The Celtics hadn’t swept a playoff series in a long, long time. It had been 19 years, in fact. They couldn’t do it back in 1993 in Reggie Lewis‘ final season, they couldn’t do it in 2008 when they won a title, and they certainly couldn’t do it last spring on their return trip to the NBA Finals.
So naturally, there must have been a little surprise when this year’s C’s held off a late charge from Carmelo Anthony‘s Knicks to win Game 4 of their first-round playoff series.
“No,” countered Rajon Rondo. “That’s what we expected coming in. We knew it wasn’t going to be easy, obviously, after Games 1 and 2. But we found a way to put it away.
“The Celtics hadn’t swept a team in a long time, so this is a good feeling.”
The C’s troubles with closeout games over the years had been well-documented. They had a 3-0 lead on the Heat in round one last year, but it took them two tries to finish the deal. It took them three cracks at the Magic in the East finals to turn a 3-0 lead into a win. Overall, they were 1-9 in series-closing road games since the beginning of the 2008 playoffs.
So of course, when a 23-point C’s lead in the second half was gradually whittled down to four in the fourth quarter, the worries began to set in again. “Here we go again,” thought every Celtics fan with a long-term memory.
But the Celtics didn’t blink under pressure. They got a couple of quick driving layups from Paul Pierce and then Rondo, pushing their lead from four to eight. They made a few key jumpers in the final minutes, they clamped down on the Knicks’ wings, and rather than collapse, they waltzed out of New York City with a 101-89 win.
The Celtics go on; the Knicks go home. Keeping consistent with the weeklong theme, the Celtics took care of business close and late.
“I think we did a great job of closing games out,” Rondo said. “Even the games that we didn’t play well, Games 1 and 2, we did a great job of executing down the stretch. We can take that away as a positive.”
It’s a positive. Sure. But what does it mean going forward? The Celtics got past a Knicks team that was injured and never that deep to begin with, but greater challenges lie ahead. Next round will likely bring the vaunted Miami Heat, with a slew of other dangerous teams lying in wait should the C’s advance from there.
That word “battle-tested” gets thrown around a lot this time of year. Junctures like this are exactly why.
“Adversity is good,” coach Doc Rivers said after the Celtics survived. “That’s what I take away from it.
“It’s a good thing. I told our guys that. I told them to expect it going into the series. We’re going to have it — it wasn’t an if, it was a when. Be prepared for it. Embrace it, it’s a good thing. Enjoy the adversity. You find out who handles it well and who doesn’t, but even the ones who are not at times, you hang in there with them, and eventually they’ll come through for you.”
A lot of guys came through for the Celtics. They relied heavily on Rondo, Pierce, Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett to get them through Games 1, 2 and 3. But in Game 4, they got a little something from everyone.
Glen Davis rose from the dead on Easter Sunday and dropped 14 points on 6-of-8 shooting, a more productive game than his first three combined. Jeff Green gave them athleticism and rebounding off the bench. Delonte West brought a flourish of toughness this team sorely needed.
The C’s have done what they do every April, like clockwork — come together as a team and reach playoff form. The only question now is how far it’ll take them. No one can answer that one yet. Not even their head coach.
“I don’t know,” Rivers insisted. “I really don’t. I say let’s pick all those other teams. We prefer that. What seed are we, the third in the East? We’re the third-seeded team in the East.
“I love our team, I’ve told you that. We do some things that drive us all nuts, but at the end of the day, we have a way to play together and trust each other. As a coach, that’s all you can ask for.”
He could also ask for a shot at an 18th banner, but for now, he’s content just to convincingly win a first-round playoff series. Next week, it’s back to work.