LOS ANGELES -- Feel better now Celtics fans?
You certainly should because the Celtics are headed home from the Left Coast locked up at a game a piece with the Lakers and their A-game never made an appearance in front of the A-List celebrities at Staples Center during two games.
The Celtics, specifically Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo, certainly had their moments, and the never-been-beaten starting five dug down deep over the final 5 minutes, 21 seconds to escape from LA with a 103-94 win and a hard-earned split last night. But they are capable of playing better basketball. That's not being negative. Quite the contrary. It's a real cause for optimism on Causeway Street for anyone with an interest in seeing Banner No. 18 ascend to the rafters at TD Garden.
The Celtics did what they needed to do and what all great teams do -- find a way to a win when they weren't at their best.
Earning a split in Los Angeles last night was a steal of Havlicekian proportions for the Green when you consider that the Celtics have yet to have a game in the NBA Finals where they didn't have a member of the Big Three plagued by foul trouble, where Kevin Garnett collected more than four rebounds, or where they slowed down the Lakers' front court tandem of Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum. The two Towers of Terror combined for 46 points and 14 rebounds in Game 2, while shooting an astonishing 25 free throws. Bynum had a playoff career-high-tying 21 points.
The Celtics, who pride themselves on defense, are not going to let that continue all series long.
"We still haven't played our best," said Celtics center Kendrick Perkins. "I thought Gasol and Bynum dominated still on the offensive end. Shot a high percentage from the field. We got to do a better job of controlling those guys, and we'll be alright."
The can't-be-counted-out Celtics won on a night when Garnett had just one more point (six) than fouls (five), and Paul Pierce was 2 for 11 for 10 points, converting his first field goal with 6:07 left in the third quarter, a backdoor lay-up off a beautiful feed from Rasheed Wallace.
I'm pretty sure if you presented the above scenario to Lakers coach Phil Jackson, who incredulously whined and pouted about the officiating after his team lost, he would have taken it.
The Celtics survived because Rondo was so much larger than his 6-foot, 1-inch frame, posting his fifth career playoff triple-double (19 points, 12 rebounds, 10 assists), including 10 fourth-quarter points, and Ray Allen was beyond hot from beyond the arc with 32 points and an NBA Finals-record eight 3-pointers, including a 7-for-7 start on treys.
Still, with apologies to Jack Nicholson, this was not, "As Good as It Gets" for the Green, and they know it, not when outside of the sterling starting backcourt Boston shot 17 of 46.
"No," said Glen "Big Baby" Davis. "Kevin was what 2 of 5 with five fouls. Paul didn't shoot that well. I went [4 for 13]. I didn't hit those jump shots, even though I made those layups. A lot of guys didn't play capable of what they can play, so that's a scary fact when we're all cooking and we're all doing what we're supposed to do."
It's quite a scary thought for the Lakers, who were held under 100 points for the first time since the first round of the playoffs, a stretch of 11 straight games that started following a 95-94 series-clinching victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder on April 30.
This wasn't like Game 2 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against Cleveland, when the Celtics put six players in double figures, shot 51 percent from the floor and led by 25 points in the fourth quarter. You have to believe that the Celtics still have that type of performance left in them for the Finals. They've had at least one decisive, clicking-on-all cylinders win in each of their previous playoff series.
Why should this series be any different? It shouldn't. If these playoffs have proven anything it's that the Celtics' best is better than the rest, just ask the Cavs and the Magic.
Now, the Celtics return to the parquet for three straight home games, starting tomorrow night. Since the inception of the 2-3-2 playoff format in 1985, only two teams have pulled off the home sweep, the 2004 Detroit Pistons, who unceremoniously ended the Kobe-Shaq era in Los Angeles, and the 2006 Miami Heat. Both teams won NBA titles.
That's why winning last night was huge.
"It was big for us," said Rondo. "It would be tough for us to go home and win three straight. It's possible, but it would be very tough with the defending champs. We did what we needed to do, came out here and got a split."
They did what they needed to do after a horrible Game 1 performance. As Pierce said, there was no where to go but up.
The captain liked what he saw in Game 2, but he knows there is still room for improvement.
"We didn't play our best basketball," said Pierce. "Hopefully, we can build on that and Game 3 it will come out."
As dire as the situation looked after a sloppy and soporific performance in Game 1 to have the series tied, 1-1, is the best possible outcome for the Celtics and reason to believe the best is yet to come.
...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.