Jason Terry had to come through for any of this to work.
The Celtics had plenty of “keys” to victory as they entered their first-round playoff series against the Knicks. Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett needed to play at their usual All-Star level. Jeff Green had to provide whatever offensive boost those two future Hall of Famers could not manage. Brandon Bass had to be just as reliable, if not more so, defending Carmelo Anthony as he was LeBron James in last year’s playoffs.
Oh yes, and Terry had to be more like the player he was in 1997 at Arizona or 2011 in Dallas, and less like the imposter version he was for most of this season.
Of all those keys, Terry was the most questionable. To varying degrees, Pierce, Garnett, Green and Bass had all shown the ability to do what Celtics coach Doc Rivers needed them to do against the Knicks. Terry had yet to prove the same. In the first three games of the series, while many of his teammates performed exactly as Rivers hoped they would, Terry struggled. Predictably, the Celtics lost all three of those games.
“He’s got to be our X-factor,” Pierce said of Terry earlier in the series. “Guys are going to load up on me, load up on Kevin, and he’s got to be our X-factor. We depend on him for that.”
Finally, Terry is becoming someone the Celtics truly can depend on. After he helped deliver an overtime win in Game 4 with his clutch shooting, Terry delivered again in Game 5 on Wednesday. He came off the bench to score 17 points, eight of which came while hitting all three shots he took in a decisive third-quarter run. His performance brought to mind his comments Sunday evening, when he declared that he did not want to go home now to spend a long offseason mulling his disappointing first season in Boston.
“At the end of the day, this is it,” Terry said after Game 4. “It’s going to be a long summer, so every game is crucial, every possession.”
Terry has emerged not a moment too soon for the Celtics, who could have used more of this before they came within a game of getting swept. The veteran guard was the first domino that needed to fall for the Celtics to get their rotation in order and have any shot at advancing past the Knicks.
With Terry playing well, Rivers no longer faces the dilemma of having to play Jordan Crawford or Courtney Lee, neither of whom he seems to completely trust, at shooting guard. Nor does he need to saddle Avery Bradley with primary ballhandling duties, which just about everybody recognizes is a hopeless cause at this point. A productive Terry allows Rivers to experiment with Terrence Williams, who supplied 17 vital minutes in Game 5, and for the Celtics to utilize their “best five” lineup of Garnett, Bass, Green, Pierce and Terry in crunchtime.
The worrisome part for the Knicks is that Terry appears to be getting stronger. He was held scoreless in the series opener, mustered nine points in Game 2 and delivered a mixed bag in Game 3 with 14 points, three turnovers and three fouls. In the last two games — both Celtics wins — he is averaging 17.5 points on 50 percent shooting, plus a total of seven assists, two steals and no turnovers.
Terry has finally shown up. As he promised all season, he has come through when it matters most. The Celtics stuck with him, and he is rewarding their faith in him.