future, that show he can take the baton from the Big Three. They're the games that show that Rondo can be more than an All-Star point guard. He is capable of being the focal point of a franchise.
Triple-doubles are like shiny trinkets at an antiques store. They catch the eye, but they're not necessarily the most valuable items on the shelves.
Even in Game 1 of this series, the most significant part of Rondo's play wasn't his triple-double (13 points, 12 rebounds and 17 assists). It was that after going 3 of 9 in the first three quarters, Rondo didn't shy away from shots LeBron James-style. He shot 3 of 6 in the fourth quarter, canning two jumpers from 18-feet and another from 19-feet.
The two best games Rondo has played in the playoffs thus far weren't his two triple-doubles. They're the 20-point, 16-assist outing he had against the Atlanta Hawks in Game 4 of the first-round, a game in which six of the eight field goals he made came from 18-feet and beyond, and Wednesday night's tour de force.
Both Rondo and the Celtics had something to prove to the 76ers after a pair of one-point games on the parquet.
"Obviously we had two close games at home, and we wanted to show these guys and send a message tonight, and I think we did a pretty good job of that," said Rondo.
Rondo sent a message of his own, not just to Philadelphia, but to the rest of the league that the days of playing him as just a pass-first point guard have passed.
A team that is in this position because they heeded the words of Al Green at the trade deadline -- "Let's Stay Together" -- was singing a different tune Monday night. This time the Green's mien was best summed up by channeling Denny Green.
After the Philadelphia 76ers evened this throwback Eastern Conference semifinals series at a game a piece with an 82-81 victory Monday evening at TD Garden, Paul Pierce was asked if the youthful 76ers had taken the Celtics by surprise with their fortitude and fearlessness in the first two games, a pair of one-point affairs on the parquet.
The suggestion of the Celtics underestimating the Sixers had Pierce parroting the infamous words Green, then coach of the Arizona Cardinals, uttered after his team squandered a 23-3 second-half lead to Celtics coach Doc Rivers's beloved Chicago Bears on Monday Night Football in 2006.
"They are who we thought they are," said Pierce, who after a 2 for 9, 7-point performance last night is 5 for 20 in the series. "They are a tough defensive team. They grind it out defensively. They try to fast break, and they're not going to give in. They have a good coach over there who instills his mentality into his players. So, nothing surprising, they are what we expected them to be."
What they are is a team that isn't going to beat the Celtics in a seven-game series, unless Boston decides to make some charitable donations as they did in Game 2. That's not to discredit the 76ers, but this was a game played on their terms -- muddy, ugly, and without a lot of redeeming qualities until the denouement of the fourth quarter.
The danger is not that the 76ers are being underestimated by the Celtics. It's that we're overestimating them now heading into Wednesday's Game 3 in Philadelphia. The 76ers are balanced and very well-coached, but not better than the Celtics, even if Pierce is performing at 70 percent because of a sprained MCL in his left knee.
Two months ago if you had told Celtics fan that the path to the Eastern Conference final wouldn't include a matchup with either Chicago or Miami then they would have been doing cartwheels down Causeway Street. Much of the season was spent fussing over the Celtics escaping having to face Miami or Chicago in the first round.
The idea of dismantling the Big Three at the trade deadline was based in part on the predication that even if the Celtics won the Atlantic Division and ended up in the top four seeds it would be awfully difficult for the Celtics to beat both the Bulls and the Heat to reach a third NBA Final in five seasons.
They don't have to.
All that stands between Boston and the Eastern Conference final is eighth-seeded Philadelphia, a team that went 10-14 in its final 24 games. Yes, they upset a hollowed-out Chicago club in the first round, but the battered Bulls would have forced a decisive Game 7 on their own court if not for a situational basketball brain cramp by C.J. Watson.
If the Celtics blow this series to the upstart Sixers then -- sorry, Paul -- they're not the team we thought they were, plain and simple, injuries or not. (Ray Allen, bad ankle and all, still gave you 17 points in Game 2).
I know Philly won two of three from the Celtics in the regular season, but was anyone really predicting that the New Big Three era would end at the hands of the...76ers?
That doesn't mean this is going to be an easy series. Philadelphia is a gritty, grinding team. During the regular season, it set an NBA record for fewest turnovers per game (11.2). The Sixers were third in both opponent points per game (89.4) and field goal percentage (42.7).
The Sixers are so quick and athletic that at times is appears they derive their abbreviated nickname from how many guys they have on the court.
But the 76ers can only win the series if these games devolve into Philly Frenetic scrums. The Celtics don't need to oblige them by losing their basketball bearings, as they did Monday night.
The Green did what the Sixers couldn't in Game 1 -- stop Kevin Garnett.
Inexplicably, KG took just five shots through the first three quarters, or a third the total of Brandon Bass, who was tossing up shots like they were part of a 2-for-1 special at his local supermarket. Bass was 5 of 15 for the game, despite not playing the final 16:58 of the contest.
Boston shot 9 of 37 in the second and third quarters and trailed, 57-49, at the end of the third.
The Celtics finally went to Garnett in the fourth quarter, and he delivered, going 5 of 7 for 11 points -- as many as the entire team had in the third quarter. KG finished with 15 points (on 7 of 12 shooting), 12 rebounds, one costly illegal screen call and no real explanation for why he didn't get the ball more.
"I don't call the plays," said KG, adding he plays whatever role the team asks.
One of the men who determined the plays, Rivers, said his charges took the offensive blueprint for the game and threw it in the trash.
"We didn't go to him. It's plain and simple," said Rivers. "My thought: We never established the post. ...I really thought we started out the first four minutes of the game moving the ball, playing the right way, and then I thought, honestly, we chased shots as a group."
The Sixers aren't afraid of the Celtics. "We like playing against Boston. We feel like we match up well with them," said Jrue Holiday, who had a game-high 18 points.
The feeling should be mutual.
The 76ers remain who we thought they were, a team the Celtics should beat in a playoff series.
If the Celtics won ugly in Game 3 of their first-round playoff series with the Atlanta Hawks, then Rajon Rondo's triple-double was also more attractive on the stat sheet than on the parquet.
In his return to the series after an unbecoming ejection in Game 1 and resulting one-game suspension, Rondo had 17 points, 14 rebounds and 12 assists on Friday night. But he also shot 7 of 22 from the floor, missed makeable layups down the stretch, air-balled a floater late in the fourth quarter, and had six turnovers.
An acquaintance I watched Game 3 with dubbed it the least impressive triple-double he had ever seen. That's hoops hyperbole, and you know a guy is a great player when you're nitpicking his triple-doubles. But the point is that Rondo's 20th career triple-double was a labor of love and not a work of art.
Sunday night against the Hawks was another story, however. In a contest that wasn't much of one -- the Celtics led by as many as 37 points -- Rondo submitted a performance that in sheer numbers didn't equal what he accomplished on Friday night. But for basketball aesthetics it was superior, like comparing the Sistine Chapel to a paint-by-numbers piece.
Rondo sparked the Celtics to a 101-79 victory over Atlanta and a 3-1 series lead by playing what is known in Brazilian soccer as jogo bonito, or the beautiful game.
The Celtics' restive point guard turned the TD Garden floor into his personal canvas, painting a masterpiece with each pass or stroke of his jump shot. Yes, I said jumper. Rondo had 20 points, 16 assists, three rebounds and remarkably just one turnover. It was more impressive than the triple-double.
"Yeah, because it was needed more," said Celtics coach Doc Rivers, who could have set up a triage on his bench with all the injuries the Celtics were dealing with -- Mickael's Pietrus's hamstring, Avery Bradley's shoulder, Ray Allen's ankle, and the latest malady, Paul Pierce's left knee.
Basketball isn't all about cold, hard stats. It can be as much performance art as it is athletic endeavor. But if you crave statistical evidence for why this was a better game for Rondo let's start with his 20 points.
Of Rondo's eight made field goals in the game, six of them came on jump shots, none closer than 18 feet. He had two lay-ups, the second of which was a dazzling display of legerdemain. Late in the third quarter, Rondo drove the lane, faked a wrap-around behind the back pass and then pulled the ball back and dropped it in as the Hawks parted like the Red Sea.
"Every day he does something to impress me on the basketball court," said teammate and Rondo whisperer Keyon Dooling. "I really like when he looks at the rim. Teams are going to be going under on him a lot. If he is hitting that jump shot there is not way you can guard him."
By now we're used to Rondo racking up assists like a North End resident racks up parking tickets, but he set the tone for the game with his distribution of the ball. He had 13 assists and no turnovers in the first half. His lone turnover came at 10:43 of the fourth quarter, when he went for a jump pass and faked out his teammates.
It wasn't a bad pass nor a bad decision. A 16-to-1 turnover ratio in an NBA playoff game is nothing short of brilliant. Rondo once had a 19-0 ratio in a playoff game, the Celtics' triple-overtime loss to the Chicago Bulls in Game 6 of a 2009 first-round series, but he shot 4 of 17 in that game.
The most obvious difference between Games 3 and 4 for Rondo was rebounding. However, there weren't many rebounds to be had, in large part due to Rondo's orchestration of the Boston offense. The Celtics shot 66 percent in the first quarter, 63.6 percent at the half and were shooting 60 percent at the end of three quarters.
Coming into the game, Boston had shot just 40.6 percent from the floor in the series.
I'll take this Rondo over the Game 3 triple-double Rondo any day of the week. If Rondo plays like he did Sunday night then the Celtics can beat the Miami Heat or anyone else in their postseason path.
Perhaps the problem with Rondo is that we try to qualify and quantify him, when you really can't do either. You can't compare him to his All-Star contemporaries at point guard like Chris Paul, Deron Williams or Derrick Rose because his style of play doesn't fit neatly in between the lines.
Rondo is one of the most unique players in the game. Unique is an over-used word. But he is truly one of a kind.
There is no one else in the league who plays like the Celtics' sui generis floor general. There are two All-Star players in the NBA who have a game unmatched by anyone else lacing them up in the league -- Rondo and LeBron James.
James is unique because of his ability to handle the ball and pass like a little man despite being the size of an NFL tight end. Rondo is unique because of his preternatural passing ability and ability to rebound the basketball like a man eight inches taller.
"He is incredible. We get to see him every day. It's still impressive even though you see it every day," said Dooling. "The way he sees the game is totally different. He really is a detail-oriented person. Guys just love to play with him. When he's out our guys don't get their normal shots. He can make every pass from every angle. He is a pretty special passer."
The Celtics won pretty and are now sitting pretty in their playoff series with the Hawks and in the Eastern Conference in general.
No more winning ugly, as both Rondo and the Celtics played beautifully.
...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.