Going quietly into the offseason - Gabe Kahn
In the do or die match, the Celtics came out of the locker room and demonstrated that they preferred to pull the plug on their season instead of fighting until the bitter end. Unfortunately, they discovered that being mauled in their own building and booed into the locker room is a pretty depressing way to start their summer. A team that appeared to show so much heart since Antoine Walker returned in February displayed to everyone that in the desire department, they are sorely lacking.
This series is going to leave a lot of bad tastes in people's mouths. For starters, this really doesn't reflect well on coach Doc Rivers. Rivers has now been to the playoffs four separate times as a head coach and none of those times has he experienced the pleasure of advancing to the second round. By almost all accounts, the man was outfoxed by his counterpart, Rick Carlisle, barely making any adjustments after the Pacers figured out how to slow down the Celtics in game 2. He was forced into his small lineup in game 4 when Walker was suspended, yet rarely went back to it in the next three games. And really, for a guy that makes his money on motivation, how can he look in the mirror given how flat his players came out on Saturday night?
Ainge has to be wondering if he has the right man at the helm of his ship given Rivers' postseason track record. Is Rivers a regular season coach that is unable to bring his teams to the next level come playoff time? We all saw what happened when the game was slowed down into half court sets, stunting the running system the Celtics had been operating in all season: The Celtics didn't have a clue what to do. This is why basketball people everywhere love running in theory, but not in practice. While it may work during the regular season, it just doesn't cut mustard when you're playing in a seven-game series. Rivers' boys couldn't even grasp the concept, and he has to accept some responsibility for that.
What about the controversial Walker? Two years ago, we wondered whether Antoine had played his final game in Celtic Green and the answer was yes, then no. If Ainge lets him go for good this time, he might have fewer fans calling for his head than last time, given the way Antoine's play often killed whatever rhythm the team had. His absence in game 4 made the rest of the team look far more fluid and while he ultimately bailed his club out of game 6, are fans going to remember that as much as his very questionable shot selection and the numerous times he missed open players on the break. You never know what might happen, though. Walker's value plummeted so far in the last month that the Celtics might easily be able to afford him, now. The question is, of course, would they want him if he came for free?
More than anything else, Paul Pierce's reputation has taken the biggest hit. Fair or not, people are now going to remember that Pierce had a meltdown and the Celtics lost a playoff series because of it. Is it true? No, and his team didn't even lose a game because of what was the single worst decision in franchise history. Nevertheless, the public generally forgets all but the end result. Buckner's Sox were tied, not ahead, when he made his fateful error. The Bulls won the game even after Scottie Pippen took himself out for not getting to take the final shot. And Ricky's teammates were screaming at him to shoot at his own basket so he could get his triple double. History just isn't all that good with the details.
Finally, the fans need to grow up a bit, too. I don't want to hear another word about hard fouls and flopping when it comes to the Pacers. That's how playoff basketball is at its best, and it's the way it always has been. The Celtics' problem wasn't that Indiana was doing some serious acting in this series; it was that the Celtics' weren't. Jamaal Tinsley did, in fact, give Pierce a hard foul and subsequently fall down as if he were being trampled by an elephant when #34 reacted, but that gave his team a chance to win. He did what he had to do. The Glory Day Celtics certainly lived by this philosophy. In his day, Ainge probably could have been nominated for an Oscar or two from some of his own work.
As for the physical play, if you thought that was bad, check out Classic Sports sometime when they play the old Knicks/Bulls or Pistons/Bulls games. Now those games were physical and less than half of the shtick they pulled would have been allowed today. Giving hard, tough fouls is what you do to get in the other guys' minds in the playoffs. The Pacers understood that and the Celtics did not. It might not seem right, but it was a prime example of why Indiana triumphed in the end: Even if they weren't as talented, they sure were smarter.
That's a cold, hard reality for the Celtics to take to the golf courses this summer.