November 05, 2005
Once again, it's all about the r-word. It's all about relevance. The Celtics, like their hockey brethren who share the big building on Causeway Street, are trying to earn a spot back in the rotation.
It wasn't always like this, of course. There was a time when the Celtics were No. 1 when Larry and Chief and Kevin and a guard named Danny Ainge walked through that door and patrolled the parquet. But that was a couple of lifetimes ago, and now we are a town top-heavy with the Red Sox and Patriots, while the folks who play indoors strive for a slice of the New England sports mind.
Sox mania isn't about to subside and the Patriots are preparing to play the Game of the Year on "Monday Night Football," so it's going to be difficult for the Celtics to get your attention. Last night, they had the floor to themselves and provided some electrifying moments, but swallowed a crushing, 82-81 defeat at the hands of the Detroit Pistons when the redoubtable Rip Hamilton canned a 17-foot jumper on an impossible catch-and-shoot play with only eight-10ths of a second left on the clock.
"It's a shame," said Celtic Hall of Famer Bob Cousy. "That's the best game we'll see all year."
It looked as if the Celtics were winners a few moments earlier when Mark Blount finished off a mad scramble, taking a pass from Delonte West and canning a foul-line jumper to give Boston an 81-80 lead, and an apparent victory. But the Pistons had other ideas and stunned 16,642 with the perfect buzzer-beating play.
Referees had to double-check the replay to verify that Hamilton got his shot off in time. After the game, Celtics coach Doc Rivers took the blame for the loss, saying he should have assigned one of his players to guard Tayshaun Prince, who was allowed to inbound the ball with no one in his face.
"It was shocking when the ball went in," acknowledged West. "It took the breath out of the building. You can't celebrate wins too early. But there's a lot of positives you can take from this. We know we can compete with anybody in the league."
Certainly if the Celtics continue to play like this, they're going to matter again around here, just as they did for a few shining hours last spring. That was when they reacquired Antoine Walker, went on a winning streak, started banging out the Garden again, won the division, and earned home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
"Not only that," said Ainge, now running the team, "but it was after the Super Bowl and before spring training."
The air leaked out of the big green balloon when Paul Pierce misbehaved in Indianapolis, then the entire Celtic team failed to show up for a Game 7 against the Pacers in Boston. A lot of momentum was lost and the Celtics are now in the process of trying to return to relevance. It hasn't been easy.
The Celtics are frightfully young and unknown, and again flying under the radar. They can't even seem to generate a good whiner line cheap shot.
Take Opening Night, for example. Red Auerbach came back and the hated Knicks were in town with Larry Brown. The Celtics beat their ancient rivals in overtime. Despite all of this, little was said on the nightly news because the game was played on the day Theo Epstein made his long-awaited resignation speech at Fenway. The Celtics might as well have been the New England Revolution.
They made a lot of noise last night and Pierce (28 points) continued to resurrect his reputation when he took over, scoring 13 points in the fourth quarter. Unfortunately, he missed four free throws in that period, and those proved costly.
Pierce has been part of four playoff runs in his seven seasons. He was part of the magical ride in 2002 when the Celtics made it all the way to the conference finals, and danced on the scorer's table after coming back from an impossible deficit in the third game against New Jersey. Those same Celtics beat the Sixers and the Pistons in the playoffs. Good times.
"At that time we were just happy to make the playoffs," Pierce remembered. "Things seemed pretty exciting after we beat Philly. That's when we felt it . . . We don't really know who we are yet this year, but to get back to that we just have to win a whole lot of games."
"I understand," said Rivers. "On Opening Night, my wife said, `Who is this Theo guy everyone's talking about?' Well, she's new to this. But that's the way it should be now. Our time will come. You have to win and they will come. There's no doubt about that in this city. You can't say that in every city, but you can say it here. We've just got to win and show promise to get 'em back."
Ainge, a lifelong baseball guy who remains best friends with former Sox lefthander Bruce Hurst, understands the challenge like few others who work at the Garden.
"In Boston, the Patriots and the Celtics have to earn their way and the Red Sox are just gonna get it. It's been that way since back when I first played here [1981-82]," he said. "The Red Sox are never going to go away [something folks in Foxborough have a hard time admitting]. The rest of us are fighting for the attention. But everywhere I go, people know about the Celtics and talk about the Celtics. Obviously, it's not like it was for us in the '80s, but people are ready to join and jump on. They're just not ready to give their whole soul just yet. They will once we get back to the Finals."
They are not ready for the Finals yet, but they've played two games of exciting basketball and last night almost beat the defending conference champs. The Spurs and Rockets are coming to town in the next two weeks and if the Celtics play a few more games like last night's, they'll be back on the local radar.