Although I’m about as far from a Celtics fan as one can be without my last name being “Rambis,” the best thing about this epic first round series between Boston and Chicago might be the chance to appreciate two of the top clutch players in basketball over the last decade do their thing. Rajon Rondo’s unbelievable improvement (and his transformation from a quiet point guard with limited skills to a player so effectively dirty that he’s like a non-smiling Isiah Thomas) has been one of the top Celtics stories not related to Kevin Garnett’s facial expressions on the bench, but Paul Pierce and Ray Allen have been equally amazing in a series Boston has absolutely no business winning but probably will anyway.
Wait, aren’t the Celtics the overwhelming favorites? Let’s look at the facts beyond the big names and championship pedigree: Without KG or Leon Powe the Celtics have to count on Kendrick Perkins and Glen Davis to do all the heavy lifting inside, which a year ago would have probably led to the Celtics getting swept by the Hawks in the first round. Stephon Marbury looks like he was recently freed after getting kidnapped by a religious cult who held him hostage for five years; it’s like he’s just getting reacclimated to society and basketball — and he’s still playing decent minutes because the Celtics have no one else to defend Chicago’s smaller guards. Tony Allen would probably be out of the NBA if Boston released him, and he’s getting playing time while dealing with death threats (prediction: Tony will see jailtime within two years of being out of the league). Brian Scalibrine was on the floor yesterday during overtime, even though he’s a marginal talent who’s one collision away from getting forced into retirement due to concussions a la Steve Young.
This isn’t a great Celtics team, as they’re playing without their vocal leader and they still should have finished Chicago off at home yesterday in Game 6. (The only reason they didn’t is Chicago cherry-picked Brad Miller and John Salmons off the Kings, while Boston got stuck with Mikki Moore.) Rondo’s getting a lot of the credit for Boston’s scrappy play, but Jesus Shuttlesworth and Mr. Wheelchair The Truth have kept the Celtics in this series due to sheer force of will.
But who’s better? They’re both capable of going off for 40 at any given time, and it’s almost as if they’ve tried to top each other with clutch shots in this series. But in this world of instant reactions (this is a blog, after all), I’d have to say I’d give Allen the slight edge. Ray went 9-for-18 from 3-point-range yesterday on his way to 51 points, and I can’t remember a shot he missed. Not one. While Rondo got rejected by Derrick Rose and Paul Pierce got absolutely used when Joakim Noah stole his sloppy pass and proceeded to dunk on Pierce and foul him out at the same time, Allen was the best player on the floor. Allen’s a perfect example of how serendipity can propel an NBA star’s career; if he hadn’t been traded to the Celtics after wallowing in the depressing muck known as the bucks and the-team-that-used-to-be-the-Sonics he’d be Mitch Richmond or Alex English.
Pierce has one move at the end of games, his jab-step fallaway jumper at the elbow. Effective, but hardly the most aethetically pleasing way to win a game. Allen plays with the effortless grace of someone who spends more time in the gym than anyone on the team, and has displayed a nasty streak during his time in Boston that wasn’t evident earlier in his career. Not like Rondo, who takes advantage of his diminutive stature by getting away with hitting people in the face and generally acting like an asshole (and from my short time interacting with Rondo in New York a few months ago, that part of his personality isn’t confined to on-court activities), Allen just plays hard and wears a constant facial expression that says, “You can’t rattle me, so don’t even try.” Pierce, on the other hand, is dependable at the free throw line until the last two minutes when he becomes Odom-esque (and Gasol-esque too, to be honest).
Pierce received tons of credit last year for scaling his game back to allow KG and Ray-Ray to get their shine, and he deserved it. Pierce is also the longest-tenured Celtic by far and an excellent, multi-faceted player. That said, if I had a Hall of Fame vote (maybe someday) I’d write Allen’s name over Pierce’s, and not just because I like to do things in alphabetical order. I’m still hoping against hope that the Bulls somehow pull out Game 7 tomorrow night in Boston, more because of my dislike for Rondo and Perkins than my love for watching upsets. However, if Allen and Pierce lead Boston to an exciting victory and play like the future HOFers they are, it’s tough to get too upset. OK, maybe that’s a stretch, but that’s how much I appreciate these guys now. I must be getting soft.