In the rarest of stretches, one title favorite hosted four others in 10 days. The result: lessons learned, records broken and February games of playoff intensity
The littlest Celtic on the floor was trying to defend the biggest small forward on the planet. Rajon Rondo, the 6'1", 171-pound point guard, harassed the Heat's 6'8", 250-pound LeBron James as he dribbled, attacking like an enraged Chihuahua going after a Doberman's chew toy. James, bemused, peered over his shoulder at Rondo as he shielded the ball from the unexpected irritant.
Rondo, hopping and darting in pursuit, spun at full speed and slammed into a pick set by 7'3" Miami center Zydrunas Ilgauskas. Undeterred, Rondo bounced up off his back and pawed the ball away from LeBron, fouling him in the process. The scene on Sunday was like something from America's Funniest Home Videos. It showed the NBA as it rarely is in the middle of winter: unpredictable and impassioned, teams starving—daring, even—to win. Rondo and James weren't holding back until the postseason, when the games really matter. They were clawing now. Today.
Their showdown marked the end of an enervating and entertaining 10-day span in which Boston hosted four title favorites: The Mavericks, the Magic and the Lakers preceded the Heat at TD Garden. Every seasoned contender except the Spurs paid a visit, and no one could remember a stretch like it. "Oh, I would have loved that," said former Celtic and Hall of Famer Larry Bird, now the Pacers' president of basketball operations. "You get to test yourself against the best."
Boston captain Paul Pierce was—like Bird—excited at the notion of serial challenges. "You want to see where your team is," he said. "You know who you're going to be as a team 50 games in, and these teams are trying to figure out, Are they true contenders or pretenders? These are the kinds of games that you want to see."
Television ratings for the NBA are up around 25% over last year—and cable ratings are on pace to be the highest ever—in part because no contender (aside from San Antonio, which, with its injury-free starting five, holds a huge lead for the No. 1 seed) has enjoyed an easy or predictable run. Each of these games was a matchup of potential champions, star-laden teams struggling to fulfill their potential against a blizzard of travel, trade speculation and injury, not to mention talented opposition. The home stand would bring out the best and worst of five teams that have the most to win and the most to lose.
FEB. 4: MAVERICKS 101, CELTICS 97
The first of two Dallas team buses left the Ritz-Carlton on Boston Common at 5:30 p.m. on Friday afternoon. In another era Red Auerbach would have been accused of sabotage: The 1½-mile ride to TD Garden that should have taken 15 minutes wound up lasting an hour. "I was like, Yo, we're going the wrong way," said 6-foot guard Jose Barea, who had played four years at Northeastern before signing with the Mavs in 2006. "It was like we took a tour of Boston. We saw everything. When we got here the later bus was already here, and they left half an hour after us."
Barea would score nine points in the first quarter after hurrying through his pregame routine. Maybe he had been inspired by a conversation with Pierce in the second week of the season, after Barea had scored 11 in the Mavericks' 89--87 comeback win against the Celtics in Dallas. "I went to grab something to eat after the game, and he was there," said Pierce of Barea. "I got to talking to him, and that's when he mentioned he went to Northeastern and used to come and see me play. I told him I didn't know that."
Did Barea laugh off the fact that Pierce had never heard of him, even though they'd played three miles apart? "No," said Pierce with a snicker. "I mean, I'm an NBA player, I'm a Celtic! I came from Kansas! What would I be doing watching Northeastern play?"
The Mavericks were looking forward to gauging themselves in the aftermath of a right-knee sprain suffered by Dirk Nowitzki, who had led Dallas to a 24--5 start. During his absence and the first four games after his return the Mavs went 3--10, but now they had won six straight, thanks not only to Nowitzki but also to the emergence of 7'1" center Tyson Chandler as their defensive version of Boston's 6'11" Kevin Garnett. "What I try to do for my team is what he's done his entire career," said Chandler. "I respect what he's accomplished, so I'm just trying to mirror that."
Chandler and his idol both spent the game shouting defensive orders. Chandler, 28, had the larger influence, vacuuming up 15 rebounds and dunking two-handed for most of his 14 points. But the 34-year-old Garnett was just as feisty, earning a technical in the third quarter after Barea fouled him to prevent a fast-break layup and moments later yelling in Barea's ear after the guard had air-balled a three. "He likes to pick on little guys, I think," said Barea.
The Celtics squandered a 97--91 lead, going scoreless over their final seven possessions, leaving Dallas with 15.3 seconds to overcome a one-point deficit. The ball found its way to Nowitzki, who hurried a pass to 37-year-old point guard Jason Kidd at the top of the arc. In his pregame meeting with reporters outside the locker room, Boston coach Doc Rivers had praised Kidd's improvement as a spot-up shooter, and now he watched in horror as Kidd up-faked and waited for Ray Allen to fly by before calmly canning a game-winning three.
After winning just one postseason series over the last four years, the Mavs showed they may be developing the toughness at both ends of the floor needed to close out games. Over the next month they are expected to incorporate dribble-drive guard Rodrigue Beaubois, who has been sidelined all season with a broken left foot, and pure-shooting forward Peja Stojakovic, who arrived last month after the Raptors bought out his contract. They may also move the expiring $10.6 million salary of injured forward Caron Butler to augment their roster before the Feb. 24 trade deadline.
But this result stood on its own. "These are statement games that give you a little more confidence and get you rolling in the right direction," said Chandler. As the final buzzer sounded on Dallas's sweep of its two games with Boston, Chandler called out to his idol from behind. Garnett half turned and semi-hugged Chandler before pulling away, and he was cursing to himself as he left the court.
FEB. 6: CELTICS 91, MAGIC 80
Two scenes had cast Garnett as a villain this season: an accusation from Pistons forward Charlie Villanueva, who suffers from the hair-loss condition alopecia universalis, that Garnett had called him "a cancer patient" during a November game (a charge denied by Garnett); and replays last month that showed Garnett backhanding Suns forward Channing Frye in the groin as he attempted a jump shot. "Garnett is a great player, he'll be a Hall of Famer, and his résumé speaks for itself," said Orlando swingman Quentin Richardson. "But at the same time you may not have a lot of respect for some of the things he'll do. He picks fights with [the Raptors' 6'3" Jose] Calderon or with Barea. Come on, man, that's not showing that you're big or bad. You're trying to fight point guards."
Rivers has spent the last four years insisting that Garnett's fire is crucial to the Celtics. "This guy should be the model," said Rivers. "He is as pure a team player as I've ever been around. Does he say things the wrong way at times? Clearly Kevin has used the f word as a noun, adjective and verb, and it's mean-spirited if you're not on his team. With his teammates he talks the same way, but it's all about help, it's all about team. The players who don't like him are usually the players who aren't winning, and maybe they should be more like him instead of talking about him."
The Magic has been trying to right itself since a pair of blockbuster December trades for forward Hedo Turkoglu and guards Jason Richardson and Gilbert Arenas, which weakened the defense around center Dwight Howard. Boston would follow Garnett's trash-talking example, creating the sort of chippy game that Orlando can't win. "We started a lot of the s--- with our talk," said Rivers. "But then it escalated, and we didn't retaliate." Magic coach Stan Van Gundy finished that thought for him: "Our concerns with all the b.s. out there took away our focus."
Chandler isn't the only opposing player who has emulated Garnett's tactics. In addition to developing a step-back midrange bank shot to go with his ability to finish in the post with either hand, Howard has turned himself into the NBA's most aggressive big man with 15 technicals (tied for the league lead) and an inclination to elbow or shove opponents aside. The 25-year-old star who used to be known for his engaging smile is now going out of his way to assert himself and make enemies, as he did before this game, when he ran to the corner of the parquet to chest-thump the crowd, mimicking Garnett's pregame ritual. The difference between the two teams is that Boston follows Garnett's example, while Howard's teammates lack that edge. "I don't know if they've won a game when he's mocked anybody," said Pierce of Howard. "I think he's got to stop it. I saw LeBron go for 51 [in a Feb. 3 win at Orlando] when he mocked him."
Rivers would claim a personal victory when his own irascible center, 26-year-old Kendrick Perkins, baited Howard into drawing a technical in the second quarter without responding. "First time in his life—he fouled Dwight, holds him and holds him, Dwight hits him with an elbow, hits him with another one, and Perk just stands there," said Rivers. "At halftime I said to the team, 'That is toughness. Toughness is somebody hitting you in the freaking face, and you're looking at him and laughing and walking away. That's a tough mother.'"
One Magic player willing to follow Howard's lead was Quentin Richardson, who has been feuding with Pierce for years. In the third quarter Richardson listened to a tirade from Pierce as he waited for referee Jason Phillips to silence the Celtic with a technical. "They laugh and think I'm losing it, like I'm not paying attention," said Richardson, who heard Boston's bench riding him. "But I was really looking at [Phillips] like, How long are you going to allow this?"
Instead of slapping anyone with a T, Phillips placed the ball at Richardson's feet on the baseline and began a five-second count. Richardson hurriedly reached down and inbounded the ball at two, catching the Celtics' defense off guard. "That," said Rivers to assistant Lawrence Frank on the sideline, "was genius." Though the Celtics ultimately recovered in time, Rivers said he was going to design a play based on it. "It almost worked for them," he said of the Magic. "If they had been ready, they would have scored."
Orlando's loss meant that Boston clinched the season series 2--1. Howard had no defensive help—6'11" Marcin Gortat went to Phoenix in the deal for Jason Richardson—while Turkoglu and Arenas continued to struggle in their new roles. "Not even in the same ballpark as these guys," said Van Gundy of the Celtics. "We can be, but we're not right now."
There will be a lot of postseason games like this one, on those rough nights when good playmaking is hard to find and less-gentlemanly means are necessary. Quentin Richardson was looking forward to a postseason rematch against Pierce and Garnett. "That would be great," he said. "That would be great."
FEB. 10: LAKERS 92, CELTICS 86
During his four years in Boston, Ray Allen has been the third option, often seen merely as a three-point specialist even though his movement without the ball, his playmaking and his defense have been crucial to Boston's runs to the 2008 title and the '10 Finals. On this Thursday night, however, the third man would be first: Allen needed two threes to overtake Reggie Miller—who would be broadcasting the game courtside with TNT—as the NBA's alltime leader.
Only three active players have played more minutes than the 35-year-old Allen, yet his game shows no signs of deterioration: At week's end he was second in minutes among shooting guards this season (only 25-year-old Monta Ellis of the Warriors had played more) and third in three-point shooting (45.6%). He wasn't coasting toward the record so much as sprinting at it.
Against the defending champions Rivers had never needed Allen more. Pierce had lost six pounds fighting a 24-hour bug that had kept him out of practice the day before. And the loss of Marquis Daniels to a bruised spine in the Magic game combined with an early-season broken wrist suffered by Delonte West left the Celtics with no one other than Pierce to guard Kobe Bryant. The dearth of perimeter size had been Boston's undoing in a 94--89 loss three days earlier at Charlotte, where Bobcats guards 6'8" Stephen Jackson and 6'7" Shaun Livingston combined for 29 points. With that opportunity for a win wasted, the Celtics needed to find some way to slow the 6'6" Bryant, the most ruthless of rivals.
Rivers used Allen's pursuit of the record as an early decoy, running him off screens inside the three-point line for a trio of two-pointers. "I just wish we could have kept it going until the fourth," Rivers joked.
But in the eighth minute Allen flashed to the corner for a catch-and-shoot three, and then, with 1:48 remaining in the opening quarter, he came to a stop in transition just as a pass arrived from Rondo. As he'd done thousands of times before, Allen released a three before the defense could react. After hitting his 2,561st shot from beyond the arc, he met Miller at midcourt for an embrace during the ensuing break, and the home bench took joy in watching Bryant fist-bump Allen in spite of their long-standing enmity. "You know that was hard for Kobe to do that," said one Celtic.
The momentum of Allen's achievement carried Boston to a 45--30 lead in the second quarter, but they were vulnerable. From the opening minutes Los Angeles had been exploiting its frontcourt size advantage to control the boards. The Lakers' failure to win any of their previous five games against elite opponents—including a humiliating Jan. 30 loss at home to Boston—could be traced back to their failure to develop a post game through 7'1" Andrew Bynum, who had missed the opening seven weeks while recovering from off-season right-knee surgery. Bynum, whose name has appeared in trade rumors for disgruntled Nuggets star Carmelo Anthony, showed his value by punishing the Celtics for 16 points and nine rebounds. Power forward Pau Gasol had 20 and 10. "I was in foul trouble on the bench and seeing shots passed up by Kobe and [Derek] Fisher that I know they usually take," said Pierce. "They really made an emphasis on pounding the ball inside to their big guys, which is something that they didn't do when we were in L.A."
Boston was missing 21 feet of backup centers—the injured Shaquille O'Neal, Jermaine O'Neal and Semih Erden—acquired since L.A. outmuscled the Celtics in seven games last June. Ultimately Bryant seized control, taking special joy in tormenting 6'5" Von Wafer, who had come in off the end of the bench. Kobe scored 20 in the second half, and after torching Allen with a final-minute fallaway jumper, Bryant ran by the TNT table staring down Miller as if in rebuke for his kinship with Allen.
The victory demonstrated how dangerous the Lakers are as their front line bonds and their focus narrows for the two-month backstretch of the regular season. Rivers spent the following day studying video not only of the loss to L.A. but also of recent victories by surging Miami. He found himself contemplating whether to resort to gimmicky zones and trapping defenses to make up for his temporary lack of depth. "Clearly this game meant more to [the Lakers] than to us, and you could see it in the way both teams approached the game and how they played," said Rivers as he sat in his office last Saturday. "That's tough to beat, and we've got to beat that tomorrow. For Miami it's Armageddon. For us, well, we beat them twice, we're injured, there's so many reasons for us not to play tomorrow. That's my concern as a coach."
FEB. 13: CELTICS 85, HEAT 82
"He's the smartest player I've ever coached," Rivers was saying of Rondo 25 hours later. "Maybe that I've ever been around."
Rondo, the league leader in assists with 12.3 per game through Sunday, had been relatively quiet for the previous nine days. "That's because we've been struggling," said Rivers after stealing a win over Miami. "He tries so hard to get everybody else going. . . . He spent the whole first half trying to get them going, but he didn't get himself going."
The Heat arrived with an eight-game winning streak, a half-game lead over Boston atop the Eastern Conference standings and persistent questions about whether it had shown enough improvement to beat the Celtics after losing to them twice in the opening month. Miami should have led by double digits at halftime, but 10 combined turnovers from James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh offset their 29 points.
Boston trailed just 43--39 thanks to Perkins, who would finish with 15 points and six rebounds to conclude the third impressive week of his return from knee surgery, and Glen Davis, whose performances were crucial to a team showing its age. Pierce, who said his left foot was bothering him (a Monday MRI was negative), would go 0 for 10 with one point in 40 minutes for his worst game since his 1999 rookie season.
With his team looking worn down, Rivers told Rondo at halftime to up the energy. Instantly he was attacking with the dribble, pushing the pace and hijacking control of the game. Two minutes into the half Rondo informed his teammates of his plan to personally defend James. "That wasn't a set game plan for him to guard LeBron," said Rivers. "Rondo took that upon himself."
One of Boston's concerns was James's ability to defend Rondo, using his length, quickness and strength to cut off penetration. Now Rondo was turning that dynamic upside down. He harassed James in the backcourt, leaned into him in the post, pressing his head against James's midsection even as James hip-checked him away. The strategy wasn't perfect—eventually James beat a double team with a behind-the-back assist, followed by a punishing low-post drive on Rondo for a three-point play—but it inspired the Celtics, and the old team looked suddenly young.
After Ilgauskus leveled Rondo with a screen, Garnett knocked Miami swingman Mike Miller on his back with a blindside pick. Wade responded by trying to box Garnett clean out of the paint. The referees arrived to break up the skirmish, and Miami attempted to regroup with an impromptu meeting on the court. That's when Rivers noticed Wade and James shoving Rondo out of their huddle.
"Rondo is nuts in that way," said Rivers. "He was saying he didn't have to get out of the huddle because it wasn't a timeout. It was pretty funny—when it was over."
Rondo's teammates also showed no respect for the Heat, whose Big Three have yet to grasp how to break down Boston's swarming defense. The win vaulted the Celtics ahead of Miami in the Eastern Conference standings. "I have the same feeling right now as I had when I was in my third and fourth year and we played Detroit," said James of his seven seasons with Cleveland. "We just could not get over the hump. Regular season and playoffs, we couldn't get over the hump. It took us a long time to finally get over."
The 10 days affirmed the Lakers as the team to beat—their length will create problems for San Antonio in a seven-game series—while the Celtics, for all of their fragility, showed themselves to be the East's toughest out, thanks to their stubbornness as much as to their diversity of options. In the meantime the Heat will look to gain confidence from a final rematch with Boston on April 10 in Miami. "All it takes is one game," said coach Erik Spoelstra of the breakthrough his team is seeking.
The games also showed a fighting spirit during the February doldrums, an exhausting part of the season when there is every excuse to let things slide and say, We'll get 'em next time. "The playoffs will be more physical," Rivers said late Sunday afternoon. "It will be better play, the execution will be better." With the snow piled high in Boston, these 10 days left a scent of spring in the air.
"OH, I WOULD HAVE LOVED THAT," BIRD SAID OF THE CELTICS' SCHEDULE. "YOU GET TO TEST YOURSELF AGAINST THE BEST."
"CLEARLY KEVIN HAS USED THE F WORD AS A NOUN, ADJECTIVE AND VERB [TO HIS TEAMMATES]," SAID RIVERS. "BUT IT'S ALL ABOUT HELP, IT'S ALL ABOUT TEAM."
"I HAVE THE SAME FEELING RIGHT NOW AS WHEN [THE CAVS] PLAYED DETROIT," SAID JAMES. "WE COULDN'T GET OVER THE HUMP."
Photograph by JOHN BIEVER
HEAT SEEKERS Led by Allen (20) and Garnett, Boston's pesky D put the clampdown on Wade and Miami, which had 15 turnovers.
NICE FIND Rondo made one of his special deliveries to Perkins before Dallas rallied to snag its seventh straight win.
CAGEY KG Garnett's defense and trash talk unhinged the Magic and Howard (12), its increasingly pugnacious leader.
ON A SLIDE Wade's Boston woes continued on Sunday, when he lost to the Celtics for the 16th time in his last 18 games.
DOUBLE BIND Banged-up Boston couldn't stop Bryant on the perimeter, and Davis (11) and Garnett couldn't thwart him in the lane.