Time Warp: 2002 Playoffs by Bent
When a Celtics fan looks back, they need to go back as far as the Eighties for a truly fulfilling trip down memory lane. Older fans might even look back to the Havlicek and Cowans era or the Russell and Cousy era. For those of you who have purchased their "Complete History of the Boston Celtics" DVD, it's all there for you to reminisce about.
However, I want to take a short trip back only three years. This team is one that is often still talked about, but there are still many myths and misconceptions surrounding it. This was before Ainge took over the franchise and had everyone arguing over whether he was doing a good job or hell-bent on destroying the team, before Al Jefferson and Doc Rivers were even relevant to Boston sports fans.
The Celtics were a team on the rise. For the first time since 1994 (when they were 35-47 and qualified by virtue of the Eastern Conference being absolutely appalling), they were in the playoffs, this time in comfortable fashion. Riding their two all-stars Paul Pierce and Antoine Walker, who were at last surrounded by what Peter May would later term "battle-tested veterans", the Celtics won on the road, won overtime games, came from behind and won. In the end, they won enough that they were the third seed in the East.
Boston had made a mid-season trade, shipping promising rookie Joe Johnson (not the last promising rookie to have seen his playing time dwindle under Jim O'Brien) along with Milt Palacio and Randy Brown (who also rarely played) for two solid veterans in Rodney Rogers and Tony Delk. Many would argue now that the trade shouldn't have been made, but the short-term benefit was plain to see (principally that Jim O'Brien was incapable of having any faith in young players, so these were guys that would actually contribute and has started to do so as the postseason was set to begin).
The Celtics relied heavily on the three point shot and isolation plays for Pierce and Walker. They would come to rely on these facets of the offense even more the following year, and once teams realised there was no inside game, they became frustratingly easy to stop.
Defensively, Dick Harter's system enabled the Celtics to play with energy and keep the opposition's score low enough for their no-frills offense to have a chance to outscore them. Again, teams would soon figure out this was easy to beat, if you moved the ball quickly.
Going into their series with the 76ers, Pierce and Walker had never played before in the postseason. They took to playoff basketball like ducks to water and the Celtics moved into a 2-0 series lead. Game one featured an energetic spark-plug performance from Walter McCarty, who had two big follow slams (believe it or not, two offensive rebounds in the same game) and also hit a half-court shot. He would fulfil a similar spark-plug role in the Pacers series in 2003, but later, as an everyday player, was exposed as too much of a lightweight and a dreadful rebounder. However, in this series, he helped the Celtics get off to a good start.
Boston had chances to win games 3 and 4, but the series would return back to Boston for a deciding game five. Despite 29 first half points from Pierce (who would end up with 46) and some useful minutes off the bench from Mark Blount (Myth # 1 - Blount was NOT a big part of the team that reached the Eastern Conference Finals - this was basically the only time he played), the Sixers were able to keep it close. In the third, Pierce went quiet, but Walker stepped up and the Celtics went to the fourth quarter up by 10.
The fourth quarter was nothing short of sensational. This must have been what Jim O'Brien (or even Rick Pitino) envisioned when "Obie-ball" was created. Three after three after three rained down, as the Celtics ultimately won in an absolute blow-out in front of an ecstatic Fleetcenter crowd. Especially memorable were the comments of the color commentator (one Danny Ainge) who kept trying to say "they can't keep shooting threes, they aren't going to keep going in", only for the next one to always drop, including an improbable off-balance bank shot by Antoine Walker in front of the Philly bench.
The Eastern Conference Semi-Finals series - ultimately won by the Celtics 4-1 over Detroit - was most notable for the record breaking game three. The Celtics would eventually win 66-64 in what was called one of the worst games ever. (That's Myth # 2 - This was actually a GREAT game with a great finish). Perpetuators of this myth must have seen the score and decided not to watch it. I haven't seen a Celtics game with such wall-to-wall intensity since the Eighties. Neither team could make any semblance of a run and every basket really counted. It should have been worse - the score was only 58-56 with two minutes to go.
It was one of those games where scores were so had to come by, that all the ones down the stretch were memorable (the play of the game was a dribble move by Pierce around Ben Wallace for a clutch runner). That's the same reason I prefer the Superbowl to be a low-scoring game. After all, nobody remembers anything from when Dallas beat Buffalo 52-17 (except when Leon Lett dropped the ball).
In the end, PP hit two at the line to put Boston up by 4, with six seconds to go. Then, in a moment of down-the-stretch stupidity to rival Pierce's recent blunder, Kenny Anderson fouled Atkins shooting a three with three seconds left. If he had just stood still or walked off court, the game was basically over, but in the end, after the Pistons made two and then missed the third on purpose, the C's had to sweat out an official's review over the last second bank-shot three that Jerry Stackhouse had released just a split-second after the buzzer and that would have won the game.
The rest of the series was a formality and everyone knows what happened next. At least, they think they do. After the Celtics earned a split in the first two games in New Jersey (aided by an incredible series of blocked shots by Tony Battie in game two, as he blocked about five in ten minutes and altered several others), the teams headed back to Boston for game three and their unbelievable 25 point fourth-quarter comeback win.
Myth # 3 is the biggest myth of all. This was NOT a great game. In fact it was the worst game of the series. The Celtics were terrible. If you think they came out with no energy in game seven of the Pacers series, watch this one again. I have never shouted so much at my TV set. I couldn't believe how badly they collapsed. The Nets were walking in easy baskets and the Celtics were embarrassed. In the fourth quarter, I didn't enjoy the comeback at all. My attitude was "why have they waited until it was too late to start playing?" It was only when they had actually won that I could be snapped out of my mood.
Many Celtics fans will have switched off long before the comeback even got going. Perhaps these are the ones who talk about this game like it was one of the great games of all-time.
I can't undermine the incredible achievement of coming back from such a deficit, and it was amazing to end up with the win, but the first three quarters contained some of the worse basketball you will ever see and even the fourth quarter (apart from the first few minutes when Pierce drove to the basket for five straight lay-ups) was hardly beautiful basketball, unless you like watching Rodney Rogers and Antoine Walker shoot countless free throws. Even the key hoop of the game, off a Kenny Anderson "steal" (abysmal Kerry Kittles pass into the backcourt), was only goal-tending.
It was almost as if the Nets had figured out the Celtics' system and the Celtics stopped believing in it and decided to win the game on the basis of their individual talent alone. Walker got a lot of credit for his speech that got Paul playing, but you have to ask, what was Jim O'Brien's contribution to that time out? He had seemingly run out of ideas.
It was about that time that Antoine Walker conceded that he and Pierce were a one-two punch but Paul was "the number one guy". Of course, he was basically correct, but this shift from his original position that they were "double trouble" and that either one of them could lead the team on any given night thrust a level of responsibility onto Pierce that he was probably not ready for.
"Individual Talent alone" was not enough to get the Celtics another win in the Nets series as they went down 4-2 (although the other two games were close).
The following year, Pierce was leading the team the way Antoine used to. Volume scoring was the order of the day, turnovers were on the increase and by the time it became apparent that the Nets had really unlocked the "secrets" of Boston's one-dimensional offense and their swiss cheese defense, Ainge was on his way in and Antoine was on his way out.
Pierce battled through the upheaval and turmoil of two head coaching and countless playing staff changes and seemed to be starting to get used to being the main man surrounded by a plethora of second-tier talent. Percentages and efficiency were up, turnovers were down and the team was starting to win again. Antoine's return looks to have got Pierce back to that comfort zone where he doesn't need to feel isolated as the sole bearer of responsibility and this certainly had a positive effect on his game (and he looked a lot happier) in the early stages. However, it remains to be seen whether this will also signify a return to his old ways.
So there you have it. The 2002 playoffs were great in a way, because this town needed to see postseason action again and Pierce, Walker and Co. needed that experience. However, it also seems to represent a benchmark of sorts and time will tell whether, for Pierce in particular, this will prove to be a positive experience that will help his growth in future years.