Monday, May 19, 2008

Celtics and Cavs stage an NBA playoff game for the ages

Yesterday's Celtics/Cavs Game 7, which featured a memorable mano-a-mano shootout between Paul Pierce and LeBron James, hearkened back to the glory days of the NBA.

As I sat on my couch watching Game 7 of the 2008 Eastern Conference Semifinals, witnessing a spectacular battle between All Stars Paul Pierce and LeBron James, I told my son the game reminded me of one of the epic playoff confrontations I grew up watching, like Bird & Dominique, Bird & Magic or Bird & Jordan.

Now, thanks to the Truth and the King, he will have his own playoff classic to recount from his childhood to his kids.

The Celtics defeated James' Cavaliers, 97-92, yesterday at the new Garden, which sounded awfully similar to the old Gahden, especially when the traditional Hub chant of "BULLSHIT!" echoed through the building and the surround sound after a few questionable calls late in the game, and earned the right to take on the Detroit Pistons in the Conference Finals starting Tuesday.

But this game will not be remembered for that, nor for the final score, nor for the sight of Tom Brady wearing a San Francisco Giants hat courtside.

No this one will be remembered for two men bringing the NBA back to relevance, for rekindling the fire in old school basketball fans' bellies by melding memories of immortal league legends with feats of present day superstars to create an everlasting image of how great NBA playoff basketball can be.

For four quarters Sunday afternoon James and Pierce played a full court version of "tag, you're it", each scoring at will early and often while challenging each other to match one big shot for another as they took their teams, fans and a nation of enthralled viewers along for the ride.

LeBron wound up with 45 points on 14-29 shooting including 15 in the final frame, and Pierce ended up scoring 41, 17 of those coming in the second quarter when Boston built a double digit lead, only to see it dwindle down to a single basket thanks to James' heroics.

At one point late in the game, after a pair of Bron treys cut the Boston lead to three points, Pierce stood at the free throw line with the outcome still in the balance and his stat sheet sitting at 39 points. As he shot the first freebie the ball hit the back of the rim and bounced straight up in what appeared to be a late game brick from a tired player.

But miraculously the ball plopped straight back down and through the net, ringing 4-0on Pierce's point register and ensuring the Celts were going to pull this one out.

As a nervous smile spread across a relieved Pierce's face, the rest of the NBA fans smiled as well.
In a series that had been about as painful to watch as an episode of Cashmere Mafia, the duo not only revitalized the semifinals but may have possibly brought the sport of NBA basketball back from the abyss.

With the recent infusion of entitled youngsters, gigantic guaranteed salaries and a business-first mentality that has permeated the Association in the past decade, not to mention a crushing referee betting scandal, the league has taken numerous hits of late, both PR and fan interest-wise.

Sure there have been some memorable postseason games played the last few years. The Suns and Lakers have been involved in a few, Dallas and Golden State Game 7 last year was epic, and the Spurs have had a couple of gems during their run of dominance this decade.

But not since the 80s have we seen a truly memorable scoring duel between two NBA superstars in a crucial Game 7, and rightfully so this one is being called the greatest series-deciding duel since Bird and Dominique Wilkins in 1987.

In that game Larry Legend was, well, legendary, dropping in shots from all over the court en route to a monster 20-point 4th quarter and 34 point night. But as good as Legend was 'Nique was even better, pouring in 47 points on a barrage of layups, jumpers and rim-rattling dunks, but his Hawks ultimately lost to my Cs 118-116 in a game that has been called one of the greatest game 7s of all time.

Until now.

I'm not suggesting yesterday's game, which had enough suspense, thrills and jaw-dropping moments to qualify as a summer theatrical blockbuster , was better than that one.

But I am saying that thanks to the efforts of two special players, the torch has finally been passed from one generation to the next.

"We both tried to will our team to victory and, just like Dominique Wilkins, I ended up on the short end and the Celtics won again," James said. "I think the second round of the postseason, Game 7, these fans will finally have an opportunity to forget a little bit about what Larry Bird and Dominique Wilkins did and remember what Paul and LeBron did. This will go down in history."

Amen, King James.

Thankfully, we were all witnesses.