Ten minutes after Saturday night’s Celtics-Heat game had ended, there still wasn’t much movement in my living room. I was there with five other people, and we basically sat in silence except for whatever noise the television was still providing after we frantically changed the channel a few seconds after the final whistle.
A friend of ours – a girl – had just gotten off work and came over, and she could immediately sense the negative energy in the room when she walked in. I’m sure it didn’t look good in there. Before she had a chance to ask why we all looked like we had just received positive AIDS tests, someone offered her an explanation. “The Celts lost,” one of my buddies said solemnly.
“Oh I’m sorry guys,” she said.
We all mumbled meaningless replies and went back to acting like zombies. But it struck me then, and it holds true now, that there was no need for apologies. There was no need to say sorry.
I’m not sorry at all. Nobody should be.
This five-year period with Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce, one that came together after what appeared to be a snakebite turned into a gift at the NBA Draft lottery, has been nothing short of remarkable. Banking on getting one of the top two picks to land either Greg Oden or Kevin Durant in 2007, the Celts somehow ended up picking at No. 5 despite having the second-worst record in the league, and that spearheaded Danny Ainge’s effort to build the team through other means.
Now in the present, those other means produced a championship, two finals appearance, three conference finals appearances and a new run of Celtics’ greatness after a 20-year drought of something between mediocrity and bottom-feeding.
That’s a run that anybody can be proud of, even with the lofty expectations that came with grouping three future Hall of Famers together.
And one of the best parts of the entire tenure was this season, when there were no expectations. Scratch that – there were expectations – but those expectations were to finish at the bottom of the Eastern Conference playoff picture and get bounced by the Heat or the Bulls in the first round.
So much for that.
It turned out to only be the third-most successful season of the five years, but it was by far the most successful when stacked up against what the team was supposed to do. In 2008, the team was put together to win a championship, and it did. In 2010, the team was poised to win a second title, and it nearly did. In 2012, the team was going to be scrapped for parts at the trade deadline, and instead it went on a stretch that even the most Leprechaun-like green teamers couldn’t – and didn’t – predict.
It was unlikely for so many reasons. The personnel, obviously, was the biggest reason.
Everybody was old, everybody was hurt, feelings were hurt in trade rumors, there was no bench.
There also aren’t usually upsets in the playoffs. The cream always rises to the top. Teams that succeed during the regular season tend to succeed during the playoffs. It’s not the NFL, where the last team in can run the table and win the whole thing. It’s the NBA, where four total teams in the entire league have a realistic chance at winning, and the rest are just spinning their wheels.
But there the Celtics were, one win away from a colossal upset. Boston had two chances to knock off the Heat, holding a 3-2 lead in a series it really had no business contending in in the first place. It didn’t make any sense.
The Celtics were old, the Heat were young. The Heat had the two best players, by far, in the series. The Heat had the three-time league MVP, while the Celtics were hoping that one of their stars could get hot each night long enough to carry the team through. The Celtics best player, Rajon Rondo, had his best game of the series in Game 2 – an amazing 44-point outburst – and the Celtics still lost that game.
So why then were they up 3-2?
The easy answer is that the Celtics were experienced, played well together, believed in each other and got hot at the right time, while LeBron at co. continued to cement their reputation as a team unable to finish off close games in the fourth quarter.
The easy answer is probably right. But it’s not just that the Celtics were more experienced, or that they were so comfortable from playing together – and making so many playoff runs – in this five-year stretch. It’s a specific type of confidence that the Celtics had.
The Celtics had a confidence about them that wasn’t really warranted, until they made it warranted. They thought they belonged on the court with Miami, when they probably didn’t. They thought that they could win another title, when they only had the fifth-best record in the East. It was seeing the world through green-colored glasses, only the effect wasn’t getting a wake-up call – it was playing to a level that they had fooled themselves into believing they were capable of.
The Boston Celtics tricked the Boston Celtics into believing that the Boston Celtics were title contenders. And it worked.
That’s an amazing accomplishment, and it defines everything that draws people to sports. No matter how many times he screwed up in the real world, or gambled his way out of the league (maybe) or anything else, Michael Jordan was beloved by everybody from casual fans to diehard fans because of his penchant for rising up at the right moment. That’s why people love Jordan – not because he could dunk from the free throw line or because his tongue was always out – it was because he made big shots, and did things with his mind that most people could not do. He willed himself to outperform people equally as talented.
Few people have that gene. It’s rare in sports to find someone who literally can change the outcome of the game because they have a different gear they can tap in to only at certain moments. Mental toughness is reserved for the special ones, the great ones, and the ones that we revere.
The 2011-12 Boston Celtics were so mentally tough, that they simply became something that they actually weren’t. They weren’t the second-best team in the East (obviously Derrick Rose’s knee injury helped, but you know what I mean), and if they had somehow beaten Miami, they wouldn’t have been the best team in the East.
But in their own minds, they would have been.
Sometimes you create your own greatness. The Boston Celtics were great this season, because they found a way to convince each other that they were. They came up short, but only because they couldn’t take the illusion any further. There’s only so much the can do. Eventually, the gap between how good they could will themselves to be and how good they physically could be simply became too great.
Yet, taking a team that was left for dead in March all the way to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals is pretty damn good. We’ll look back at this team 10 years from now and not remember the missed opportunities, or how close they were to completely disrupting the basketball landscape. We’ll remember the greatness, the overachieving, the unfounded belief in themselves and how they nearly did the impossible.
When the game ended on Saturday, the cameras caught LeBron hugging Doc Rivers and saying “I really respect you, bro.”
So do I. How could you not?
The Celtics owe no apologies, no sorry’s. There’s nothing to be sorry about.