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Before the media trampled over one another in order to get the first story out about where LeBron might end up, before his teammates disappeared in the fourth quarter, and before Kevin Garnett’s five-rebound fourth quarter put the finishing touches on the Cavaliers, for the second time in three years, unceremoniously escorting the Cavs from the playoffs, LeBron James hit a three-pointer. With less than ten minutes left, the 25-foot dagger from James brought the Cavs within four points, and noticeably quieted a raucous Garden crowd. Not again.
And then, with no further adieu, it (the game, the series, and potentially James’s career as hometown idol) was over. ESPN’s superb commentary team of Mike Breen, Marc Jackson, and Jeff Van Gundy laid into a Cleveland team that seemingly laid down in the final minutes of a game that was always closer than the score indicated. While Celtics fans celebrated a 22-point, 12-rebound vintage KG performance, the continued blossoming of Rajon Rondo into the East’s best point guard, and a ticket to Orlando, Cavs faithful were, for the fourth straight season, left to ponder what happened.
Never was the coaching disparity in this series more obvious than in the opening minutes of Game 6. With his team’s back against the wall, Cleveland coach Mike Brown opted for the gimmicky play of putting Shaquille O’Neal on Garnett, and Antawn Jamison on Kendrick Perkins. Garnett started the game 5-for-5, and was rarely challenged on step-back jumpers by the lumbering O’Neal, who even in his athletic prime had trouble playing outside of the paint. Doc Rivers is no Phil Jackson, Celts fans will agree, but this series, and Game 6 in particular, showed why Doc is a fine championship-caliber coach when it comes to X’s and O’s, while Mike Brown is a poor man’s Tom Thibodeau.
Except for the second quarter, during which the C’s had two separate stretches of more than four minutes during which they recorded no field goals, the game always seemed to be in Boston’s control. That’s not to say that fans weren’t tenative, playing against the universe’s best player in James, or that it seemed inevitable the Celtics would win. But after the Cavs surrendered the lead with less than nine minutes left in the second half, they were forced into playing catchup against an inveterate Boston team, one that, despite being the worst 3rd quarter team in the NBA during the regular season, was determined to beat the Cavs with energy and defense. In the stretch where the Cavs went from up four to down ten, LeBron James (whose uninspired play in Game 5 was mercilessly panned by pundits) took only three shots: an ugly 3-point miss, a driving shot in the lane that caught only rim, and a beautiful and-1 that could’ve stolen some momentum, but was quickly answered by a 3-pointer from whatever impostor stole Rasheed Wallace’s jersey and played a superb game last night.
Mike Brown is a billion percent overmatched as an NBA coach, and when the game is on the line in the playoffs, it shows. He got worked by Stan Van Gundy last year, and this year’s team again lacked the mental toughness to win in the playoffs. He’s playing checkers while the other coaches are playing chess, and after this massive disappointment, it seems that the only way he remains head coach in Cleveland is if LeBron departs for greener pastures. The bizarre decision to put O’Neal on KG, as mentioned before, allowed The Kid, who had been heating up since Game 1, to get a shooting rhythm and extra confidence. With this extra swagger, KG ran the floor, grabbed huge rebounds, and played great defense. Is there a direct cause-and-effect to his having to expand very little offensive energy against Shaq? No, but the O’Neal experiment certainly didn’t work, and it felt exactly like the type of desperate maneuver that a coach in over his head would try in an elimination game.
And while it’s unfair to put a team’s effort entirely on a coach, that is why millions of dollars are devoted to these guys. They’re supposed to be leaders of men, motivators who inspire supreme athletes to treat this game, the one in front of them, as if it were the last they’ll ever play. Not once in Game 6 did any Cavalier other than LeBron seem to notice that they’d be back home golfing if they didn’t win. The body language, as noted by the ESPN crew, was terrible, especially in the second-half. The Cavs were going through the motions. And the blame for that has to fall on Mike Brown. Is it his fault that Mo Williams and Antawn Jamison don’t understand the basic tenets of defense, or that Anderson Varejao never showed up for this series? Maybe not, but on a team that, after trading for Jamison, was the clear-cut favorite to win the NBA championship, it’s unacceptable to have such a disparity between talent and effort.
The key play of the game was a hard-fought rebound by Rasheed Wallace. No, do not just adjust your monitor, that’s right. The same Rasheed Wallace who has a keg instead of a six-pack. The same Rasheed Wallace whose only highlight on Sportscenter was when he scored on his own basket. And yes, the same Rasheed Wallace who missed two consecutive shots that he shouldn’t have taken in the first place, allowing the Cavs to get within eight points with 2:58 left. But even though he rarely “gets it” on the court, Sheed understood what none of the Cavs did: that the fourth quarter of a possible elimination game was no time to be tenative. Say what you will about Sheed (he’s fat, he has a terrible attitude, he doesn’t understand that he’s most valuable on offense on the block, I want to gouge out my eyes because of the insane deal we signed him to…okay I’d better stop and do some breathing exercises) but he wasn’t standing around looking for Rajon Rondo to make plays. When he went up in traffic and grabbed that loose ball, with the score 78-74 and everyone in the building (except, of course, the non-LeBron Cavs) aware of just what was on the line, it was huge. The crowd understood the gravity of the ‘bound, letting out the first non-sarcastic “SHEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEED” chant in months.
The Celtics are still the most experienced team in the playoffs, and it showed last night. The C’s saw that flash of passivity from the Cavs, and they pounced on it. Unlike the Cavs team that nearly completed a 20+ point comeback in the final regular-season matchup with the Celts, or the team that stormed back in Game 1 to beat what looked like a pack of old dogs, the team on the court last night was scared. Scared of another season of not living up to the hype, scared of losing LeBron, scared of Perkins’ beard tuft, I don’t know, but after LeBron’s 3-pointer, the Celtics’ lead seemed entirely too comfortable. Mo Williams is a great scorer, but his playoff performance in the last two years leads me to believe that Cleveland simply won’t win if he’s the second offensive option (of his 22 points, only three were scored in the second-half, during which Williams went 1-for-7, and his overall game +/- was -12). He’s anti-clutch.
For the Cavaliers, the longest offseason possible began, literally, in the waning seconds of Game 6 as Jackson, Breen, and Van Gundy began to ponder where King James will end up next season. It will be inescapable until James’s name is in fresh ink on a new contract somewhere, and it may have been a distraction even during this series (the Garden faithful chanted “NEW YORK KNICKS! NEW YORK KNICKS!” during James’s final trip to the free throw line). The only certainty is that we will all be sick of this story by the first of June.
For the C’s, it’s still an uphill battle, but I loved what Paul Pierce tweeted about the game last night: “Halfway home that’s all here come them CELTICS.” The guys in green know that unless they go back to the Finals, this season is still a disappointment, given what was expected of them at the beginning of the season. But knocking off Bron Bron, in six games no less, shows that this team is still hungry. Can they match up with Orlando? That’s for another fine SoB writer to tackle, but my money’s on a very tasty rematch of last year’s seven-game series.
Also, I’d be remiss writing this article if I didn’t point out Tony Allen’s dunk. I mean damn, dude, why you gotta be so rude to Antawn Jamison? Finest dunk of the playoffs, unquestionably.
Great win for the Celts, but now the team turns right around and gets on a plane to Orlando, where Game 1 will be played on Sunday.