Lenny Megliola: Finals opener lived up to hype
First the glitter, then the game. Mercifully, after a week of suffocating hype, there was a game.
Game 1 of the Atlanta series created a buzz at the Garden. Game 1 against Cleveland was high-pitched, mostly because LeBron James was in the house. Game 1 against Detroit, the place was smokin'. All good stuff.
And yet the mind couldn't help wondering who and what it would come down to at the end. Then we found out. And we waited.
So this was it. The Celtics and Lakers finally got a chance to take issue with each other last night.
The tension was stifling. Wasn't this how the NBA Finals should be? Who could say how many games this would go? It's foolish guessing what might be with such strong-minded teams like these two.
Game 1 gave us only a sampling, and it came with Boston's 98-88 win, a black and blue, back-alley scrape.
It took a Kevin Garnett putback slam of a missed James Posey jumper to produce a 94-86 lead and bring some relief to the pressure. Garnett nearly stuffed Pao Gasol and the ball through the basket. This came after Garnett had missed three straight very makeable jumpers.
In the third quarter, Paul Pierce cracked his knee into Kendrick Perkins'. Pierce was taken to the locker room. Was he done for the night, just when he was heating up? No way. He came back Willis Reed-style a few minutes later and induced a thunderous ovation like Barack Obama is hearing these days. Pierce finished with 22 points. All heart.
``I heard a pop in my knee, and all I felt was pain,'' Pierce said.
``Obviously (Pierce) coming back lifted us up,'' said Doc Rivers. The coach liked the second half better than the first. ``We didn't play any defense in the first half (51-46 Lakers). In the second half, we did our jobs.''
Waiting for the Finals to start, everybody wanted to know everything about these two teams. Who'd guard who? Which team had the better bench? The truer fans? The sexier dancers?
The Lakers were first to the Finals, eliminating the San Antonio Spurs in five games. Boston took out Detroit in six. Then, said Ray Allen, ``the market machine went into full-blown.'' It was Boston and L.A. again. There was a lot of history to dust off. A lot of catching up to do.
Right out of the box, most of the ``experts'' had the Lakers winning the series. Some even thought it'd be an easy path to LA's 15th title, which would put the Lakers just one banner behind the Celtics. The Lakers were so good you'd think they might win the series in three games. The Celtics would be so overwhelmed that they'd forfeit Game 4.
Rivers was clear on one thing. ``The Lakers are the toughest offensive team we've played in the playoffs. They have the best scorer on the planet.''
That would be Kobe Bryant. He knows a thing or two (actually 3, as in rings won) about the finals. He wouldn't get lost in incessant buildup. ``With all the hype and media attention,'' he said, ``once you step out there on the floor it's about one thing and one thing only, and that's who can execute their game plan best. Whoever does will win. You have a lot of hunger (in the Finals). You have the will to win. But from my experience you have to execute.
``You can want it worse than anyone on the planet, but if you don't have a group of guys that collectively execute, you're not going to win.''
Bryant was held in check. He shot just 9-of-26. Ray Allen, with some help from his friends, worked Kobe hard. Allen found time to score 19 points, with some clutch free throws involved.
The Celtics are burdened with the successes of unforgettable Celtics teams from the past. Their ghosts were everywhere. ``I don't know if they're conscious of living up to it, but they are definitely conscious of it,'' said Rivers. ``I think you have to me a mushroom or something if you're not. It's on every day. Everybody talks about it.''
The old Celtics would've been proud of the way the today Celtics handled the heat in this one.
When it comes to championship banners and retired numbers in the Staples Center, the Lakers hardly have to bow to the Boston banners. Bryant sees the retired jerseys of West and Baylor and Magic and Kareem. ``It's a great deal to live up to,'' he said.
But that kind of stuff has to be put aside. ``We have a job to do,'' said Rivers, ``and that's all we're focused on. But it's still nice that it's the Lakers. It's fun.''
Doc knows this too. ``They're only going to remember the winners.''
Allen, perhaps speaking for both teams, said ``we just want to make it a great series.'' The networks were begging for it to be so. A seven-game series between the Lakers and Celtics would be a stroll through hoop heaven lined with dollar bills.
Much will be made of the coaching matchup, Rivers against Phil Jackson. Big difference. It's like a rookie being called up from Double A and trying to tell Chipper Jones how to hit. Doc vs. Dr. Phil? ``Night and day,'' said Rivers. ``I've never been here, Phil has.'' Many times, to the tune of nine rings to Doc's zero.
It was the first Finals for Pierce, Garnett and Allen too. ``I don't know what the moment is going to present,'' said Allen. This will be a series of moments. Many will be memorable.
``It's taken them a great deal of pain and suffering to get to this point,'' said Bryant. He and Pierce, an L.A. guy, worked out last summer. Neither player was particularly happy with their situation at the time. ``We talked about who'd be traded first,'' said Bryant. Now they're playing for the biggest prize in the game. ``I think we're both shocked,'' said Bryant, ``in a pleasant way.''
Last night was only the beginning. It's the Celtics and Lakers, the last dancers on the floor again. Like William Faulkner wrote in Requiem For A Nun: ``The past is never dead. It's not even past.''
Lenny Megliola is a MetroWest Daily News columnist. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.