This is no time to be cynical.
It’s easy to dismiss the Celtics’ victory over Philadelphia in Game 7 as a game the Celtics were supposed to win. It’s easy to call the game ugly, to call the 76ers a bad team. It’s easy to dismiss this whole playoff run and chalk it up to the Celtics being in the right place, avoiding because of injury the teams that were supposed to be here, at the right time.
It’s easy, but then, what are you in this for?
Invested Celtics fans spent at least some part of Saturday contemplating the end of this whole thing. There was a brilliant pink sunset over the Zakim Bridge just as the Celtics and Sixers prepared to tip off in a game that would send one team home for good. It’s almost a lock that some Celtics fan in the West End thought of that sunset as a metaphor, and then quickly brushed the thought out of her head. We could have witnessed the last game of the New Big Three era Saturday night. Instead, because of a game that was typically them, they’re still playing.
Make no mistake about the ugly: Game 7 was all kinds of it. The Celtics missed their first 14 3-pointers. Paul Pierce fouled out with more than four minutes to play. The Celtics and Sixers shot 43 percent and 35 percent for the game, respectively. Even knowing that these were the teams who finished second and third in the NBA in field-goal defense for the season, it was tough to watch.
But you didn’t have to look hard for the qualities that have made this Celtics team perennial contenders since Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen came to Boston in 2007. Garnett is a good place to start. A glance at the box score (18 points, 13 rebounds) shows that Garnett pretty much met his playoff averages of 19.3 points and 10.6 rebounds. Garnett’s performance in Game 7, however, was best measured by the details. Garnett was efficient on offense, committing just one turnover. On defense, he was a monster. He dug in and took the abuse that Elton Brand, who was in the game if only to give hard fouls to Garnett, dished out. At one point in the third quarter, Garnett was draped all over Brand to the point where Brandon Bass was able to jump the gun on an inbounds pass and go the other way for a dunk. It was classic Garnett.
“Oh he was huge,” said Celtics coach Doc Rivers. “I mean, Kevin, defensively, controlling the paint. … You could see him at halftime just giving himself one of those self-talks. And you know, the talk obviously went well.”
Allen, meanwhile, has become a legend in this town for his reputation of hitting clutch shots. Hampered by an ankle injury, there had been nothing clutch about Allen this postseason coming into Saturday night. Game 7 didn’t start well for Allen, either. The lights went out in TD Garden during one of his legendary pregame workouts, and Allen continued having trouble seeing the basket at the start of Game 7, starting the Game 1 for 9. He was struggling so much that Sixers defenders Evan Turner and Lou Williams started going underneath screens while defending Allen, giving him open looks. But Allen finally made two clutch 3-pointers in the fourth quarter, bringing to mind countless times when he’s turned the momentum in a big spot in a playoff game.
“If I were Ray Allen I would keep shooting all day,” said Celtics guard Mickael Pietrus. “I don’t know why sometimes he’s being timid. You guys need to remind him, he’s Ray Allen. The best three point shooter in the entire NBA.”
Rivers had a fairly big revelation before the game, saying he said to convince his team that that it was worth it to keep fighting after a season-ending injury to Avery Bradley. The Celtics seemed like they lacked motivation in a loss in Game 6. They came with a fresh approach in Game 7.
“I think with a veteran team you have to keep painting the picture,” said Rivers. “For veterans, you have to have them feel like there’s something at stake. They have to feel like it’s worth the fight… You have to keep telling them, ‘Guys, the opportunity is here.’ And I’m not just talking about tonight. I mean the total opportunity for this team.”
It’s in front of them now, a series with the Heat. Miami doesn’t want to play them. Not this group of cranky old men, this group of players who doesn’t seem to know when to say when. The Celtics won three of four meetings with the Heat this season, the lone loss coming when the Celtics were without Pierce. One of the trademarks of this Celtics team is they always seem to play to their competition. They’re just as likely to get into a tough game with Toronto or Philly as they are to give Miami and San Antonio hell.
Their approach, as always, is measured. Said Pierce, “We expect it to be tough.”
“This is a good time right now,” said Garnett. “We definitely didn’t like how it went last year.”
Said Allen, “By any means necessary. This is where it really starts to get fun.”
There are four teams remaining, playing for a title. The Boston Celtics are one of them. Who knows how much longer being able to say that will be a given.