May 26, 2002
THERE'S A NEW CHAPTER TO THIS STORIED HISTORY
Now maybe we have seen it all.
Down 26 points in the third quarter, down 21 points entering the final quarter, down 10 points with 4:08 remaining, and down 6 with 2:29 left to play, the Celtics scored the final 10 points of the game and won it. That's what they did. They outscored the New Jersey Nets, 41-16, in the fourth quarter. Yup, that's what they did.
In so doing, they accomplished the greatest such comeback in NBA playoff history. No Cousy, Russell, Heinsohn, Havlicek, Cowens, Bird, McHale, or Parish group ever did anything better in a Celtic uniform than what these guys, these trench-warfare guys, these Jim O'Brien guys, did at the FleetCenter last night.
"I'm stunned, right now as we speak," said Paul Pierce, the 94-90 Game 3 triumph being as much a shock to the man who helped make it possible with 19 hard-hat fourth-quarter points as it was to hysterical capacity gathering of 18,624 that broke every previous FleetCenter decibel-level record for a basketball game. "It's probably the greatest comeback I've ever been a part of. It definitely is. I don't know what else there is to say."
No problem, Paul. They don't pay you to analyze. They pay you to produce big moments on the basketball floor, and scoring 19 of your team's 41 points in an unprecedented fourth quarter is sort of what they had in mind.
Of course, for every comeback winner there is a confused comeback loser. "I never felt we lost control," maintained Jersey's Jason Kidd. "I thought we were going to get a basket at some point, or get a stop. We'll use this as a learning experience. The game isn't over until it's over. Now we've got to get easy for the game on Monday."
Good try, Jason. The fact is, the last thing that collapsed like this was the German mark during the Weimar Republic.
It all began with an earnest plea from an angry Antoine Walker at the end of the third quarter. He was disgusted with his team's truly awful performance, but not even Antoine was brash enough to be talking about anything other than saving some face. He simply laid out to his mates just what he expected to see in the final 12 minutes.
"I can't repeat what I said," Walker explained. "Basically, I told them that, regardless of whether we won or lost, we had to show New Jersey we were a much better basketball team than this."
"He said we were going to go down fighting," Pierce added. "We had to go down fighting."
No one needed to do that more than Pierce, whose jump shot had gone on a USO tour or something and who was shooting 2 for 14 after three quarters and thus 5 for 34 in his last seven periods. And so Pierce did what all the great ones - the Birds and Jordans and people like that - do in such circumstances, and that is go back to "A." He decided he would put his head down and go to the basket.
Hey, he's Paul Pierce. He ought to get a call or two.
Just one thing: He needed to do it expeditiously. "We, Paul and I, talked at the shootaround this morning about how he needed to catch the ball and make a quick decision," said O'Brien. "See if you can get it to the rim immediately before any trap had a chance to get there."
Pierce never took a jump shot in the fourth quarter. He took it to the hoop, and then he took it to the hoop again and again and again. He took it hoopward for six baskets (one an old-fashioned 3-point play) and three other trips to the line emanating from drives (he had one additional trip to the line after grabbing a huge defensive rebound with 17.6 seconds left). He went by people and through people and over people.
But it wasn't just Pierce. Rodney Rogers was a man and a half. Kenny Anderson was brilliant at both ends. Tony Delk nailed a big three, scrapped on the boards, and worked on the D.
Most of all, there was Walker, who talked the talk and sacrificed the body with a maniacal two-way effort. He was the spiritual, emotional, and technical leader of this comeback.
As the period progressed, and the lead began to melt, the crowd made itself a factor. "I have never been in a place that was as loud as it was today," Walker claimed.
"The crowd was, whew, my ears hurt," confirmed O'Brien. "The noise was so loud that my staff was trying to communicate with me and it was almost like they were kissing my ear to try to communicate."
C'mon. Imagine the scene. The Celtics are coming from 21 down at the start of the fourth quarter. They are getting all the calls they need. The Nets are bricking up shots and throwing the ball away at one end and are utterly incapable of keeping the Celtics from the line at the other. They're showing Red, Cousy, Jo Jo, Max, and just about every Celtic they can find this side of Fat Freddy Scolari on the big screen, and then, just in case the crowd isn't juiced enough, there are Derek Lowe, Brian Daubach, and assorted Red Sox up on the screen, leading the cheers up in a luxury box.
And you were what, gardening, or something?
Sorry, but there was really only one place in this town to be around 8 o'clock last evening.
Something very special is shaping up here. A bunch of guys in green and white, for too long tortured and taunted by the team's history, is creating its own little legend. This was a truly defining game, both for basketball in the FleetCenter and for the Jim O'Brien Celtics.
Down 26, 25, and 21, I'll be honest. I was thinking maybe it was time for Kedrick Brown. Not Jim O'Brien. He was telling the team that the game was "winnable."
"That's the thing about history," said GM Chris Wallace. "You never know when it's coming."
But these are the Boston Celtics. I should have known better.