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Tuesday, June 10, 2008
Jump shot Jesus has returned

By Scoop Jackson
ESPN.com

Ray Allen
After struggling in the early playoff rounds, Ray Allen has returned to form against the Lakers.

BOSTON -- When the ball left his hand, everyone on the Celtics bench held up three fingers. Some moved forward, some stood still.

Splash. You know the Greg Louganis sound balls make when his shots take 23-foot dives. Timeouts follow. His teammates rush him, but he just holds up his left white-sleeved arm, opening his hand for fives. The crowd in the Garden, hysterical. Some calling out his name. It's like a Baptist church full of 18,000 Irish parishioners. Jesus!!! Damn, it feels good to see people up on it. And even in the midst of this third-quarter euphoria, there's a subtle reminder that he still hasn't had that game yet … or that collection of games … that's going to make them forget.

The only thing Ray Allen was killing was the faith Boston had in him.

They forgive in Boston, but forgetting is something that doesn't come easily, if ever. If you stay here long enough, comb the stands during Games 1 and 2, go to bars on Newbury Street, attend a Red Sox game, find the one out of every eight people you see wearing a Ray Allen jersey walking down Causeway Street, you will discover that there still is a lingering amount of unreasonable doubt when it comes to his being a Celtic.

Forget all the other games in which he shined that led him to those less-than-Jesus games in these 2008 playoffs. Forgiveness is what he has to work with here. Depending on the game he's just played, the word "sucks" has been heard a lot. But two games away from returning the title to the city that is claiming itself TitleTown, the doubt about Walter Ray Allen is evaporating.

Just very, very, very … slowly.

***

Doc Rivers sat in front of the media contingent before Game 2 and told a lie that any politician would envy. With a face straight as 6 o'clock, Rivers responded to a question about the Celtics' defensive strategy with these words: "There's a concern every time you play any team that Kobe [Bryant] is on. He's a great player. Again, he did miss some shots that he's capable of making. We understand that. I wouldn't be surprised to see him start out aggressive. But we can do nothing about that; we're going to play our same defense."

Catch the lie?

The beauty that became Boston's second win came in the defensive switch Rivers made by putting the responsibility of holding Kobe in check on Ray Allen. Unlike Game 1, when every Celtic that happened to be African-American had the assignment-by-design of throwing himself in front of Bryant to throw his game off, Allen was Rivers' script flipped. He was Rivers' lie.

Ray Allen
Ray Allen's defense on Kobe Bryant has helped the Celtics build a 2-0 lead in the NBA Finals.
It was Allen's nerve-wracking solo defense on Bryant throughout the game -- that got Kobe into foul trouble early and mentally seemed to get under his skin -- that was the catalyst to Boston having a 24-point lead before almost giving the game away at the end. Yet was he of the 3 that was not asked to come to the postgame podium and discuss his role in the win. Hidden by the overnight sensation that is Leon Powe, Ray stood at his locker, took a few questions, and called it one. He didn't notice that outside, the "Ray Allen sucks" crowd was finally beginning to forgive him.

Just not forgotten.

This newfound defensive proficiency is the first stage of his resurrection. But even in a Finals in which he so far hasn't had to have one of those "old-school Ray Allen games" for the Celtics to win, the mental adjustment of accepting that he can do more than make beautiful-but-deadly buckets is still too difficult to wrap their green hearts around. It's harder to forgive when the shots are not going in. Even if you are holding Kobe to 30.

Now his big moments -- even when his teammates are throwin' up treys on the bench when he shoots -- come in less theatrical fashion. They are coming quietly in performances of defensive stops and encores of stopping runs. One thing is known: The Ray Allen we see now is not the Ray Allen of four weeks ago. Maybe the reason the Celts look like a totally different team now is because he's returned. Even if it is a different him.

"I've always thought there's a difference between taking over a game and being a game changer," former Dime editor Isaac Perry said of Allen after Game 2. "Ray has the ability to do both in this series. He can take over a game if he's the sole offensive threat, or he can change the game if he operates in a more secondary role, as he does with the Celtics. You know that within moments, he can still provide the offense that instantly changes the face of a contest. And watching him do it is special."

But as the unmonolithic baller emerging in front of our eyes works to find his way, Allen knows he may never be able to shake how the basketball world has come to accept him.

***

They say he's got his game back. Not in the 26.4 points per game way that he had coming into Boston, but a game that most times (even with a 14.2 ppg playoff average entering the Finals) makes him the most dangerous player on the Celtics' payroll. He was the algorithm that was supposed to make the Celtics a mathematically impossible team to solve. Because of his accuracy, range, desire to take the shots that only two other players on his team want to take (Paul Pierce and Sam Cassell) and ability to take the shots no one else on his team can take, he was the one who made the pick-your-poison stratagem in basketball poisonous: It is mathematically impossible to double-team three players on the court at the same time. The Celts have the three players who demand doubles 48/24 ("It's not a traditional three with them. It's more like one, 1A, then three," according to Peter Vecsey). In this system, Ray was to be the poison. He was brought to Boston to massacre.

The blood that he left in the beginning was too often his. The only thing Ray Allen was killing was the faith Boston had in him. He said all the right things and did all the correct things to get out of his playoff slump, but those couple of hundred extra shots a day weren't the solution.

Word spread that there was a family matter that was occupying his mind that made it a near impossibility for him to concentrate on the goal at hand. It sounded almost like an out … an excuse. Until it was discovered (and reported by ESPN's "E:60") that Ray's stepfather was nearly the victim of a murder for hire back in 2003 just before he married Ray's mother, and the man behind the attempted murder turned out to be Ray's stepfather's ex-wife's husband ... and forgiveness started to set in. The trial started in November, but the man didn't wind up getting convicted until the day of Game 6 of the first-round series against the Hawks. Thirty-three years for conspiracy to commit murder was what they gave him. Ray's mom and stepdad spent two years in witness protection because of it, but over that time period they still kept in contact with Ray.

While his jump shot was not falling, he never said a word. Like Jordan during the 1995 playoffs while his father's murder trial was going on, Ray compartmentalized on a higher level. A level that none of you reading this might ever be able to understand.

Which is why the defensive stand he's taking in games means more than just an attempt to "shut down Kobe." Because he's been able to focus on defense the past two series (beginning with Rip Hamilton in the Detroit series), it has allowed his most sacred possession -- his God's gift of shot -- to find its way back into his game naturally. Almost organically.

Ray Allen is in a transitional state. Out to prove that he is more than the one-dimensional superstar he's been given credit for being, he's trying to find himself offensively while creating himself defensively at the same time.

Just two games deep into these Finals, it's his "other gift" that's given him value that no one in Boston ever expected him to have. Which is why -- unlike Bill Buckner or Babe Ruth -- the other brotha that the congregation in the Garden sometimes screams for could be the one soon-to-be Boston sports hero that they conveniently forget ever did anything that sucked.

Scoop Jackson is a columnist for Page 2.