The week of seemingly endless hype was over. All of the analysis, flashbacks and predictions were finally put to the side. At last, the ball was tipped on the 62nd edition of the NBA Finals. While we waited restlessly all week for the series to get underway, All-Everything forward Kevin Garnett had waited his entire life for Thursday night. With one thunderous putback jam at 1:31 left in the fourth quarter, Garnett announced his arrival on the game’s biggest stage. This feud may be built upon legends of the yesteryear but KG and others made clear that this series will write its own dramatic chapter to the league’s greatest rivalry story.
As expected, the ghosts of the Garden loomed over the game’s every move, and as such it was a game that Boston absolutely had to win. The 16 banners in the rafters dictated that they protect home court. The presence of Bill Russell courtside demanded their absolute best. Tradition and history prescribed a C’s win to set the tone for this much-hyped clash of titans. Despite Sam Cassell’s best efforts, despite a few hiccups down the stretch on offense, and despite a major scare from Paul Pierce, that is exactly what materialized. Boston succeeded in making Kobe Bryant a volume shooter, something he has not been throughout the playoffs. In coming at him from varied angles and making him take impossible leaners instead of layups, they got Los Angeles totally out of their comfort zone. That forced the Ronny Turiafs and Sasha Vujacics of the world to take ill-advised shots throughout the second half and gave Boston an opening. Los Angeles sealed their own fate in failing to capitalize on Pierce going down; when he came hopping out of the tunnel, doing the worst-acted Willis Reed impression seen since Reggie Miller in the 1998 Eastern Conference Final, the Lakers were done.
Boston had to have this 98-88 win, if for no other reason than to prove to themselves that they belonged in this grandest theater. None of the Big Two-and-a-Half had ever played a minute in the Finals. Had they tightened up and choked away the home court advantage they had worked all season to get, there would likely be no coming back . If they let Game 1 slip away, a game in which they dictated the pace of play throughout, it is likely that doubt and fear would have crept into the locker room at the new Garden and cast uncertainty over this dream season reaching its final destination. But by getting the looks they wanted on offense, by thoroughly dominating the boards on both ends, and by keeping the Lakers out of any kind of rhythm in the second half, the Celts seized a critical victory and snatched the momentum away from their blood rivals.
It is a blessed thing for coach Doc River’s crew that they were able to put the Lakers to bed too, because the Lakers are unlikely to play that poorly again. Their rust from a full week off certainly showed early and often: they shot just 21.4% from three and had a mere 33 total rebounds. Los Angeles should take heart though. Bryant is not going to an encore 9-26 performance, Radmanovic will not pick up the same cheap fouls next time and Luke Walton is highly unlikely to utterly disappear again. At least as a life-long Laker fan, that is what I keep telling myself. Garnett and the rest of the Celts avoided falling behind 1-0 to Phil Jackson and in doing so avoided certain doom: Jackson is an astounding 42-0 after winning the first game of a playoff series. That bullet dodged, the proverbial ball is now in the Lakers’ court, and how they respond at the start of Game 2 is likely to tell us the story about how the rest of this (potentially) epic Finals will play out.
From the vintage Bird-Magic commercial at half to Garnett’s iconic slam, Game 1 offered us exactly what we wanted as fans of this beautiful game. We should expect more of the same Sunday night, and perhaps Bryant’s shooting touch will join the festivities as well. In any case, Thursday’s battle proved that we can now stop talking about what this rivalry used to mean and look forward to what it will be going forward.