Hustle plays matter. Nine years ago today….
Sunday, May 18, 2008.
Celtics vs. Cavaliers, Eastern Conference Semifinals.
Game 7 folks.
As the playoffs opened, the newly-assembled Celtics had completed an impressive regular season, and the #1 seed in all the NBA.
It wasn’t just the Big 3. The Celtics boasted a complementary cast that included an under-rated point guard (Playoff Rondo), sharp-shooter Eddie House, and sixth-man defender and 3-point assassin James Posey.
Boston’s early-playoff struggles
But this particular team had never made a playoff run together. And like such later superteams (however formed) as LeBron’s Miami Heat, they struggled in their first postseason as a unit. It was a “veteran group” but a “young team.”
In round one, the #8 seed Atlanta Hawks (including a young Al Horford) pushed the C’s to a game 7. Although game 7 was a blowout, the series as a whole felt like anything but.
Next came the Cleveland Cavaliers and You-Know-Who, the King of Akron. The Cavs were the #4 seed, but a team that had made a dash all the way to the finals in 2007 before running into the San Antonio Spurs at Tim Duncan’s peak.
(Indeed, about 10 years ago, in 2007, LeBron decimated the Pistons in that remarkable fourth quarter.)
Clash of the Titans
Games 1-6 all went to the home team. Most were pretty close, save for a game 3 blowout by the Cavs. And indeed, through the first 6, Cleveland had actually outscored the Celtics by 2 points a game.
And now the Celtics faced another game 7.
Game 7? A clash of the titans. A young coming team (LeBron’s Cavs) against a more experienced team of players in their prime (the Celtics.)
And especially, Pierce vs. LeBron.
For the game, LeBron scored 45 to go with 6 assists; Pierce, 41 points and 5 assists. LBJ slightly outdid Pierce on the topline stat sheet, and way outdid him for spectacular dunks. His late steal and slam brought the Cavs, at one point, to within one.
If you look at the highlight reels, and press accounts, you’ll hear all about their scoring exploits; some bone-jarring rim assaults, Pierce 3s, and LeBron’s late 3-clanker. You can watch a video of these Sportscetner-type-play highlights here.
Clutch time hustle
With 1:03 to go, the score was Boston 91, Cleveland 88.
Cleveland missed yet another chance to tie or take the lead at the 1:04 mark when Delonte West (a poor man’s Rondo, sort of), missed a 3-pointer. The rebound went wild, leading to a jump ball between James Posey and the 7-foot-3 Zydrunas Ilgauskas.
A season at stake
To summarize, through 6 games, 46 minutes, and about 57 seconds, the Cavs had outscored the Celtics, and trailed by just 3 points with a 50-50 ball coming up. (But it wasn’t really a 50-50 ball, or shouldn’t have been, given the mismatch on the tip.)
The game, and perhaps an entire championship season, hung in the balance.
Ilgauskas indeed got the tip, patting the ball back just where he should have to the right of the young, athletic LeBron James. And then…
That’s when what we remember as the turning point happened — a play that really should be an NBA or certainly a Boston Celtic legend. A loose ball recovery, steal the tip, hustle play without which, there might be no #Banner17.
Right up there with Cousy dribbles “and it’s all over,” with Don Nelson clanging it “up and… it’s in” — with “Havlichek stole the ball” and “there’s a steal by Bird.”
Rather than fully spoil it for you, we’ll just link you to a play that we never saw on Sportscenter; haven’t heard discussed as one of the great plays in Celtic history or Pierce’s history…. but in our humble opinion, should be.