This afternoon the Celtics might have finally proven to the doubters that they are championship contenders. Being thirty games above .500 and 16-0 against the Western Conference will do that for you. The C's beat the Spurs 98-90 today in a game that was exceptionally played despite the absence of a star for each team. Pierce led the charge with 35 points; but really it was the total team effort on the defensive end that propelled the Celtics to victory.
Missing both KG and Perk, the assignment to defend Duncan fell on the shoulders of Powe and Big Baby. While Timmy had an excellent game (22 points, 14 boards, 6 dimes)he was relatively contained throughout, and that was enough to give the Celtics the upper hand. Baby was constantly able to move his feet and use his girth to subdue Duncan from getting in too deep in the box. And the C's team defense was tenacious; they successfully disrupted one of the more efficient offensive teams in the NBA, even without Tony Parker.
The game began with Pierce and Ginobili both scorching, and carrying the action for much of the first frame. But as the second quarter moved along, San Antonio's plan of using Duncan as a facilitator was beginning to be actualized smoothly - which had to worry the Celtics. Luckily Ray Allen stepped up and managed to do an equally good job of playmaking for the C's offense. This led to the first half being played to essentially a draw, with Boston up by two.
But in the third quarter a subtle shift occurred; Boston seemed to gain confidence in the belief that they could actually contain Duncan even though they had no one over 6-8 on the court. This swagger led to Rondo taking charge on the glass (11 boards to go along with 12 assists) and Big Baby amping up everyone else with his continual acceptable D on Duncan. It appeared that the Spurs were not going to be able to blow the Celtics out of the water. And indeed they didn't.
Meanwhile Pierce continued to exert his will on the offensive end, from hitting threes to driving through the lane for layups. Early in the fourth quarter Tony Allen had one of his unpredictable minor explosions (six points in a minute) and the Celtics were up by nine. The question was whether the Spurs could come back. Duncan and Ginobili were having their regular strong games, and Michael Finley wasn't missing much (he finished with 19). With seeming inevitability, the Spurs lowered the margin. Duncan got a few buckets inside, and before you knew it Manu had canned a three to make it a two point game with 1:23 to go.
But the Celtics did not panic. If there is a beauty to this team, it is the salty doggedness that all the players seem to possess - if they lose it certainly will not be for lack of confidence. This steeliness was in full display in the last minute. The Celtics forced Ginobili into a bad shot with 48 seconds to play, and held onto a three point lead with the ball. Pierce then worked the clock down, and missed a short jumper. But Rondo aggressively swooped in for the offensive board - to seal the game, as the Celtics hit their free throws.
And so the Celtics' grittiness again won out, clearly Garnett is not the only place that this cold resolve comes from. Everybody on the team seems dogged; today it was Rondo and Big Baby who came through when it mattered most - hardly weathered veterans. It is this passion that has given us such optimism regarding the team. In the modern NBA perhaps Powe and Big Baby are capable of playing center. On a bad team that would be a lousy idea, but on a squad with such good chemistry, it might just work.