Thursday, June 12, 2008

Celtics' Game 4 comeback the front-page NBA story


There will be a time for the questions, for the conspiracy theorists to voice their ludicrous theories.

That time could begin as soon as Monday morning. And a thorough inspection of the NBA's referees is in need -- don't get me wrong.

But Thursday night belonged to L.A. and Boston, the Lakers and Celtics, the best rivalry in NBA history. And Game 4 lived up to that rivalry's past heroics.

A game might have been altered in 2002, but the refs weren't even noticed on Thursday, which is what should be the case every time two teams step foot on the hardwood.

There was no doubt -- none whatsoever -- as to who decided Boston's thrilling, unbelievable, remarkable, inspirational 97-91 comeback victory.

Let me start with Paul Pierce, the unquestioned leader of the Celtics. At halftime, trailing 58-40, Pierce asked his coach, Doc Rivers, to let him guard the NBA's most valuable player.

Rivers agreed to put Pierce on Kobe Bryant, and No. 34 in green responded with an effort that left him out of breath at the finish. His third-quarter block of Bryant was one of the premier defensive plays of these two-month-long playoffs.

Let's talk about Ray Allen. Two series ago, he had the confidence of a science club student on the dance floor. But in the waning seconds, it was Allen who waved off a screening Kevin Garnett, blew by Sasha Vujacic and finished a game-icing layup with his off hand.

And that was after playing the entire game. He must work out.

I have to talk about James Posey, because all he does is making winning plays. The average NBA fan wouldn't recognize this Xavier graduate on the street, but any Musketeers fan has to be proud of what he's accomplished in the NBA. Shaquille O'Neal has said that Miami couldn't have won the 2006 championship without him, and this series would be knotted 2-2 if not for Posey's shooting touch.

Playing with five fouls the final 14-plus minutes, Posey hit one big 3-pointer after another, including a falling-into-celebrity-row swish that gave Boston a 92-87 lead. It was the performance of a John Paxson, a Robert Horry -- 18 huge points off the bench.

And I'd be remiss not to mention Eddie House, who at times has been relegated to the Celtics bench for entire playoff games, forced to sit with his minute kid, who never misses a big game and serves as a refreshingly non-scantily-clad cheerleader. With Rajon Rondo both hurting and unable to knock down an outside shot, Rivers smartly went to a lineup full of shooters.

It was the coaching move of the series, and the Lakers had no answer for a Boston five featuring Pierce, Allen, Posey and House to go with the jump-shooting big man Garnett. One of the toughest things about completing a big comeback on the road is getting the "over-the-hump" basket, the shot that gives you the lead. House delivered inside the Staples Center, nailing a contested, long two-pointer that put the Celtics up for good.

That was just the climatic moment of a great night for House, who proved that even little, short guys with minimal abilities can make a huge difference on the biggest stage. House finished with 11 big points.

"We just needed guards that they had to stay with," Rivers said, mentioning how good of a help defender Bryant is when Rondo's on the floor.

Trudat, coach.

There is nothing shady, nothing nebulous about what happened in L.A. on this night -- Boston completed arguably the greatest comeback in an NBA Finals game, overcoming a 24-point first-half deficit and an 18-point hole at halftime.

Throughout the day, there was talk about Tim Donaghy. Was he telling the truth when he said two games -- most glaringly Game 6 of the 2002 Western Conference finals, a Lakers win over Sacramento -- were fixed by officials taking orders from the NBA's front office?

Refs were interviewed throughout the day, including ex-ref Ted Bernhardt, who worked the game (and denied any wrongdoing outside of calling a poor game). Commissioner David Stern held another press conference. A media member was asked less than 2 hours before game time what story was garnering more attention, Game 4 or the fixing scandle: He gave the scandal a 55-45 percent edge.

But then the game began. A great first half by the Lakers, spurred by the resurgance of the mercurial Lamar Odom, followed by the comeback nobody saw coming. And any basketball fan, anyone who follows the NBA on a consistent basis, knew that the league is ultimately going to be OK.

Whatever happened six years ago wasn't right. I watched the game. Yes, the Kings got robbed by the refs. They should have swept the Nets in the Finals instead of the Lakers.

And, yes, Dick Bevetta probably needs to retire. He's was one of the other refs to call that game, and, apparently, he has been the basis of most questions asked to other refs and ex-refs. He's 68, he misses calls, and his presence at future games would only raise questions -- and I'm not referring to him unabashedly agreeing to race Charles Barkley at the All-Star Game in 2007 (a race that he somehow lost).

But the current NBA, the 2008 NBA, is just fine. Anyone who saw the product on the court Thursday night can't disagree. It was 10 guys playing their hearts out to win a championship, including the guys in gold. Phil Jackson didn't rip his team afterward. Forget that the Lakers had been outscored 57-33 in the second half and shot just 33 percent from the floor. He was well aware of the Celtics' impact in causing those numbers.

"I didn't think we got so lacadasical," the Zen Master said.

Rather, the Celtics played with an urgency that belied their situation. Many NBA haters say that the league's too predictable, the games easy to call. That theory was thrown under the Hummer in Game 4. The Celtics could have laid down, taken their beating and put all their marbles into a pivotal Game 5.

But then Pierce asked Rivers for the assignment, Pierce made a near-impossible layup for a three-point play, Pierce blocked Bryant's shot, and the comeback was on. It was a heroic performance by the Celtics more than a choke job by the Lakers.

"It was about going out there and competing," Pierce said simply.

Yep, nothing complicated about that. And after the game, after giving his postgame interview, there was no hidden meaning behind Pierce's joyous shouts as he walked down the tunnel, a 3-1 series lead in hand.

It's too bad for the NBA that this is almost over, that very soon there will be no more games until late October.

Because then, appropriately, the focus will shift entirely to the nasty mess that Donaghy has created. And you can only guess as to what new breaking news will hit during the dog days of summer.

But Stern has this going for him -- the NBA is full of great teams, great players and some pretty good coaches, too.

And when games are in session -- and special moments like the Celtics' comeback occur -- they take center stage.

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