- Peter May, Celtics reporter, ESPNBoston.com
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BOSTON -- Let the gnashing of teeth over LeBron James and his future whereabouts begin. New York? Chicago? Miami? Los Angeles? Maybe LBJ ought to take the midlevel exception and join an intact, proven winner next season -- like the team that sent him and his Cavaliers packing Thursday night.
Somehow, despite James' nine turnovers in the Cavs' 94-85 season-ending loss, I think Celtics president Danny Ainge might agree to accommodate him.
Yes, it is the Celtics, not the Cavs, who are advancing to the Eastern Conference finals. A postseason of improbables layered upon implausibles continues for Boston. In the space of six days, the Celtics went from the ultra-humiliating, a 124-95 loss at home, to the ultra-exhilarating, a rousing victory in Game 6 and a sweep of the last three games of this series.
The team won't -- and can't -- dwell on the significance of this achievement, not with the menacing Magic awaiting in less than 48 hours. But when it's all said and done, by eliminating the No. 1 team of the regular season, this might rank as the Celtics' greatest playoff upset since the 1969 NBA Finals. No one foresaw this; not the ESPN panel of experts, none of whom picked the Celtics. Vegas didn't like the Celtics' chances. You had to think the Cavaliers regarded the Celtics as a stepping-stone.
And now that the Celtics have pulled off the Big One, where does that rate in Paul Pierce's mind?
"I'm really not that proud," Pierce said. "Our goal is to win a championship. We didn't say we wanted to come in and beat the Cleveland Cavaliers in the playoffs. Our goal is to win a championship. We can be excited for one night, but we only get excited here when we put a banner up."
Well, there's still a lot of work remaining in that area. Starting on Sunday against a team that hasn't lost in the postseason and is playing as well as anyone. But this was a night when the Celtics showcased so much of the promise we had seen now and again, on occasion, over the course of the season. (OK, when we did see it, it probably was 2009.) This was a night that vindicated Ainge's February decision to keep the team intact and hope it got its you-know-what together in time.
There was a springy, bouncy Kevin Garnett, who appears to be peaking at the right time, scoring 22 points and grabbing 11 rebounds. There was Rasheed Wallace, who played to the tune of "Comfortably Numb" all season, emerging with 13 points (including two huge 3-pointers) along with three rebounds and a blocked shot.
There was Tony Allen, defending James as well as humanly possible while also finding time for 10 points, including one poster dunk, and three steals. There was Paul Pierce knocking down a pair of treys in the second half after another foul-plagued first half. There was Rajon Rondo, the best player in the series, slicing his way to 21 points, 12 assists and five steals.
Simply put, the Celtics had the balance and the Cavs had the bombast. In James, Cleveland had the best player on the floor, even though he appeared to be limited by his sore right elbow. (He still managed 27 points, 19 rebounds, 10 assists and three steals on 1.5 elbows.) But his supporting cast, which had been so diligently put together, pretty much disappeared.
Antawn Jamison (2-for-10) did nothing. Mo Williams had a great first half (20 points) but then reverted to pumpkin status in the second half (finished with 22). Shaq (11 points, four boards) was pretty much a lumbering presence throughout. (Good thing the Cavs got him to defend Dwight Howard in the playoffs, huh?)
"We got good rhythm as the series went on," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "All we talked about was, individually, we're not going to beat them. We can't. But teamwise, if we're together and on the same page -- then we had a chance. And I thought, overall, we stayed in that. And that is why we won the series."
They also won because they rediscovered what makes them tick -- and what makes them win -- after that sorry performance in Game 3. They allowed 124 points in that game. In the final three games, they allowed 87, 88 and 85 points. Cleveland's field goal percentage in those three games: 40.3, 41.2 and 38.4.
"They played great defense against us," said Cavs coach Mike Brown. "The regular season is a lot different than the postseason and we knew they were going to be a different team. And we hoped that we [would be]. Boston stepped up. We [didn't]."
The Celtics got into the Cavs' heads. And they got into the Cavs' hearts. Boston was the tougher, more resilient team. Cleveland looked like a chaotic, dispirited bunch at the end. As Pierce noted: "We know we have championship experience. We know what we have in this locker room. There is nothing that is going to take that away from us. We are a proven group and we feel like this is where we want to be."
All the talk in Cleveland (and beyond) now will focus on LeBron and where he'll play next season. This is the second year in a row he has been the league MVP and the leader of the NBA's best regular-season team, and the second year in a row he has missed the NBA Finals. In each year, his team was bounced unceremoniously in six games in its final series -- last year in the Eastern Conference finals, this year in the semis.
But let the others concern themselves with the King. (There were half a dozen New York writers at the game, undoubtedly hoping LeBron would commit to the Knicks after the game, making it Tabloid Heaven.) Rivers joked that he was planning to go to Orlando after the Cleveland series, win or lose, because that is where he lives.
"This way, I'm taking the guys with me," he said.
And right now, it's a ride worth taking, a ride worth enjoying, and a ride worth watching. And with the promise of more to come, who knows?
Longtime Celtics reporter Peter May is a contributor to ESPNBoston.com.
46mMichael C. Wright