THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Bob Ryan

An impressive closing argument in a most perplexing court case

By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / December 9, 2009

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You know what they say . . . you see the final 4:42 of a Celtics-Bucks game at the TD Garden, you’ve seen it all.

Stuck in neutral all night long and unable to shake a mid-level team that came here having lost three in a row and seven out of eight, the Celtics found a new gear and made all the requisite plays at both ends of the floor last night to emerge with a 98-89 victory.

By the way, it’s official. You know you have a very good team when you’re 17-4 and are sitting on an eight-game winning streak and all anyone can talk about is how good you’ll be when you really figure things out.

“In my mind,’’ said Celtics coach Doc Rivers, “we’re nowhere near as good as we’re going to be. The road trip [the Celtics were 4-0] was sensational. We played solid basketball. But we’re not a 48-minute team. For us to achieve what we want to achieve, we have to become one.’’

The NBA really only offers up a small variety of games, and this was one we’ll call “Waiting For The Better Team To Make Its Move.’’ It had been a sticky game from the start, with the Bucks leading by a point (27-26) after one period, the Celtics up by a point (49-48) at the half, the teams knotted at 71 after three and, finally, the teams still deadlocked at 86 when Rajon Rondo drew an absolutely foolish foul near midcourt from Charlie Bell, a 30-year-old veteran who really ought to know better.

Rondo, who flirted with yet another triple-double (11 points, 9 rebounds, 13 assists) and who did all his scoring in the fourth quarter, swished both free throws. Kevin Garnett ripped down a Brandon Jennings miss and Kendrick Perkins made one of two free throws emanating from a clever Rondo tip-pass. Garnett switched out on Jennings to cause a double-dribble and Rondo stepped right into a casual 21-footer. Suddenly, it’s 91-86 and you’re saying to yourself, “What took you guys so long?’’

They weren’t done. They continued to lock the Bucks down on defense, and at the other end Garnett tosses in a free throw. Ray Allen sticks a three and Garnett (“The ball feels good coming off my hand,’’ ) buries a long straightaway two. And now the crowd is putting on the coats. They have seen what they came to see. It just took a while.

“We always say we want to close the games out,’’ offered Paul Pierce. “The last three minutes, we have certain plays we want to run, especially when we get the ball in Rondo’s hands, get the ball down to Kevin, and play inside-out. And our defense goes up another notch in the last three minutes, and that is something we emphasize in practice, and that is what we try to do late in the game.’’

This had to be an excruciating game for Doc and his assistants. The Bucks were allowed to hang around and hang around.

“It’s interesting,’’ acknowledged Rivers. “At halftime we were shooting 58 percent, and they were shooting 43 percent. Usually, 43 percent says their offense wasn’t that good, but it was. They got every loose ball; they got every long rebound. And, they scored more off the secondary offense than the offense.’’

People may be getting tired of reading and hearing about how opponents are abusing the Celtics on the offensive boards, but it will keep being said until the Celtics do something about it. The Bucks stayed in the game for the better part of 45 minutes despite shooting 43 percent because they had 14 offensive rebounds, good for 13 second-chance points (to Boston’s 2).

But when the Celtics absolutely, positively had to limit the Bucks to one shot during that final 4:42, they did. So what does that tell you?

“I thought there was one stretch in the fourth quarter where you could physically see bodies on bodies,’’ said Rivers. “And we got all the rebounds. And we’ve just got to get better at it. We’ve always been a good rebounding team over the last couple of years, and right now we’re not. It’s that simple. And we can get away with winning now, but we’re not going to win in the long term if we don’t start rebounding.’’

OK, enough of the grousing and complaining, as legitimate as the beefs are. It’s time to remind ourselves that the other team came in here and did a lot of good things, but it wasn’t enough to get the job done in the end. And, oh yeah, the Celtics have won those eight in a row, and we should never take things like that for granted, not when there are such things in life as the New Jersey Nets and Minnesota Timberwolves.

The bar is high here, and no one knows that better than the Celtics themselves. They’re not stupid. They know their coach speaks the truth. They won’t be playing into May or June unless they improve in certain areas, like, yup, defensive rebounding.

On the other hand, it is Dec. 9 and they are 17-4, and there’s something to be said for that. Garnett (25 points, 9 rebounds) is making real progress. Rondo makes an impact game after game.

Perkins makes a nightly case for being the league’s Most Improved Player. Pierce and Ray Allen act like Pierce and Ray Allen. Rasheed Wallace (13 points, 3 for 4 on threes, solid defense) continues to work his way into the program, and, lapses and flaws and all, they are 17-4.

The blowouts will come. Some nights you can win by picking your spots. It’s been that way since the NBA began.

Bob Ryan can be reached at ryan@globe.com.

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