I haven't posted since last week, so allow me to get this out of my system and say, ominously... It's All Happening. Before addressing the historical (or maybe more accurately, historiographical) questions posed by Tim in his last post, allow me to drop the not-entirely-un-noteworthy news that Tony Allen will probably miss the Finals with an Achilles injury. Considering how little TA has played in the postseason thus far (he's taken exactly one shot since the Atlanta series) this might not seem like a huge deal, although if the C's start getting in foul trouble against Kobe his presence may be missed. If this is the last we see of #42 this year he deserves an ovation, both for coming back from that gruesome knee injury last year and for adapting seamlessly and without complaint to a new (and, let's face it, diminished) role on an overhauled team. On the more humorous side this might mean Scalabrine dresses, although I'm personally hoping for Pruitt just to keep things interesting.
Now, on to the larger, weightier questions being knocked about by Tim and others on the figuring of this series in NBA lore. Tim makes the excellent point that since Jordan retired for the second time, the ol' Larry O'Brien has been almost exclusively the property of Mssrs. O'Neal and Duncan (doesn't this fact make the 2004 Pistons Championship seem even more impressive in retrospect?). It's also safe to say that a degree of immortality is on the line for both teams and their designated "superstars" (in this case, Kobe and KG), although I can't help but feel like Kobe has a bit more heat on him to make the next step. If the Lakers lose this series (and they certainly can) it will be on him, fair or unfair, and for a guy who has already been demonized for blowing up a championship team to soothe his own ego, among other things, a loss here will re-open the floodgates of doubt. Part of this is because the Celtics' best (perhaps only) shot of winning this thing is for Tom Thibodeau to draw up some sort of deKobeizing defensive strategy, such as the one explored by Henry at TrueHoop in this fantastic post from yesterday. If the C's are able to neutralize Kobe by making him regress to his high-volume-shooting neuroses--and neuroses is not too strong a word--not only do the Celtics have a good chance of winning this series but all of the "Kobe's too selfish to play within a system when it counts" stories will come back at a deafening roar. Kobe is an astonishingly polarizing player, and for all those who can't wait to see him ascend into an extremely exclusive pantheon (and a championship right now would do just that), there's just as many who'd love to see him lose in five, if only so they could point and say, tersely and loudly: "Not Jordan."
Garnett is a somewhat more delicate and confounding case. I'm going to go out on a limb and say that if there's one thing these playoffs have shown it's that most Celtics fans, myself included, slightly overrated Kevin Garnett during the regular season. This isn't to diminish KG's considerable accomplishments but merely to point out that, knowing what we know now, it seems categorically insane that many were vocally lobbying for KG to win MVP over Kobe, which in restrospect would have been an error of near-Nowitzkian proportions. Make no mistake, Garnett is a great player, still quite possibly a top-five player in terms of overall impact if not overall skill. But Kevin Garnett's not playing for the same sort of historical status that Kobe is. A championship for Garnett would be a terrific story, a fantastic vindication of an all-time great, and it says here that if the C's win the title KG quickly becomes the front-runner for Sports Illustrated's "Sportsman of the Year" and all that sort of shit. But he's not Kobe, for better and for worse, and there's nothing wrong with that.
This leads us to an element of this series that will probably manage to be both over- and under-discussed over the coming weeks: the question of Paul Pierce. Shoals had a terrific guest-post about this over at Deadspin yesterday, and it's a conversation worth continuing: what happens to Paul Pierce if the Celtics pull this thing out? As readers of this site probably know--and just check the banner if you forget--both Tim and myself are among the more vocal leaders of the Paul Pierce Appreciation Society (it's metaphoric, don't go to Google). In my opinion Pierce is one of the most misunderstood and underappreciated athletes in the history of Boston sports, and perhaps the most striking part about this playoffs has been watching Pierce methodically play his way into the pantheon of Celtic greatness. And if you're one of the few Celtics fans out there who still doesn't see this, well, I sincerely hope that you'll go find another team to follow. All season long Garnett was telling anyone who'd listen that Paul Pierce was the MVP of this team, and we all dismissed it as more of KG's delightful blend of intensity and humility; now, a month into this whole thing, the question that ought be on everyone's lips is: Holy shit, what if he was right? Paul Pierce is, to a massive degree, the reason we're here: his 41 in Game 7 of the Cleveland series is already legendary, but his 27 in the Eastern Conference clincher was quietly magnificent: 43 minutes; 8-12 shooting; 10-13 from the line; 8 boards.
The basketball punditocracy doesn't know what to do with him: they're already cranking out story after story about Pierce's LA roots (by Thursday this trend may reach "Jerome Bettis is from Detroit"-level idiocy), but this isn't supposed to be Pierce's show: the script since November (July, even?) has called for Pierce to be Pippen to Garnett's Jordan, Kobe to his Shaq, if you will. What if it's the other way around? What if it's always been the other way around, exactly like Garnett's been trying to tell us for as long as there's been a microphone in his face?
If the Lakers win, Kobe ascends to Top-15 all-time status, possibly even Top-10. If the Celtics win, KG loses basketball's biggest albatross and most likely crosses over into legitimate cultural phenomenon in a way that few sports stars do, when you really think about it. Neither of these, at the end of the day, are all that interesting; they've seemed almost pre-ordained for quite a while now, even farther back than we care to admit. Pierce is a different story: he has the chance to become something entirely unexpected, something new, as strange as that is to say. Kobe and KG are freakish basketball geniuses, forces of nature and marketing, figures whose successes and failures have stalked the consciousness of an entire generation of basketball fans: theirs has been a path of magazine covers, Gatorade commercials and gauzy Sunday Conversations. It's partly for this reason that Pierce has a chance at a sort of sports heroism that we don't see much of anymore. Mark my words, if the Celtics win this series, it's Pierce we'll remember, maybe not at the post-series presser, or even the EPSYs or Barbara Walters' 10 Most Fascinating People of 2008, but sometime later. And these memories will last.