Ron Mercer looked at the man assigned to guard him last night. But he couldn't look him directly in the eyes. If Mercer had wanted to do that, he would have had to look down. Way down. Six inches down.
That's when the Denver Nuggets knew they were in trouble. They were forced to match 6-foot-1-inch Cory Alexander with the 6-7 Mercer. It wasn't fair. The Celtics beat the Nuggets at the FleetCenter, 102-94. And Mercer helped them do it, finishing with 35 points, the most he's had in his two-season career.
We know that lots of fans consider themselves basketball intellectuals. Rick Pitino has had many people from various occupations offer him coaching tips. If Pitino wanted to make all those fans happy, he could have called them to the Celtics bench and told them to design a play for Mercer, based on what they saw in the game. Most fans would have called the same plays that the Celtics did. They went something like this:
Throw the ball to Mercer. Get out of the way.
"It's not too complicated when you've got a smaller guy on you like that," Mercer said. "It's not hard to shoot. Most of my shots were just basic turnarounds."
If you can't tell by his remarks, Mercer is a humble man. Some of his shots were basic. But others were brilliant drives. At times, he punctuated his flights to the basket with soft finger rolls. On other drives, he handled the ball as if he were doing a yo-yo demonstration. It would be near his waist one split second, near his chest the next, and then, finally, over an outstretched hand and in the basket.
The Celtics figured out the Mercer plan early. He had 19 points in his first 19 minutes. He helped the Celtics build an 18-point second-quarter lead and a 59-50 advantage at halftime.
"We told him before the game that we were going to look for him," Antoine Walker said. "We knew what kind of advantage he was going to have."
Most people in the building thought the advantage had to do with height exclusively. But there was also some psychology involved. Yesterday was the first time all season Mercer didn't have to wear a brace to protect his previously sprained right knee. You know how some children smile a lot when they have braces removed from their teeth? Mercer was like that, since no brace was weighing down his knee. All he had to wear was a thin - and light - knee sleeve.
"I didn't have to wear anything last year," Mercer said. "The only thing I wore was an elbow pad. I was just happy that I wouldn't have to wear the brace anymore."
Since we have discussed Mercer's offense, you might be thinking that is the sole reason theCeltics won. You might have noticed a box score that shows Walker with 21 points and 18 rebounds; Paul Pierce with 17 points; Kenny Anderson with 12 assists. Those performances helped the Celtics control the Nuggets. But there was another group that, arguably, closed out the game for them. If it weren't for this bunch, the Celtics might not be heading to Toronto today with a 7-7 record.
"Bomb Squad, Bomb Squad," Walter McCarty sang in the locker room after the game.
"Yep," he said. "Dana [ Barros] gave us our name. He's the CEO."
The Bomb Squad is the Celtics' pressing unit, led by players such as McCarty, Barros, Bruce Bowen, and Greg Minor.
"Tell 'em, G," McCarty said to Minor, "we're bad. We're bad, man."
The Squad had a tough assignment in the fourth quarter. The Celtics had struggled through a miserable third in which they shot 21 percent. So their lead had dwindled from 18 in the second, to 9 in the third, to 5 at the end of three to . . . 2?
It was 77-75 with 11:44 remaining. It took less than three minutes for the lead to be pushed to 10, 85-75. That's because the Celtics forced four consecutive turnovers, got a flurry of offense from Minor, Bowen, and Barros, and so frustrated the Nuggets with their defense that Alexander cursed Bowen for guarding him so closely.
That's why they are not called something generic like "second unit." They are The Bomb Squad.
"I think our Bomb Squad did a great job tonight as they always do," Pitino said. "I don't think they've had a bad night."
Alexander will be able to say he finished with a career-high 28 points. But he also had seven turnovers. Former Celtic Eric Williams was his old self, getting to the free throw line 15 times and scoring 20 points. Antonio McDyess (17 points, 15 rebounds, 6 blocks) was everywhere.
But that was not enough to prevent loss No. 12 for Denver. The Nuggets were Bombed. They were also Mercered.