Commentary

Repeat this: The journey is arduous

Originally Published: April 29, 2009
By Gene Wojciechowski | ESPN.com

Ray Allen cried. Or tried to. He sat in the Boston Celtics' locker room on June 17 and was overwhelmed not only by the moment, but by the reality of just how difficult it is to win an NBA championship.

[+] EnlargePaul Pierce
Brian Babineau/NBAE/Getty ImagesPaul Pierce and the Celtics have been severely tested by the Bulls -- and it's only the first round.
He was an emotional mess. One scoop of joy plopped inside a waffle cone of physical and mental exhaustion. The Celtics had just won the league title, their first since 1986, but Allen was numbed by the journey. There were bear hugs and smiles, but by the end of it all, Allen was in zombie mode.

"You're there physically with your family, but you're somewhere else," Allen said.

That was 10 months ago. Now, Allen and the Celtics are in the midst of another playoff dogfight. And if they hadn't macheted their way out of a 10-point deficit with less than seven minutes left in regulation of Tuesday night's Game 5, the Celtics would have been at the brink of postseason elimination.

Two-peat? Are you kidding? The Celtics are just trying to crawl from their first-round series against the Chicago Bulls to the Eastern Conference semis.

Boston leads this thing 3-2, but don't ask how. The Bulls were thisclose to having the series advantage -- and a chance to close it out at the United Center on Thursday evening -- but they malfunctioned at the absolute worst time.

The Bulls had an 11-point fourth-quarter lead with 9:27 remaining at The Garden, a 10-point lead with 6:55 left and a four-point lead with 1:50 to play. Didn't matter. The game went into overtime for a third time this series and Boston won 106-104. Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro suggested that the Celtics whacked and flagrant-fouled their way to it.

Anyway, if the Celtics want another championship ring to match those donut-sized, emerald- and diamond-dipped monsters of a year ago, they're going to have to channel their inner 2008 playoff selves. Whatever happens, it's obvious nothing is going to come easy for the Celtics. If anything, it will be just as hard as a season ago, maybe worse.

"We won 66 games and it was a struggle all season," Allen said of their 2007-08 campaign. "The playoffs were just a continuation of the regular season for us struggling. It wasn't anything different. It was like we were grinding everything out the whole season long and in the playoffs. We've got the same scenario. Everybody's stressed out trying to win."

Last season, it was June before Allen's fumes were on fumes. By then the Celtics had played two seven-game playoff series and then two six-game series. Except for the Finals-clinching blowout of the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 6, little came easy for those Celtics.

But not once during those 26 playoff games did the Celtics go to overtime. Against the Bulls, there already have been four OT periods -- and we've still got at least one, possibly two games left in the series.

"I don't think a lot of people are expecting us to make it past this round," the Celtics' Kendrick Perkins said. "If we make it past this round, I think that's good. But obviously that's not our goal. I think we could really make it to the Eastern Conference finals against the [Cleveland] Cavs, to be honest. And then just give ourselves a chance. Just give ourselves a chance."

But the April 2009 Celtics aren't last season's Celtics. They're not even the February 2009 Celtics.

Kevin Garnett (strained knee ligaments) last played March 25. You can now see him on the Boston bench wearing a pleasing array of pinstripe suits and sweater vests. There's a chance he could return later in the playoffs, much like there's a chance Celtics coach Doc Rivers is an actual physician.

Meanwhile, Leon Powe tore his left ACL in Game 2 of this series against Chicago. So he's done.

Team president Danny Ainge had a heart attack April 16. Before that, he went dumpster diving and took a chance on Stephon Marbury, who hadn't played in a playoff game since 2004 and has cracked double-digit scoring exactly twice since making his C's debut Feb. 27. Ainge also signed center Mikki Moore three days before he acquired Marbury.

Brian Scalabrine, who looks scarily similar to Will Ferrell's Jackie Moon in "Semi-Pro" (figures, they're both USC alums), has dealt with post-concussion syndrome.

Rajon Rondo sprained his ankle in Game 3, was eventually helped off the floor and later returned to the lineup. Asked about Rondo's condition after a recent off-day workout, Rivers deadpanned, "He went through the whole practice. We had no problems. They carried him off afterwards."

So, yes, Rondo knows how to milk the moment. He also has been the best player in this series, maybe the entire playoffs, so he has earned a little "me time." The point is, the Celtics have some issues. Injuries. Chemistry. The Bulls.

"It's just hard," Perkins said. "It's something that you have to go through to really know how it is. You can't just talk about it; you have to go through it. I feel like going through this past season was the hardest season ever. ... As far as injuries, it can't get any worse. I pray every night just for us to stay healthy."

Garnett's injury was a killer, of course. But Powe's departure also has had a significant trickle-down effect. As for Marbury, he plays like a guy with huge rust flakes on his game. He leads the series in most wide-open shots not taken.

"The season was tough because everyone attacks you," Rivers said a few days ago. "Then having the injuries, it's been very difficult. But our guys have kept focus through it. That's the whole key. We talk about it all the time that we pay 12, we don't pay one or two. Unfortunately, we have to live through it right now. But everybody's ready."

The Celtics aren't looking for sympathy. They see the Bulls' Ben Gordon playing with a strained hamstring (and a pain-killing injection). They see Luol Deng (tibia stress fracture) in street clothes. They know Chicago's John Salmons has an injured groin. And the Bulls made their own mid-February roster moves when they acquired Brad Miller and Salmons from Sacramento.

The Celtics now have two games to accomplish the hardest thing in the playoffs: survive and advance.

"We're trying, man," Perkins said.

He said it wearily, like a guy who knows how thin the difference is between the Celtics' postseason becoming the Celtics' offseason.

Gene Wojciechowski is a senior national columnist for ESPN.com and ESPNChicago.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn3.com.

Gene Wojciechowski | email

Columnist / College Football reporter

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