BOSTON -- They are maddening, confounding, confusing, baffling -- and, ultimately, unequivocally lovable.
The Boston Celtics shuffle into their second-round playoff series with Philadelphia and nail the role of the weary, creaky, injured, plodding veterans, acting as though they were primed to be felled by the young Sixers' "gazelles." They fall behind 9-2 before you've even had a chance to pour a brew, sink into your couch and take stock of the new opponent.
"We didn't have it early," concedes coach Doc Rivers. "I thought they played harder, quite honestly, the first 10 minutes of the game."
Of course that is true. The loose balls are grabbed by the dudes in red, the perimeter shots are knocked down by the Sixers, who look as though they are at home instead of in a building that is supposed to be one of the most hostile venues in the NBA. The Garden is deathly silent, and all the fears that kept Rivers awake Friday night are on display in the first half. The Sixers are more athletic, more aggressive. They are fresher. They want the game more.
The Celtics are trailing by 13 (45-32) with 3½ minutes until the intermission and you figure this could get really ugly, especially since Rajon Rondo is getting torched defensively by whomever he guards -- Evan Turner, Lou Williams, doesn't seem to matter.
Boston's point guard has that disinterested look about him that all Celtics fans have come to dread.
If the Celtics plan on winning any basketball games, they need their most athletic player to be completely engaged against a young, hungry, agile, resilient Sixers team.
Rondo confesses afterward he didn't know how he'd play in Game 1 because he didn't get a nap on Saturday.
"I was struggling with my shot early, and I was turning the ball over, so I was trying to do the intangibles," Rondo explains.
Yet, even after factoring in Rondo's underwhelming first half (1-for-5 FG, 8 assists, 3 turnovers), against all basketball sense the Celtics shrink the deficit to five (47-42) at halftime. They have absolutely no business doing any such thing, because they are disjointed offensively, watch a bunch of open shots roll in, then out, and are getting absolutely pounded on the glass, but Kevin Garnett (a game-high 29 points) continues his assault on anyone who dares to guard him in single coverage in the post and checks out with 14 points at the break.
So, as Boston retreats to the inner sanctum of its locker room, there is no panic, no concern.
"It's awesome, really, how we can do that," said Keyon Dooling. "We don't want to be behind. We don't like having to come back all the time, but we're built to last. Ford tough, you know?"
You figure the Celtics will right themselves in the third quarter, because they usually do, even though Paul Pierce's normally lethal jumper has no arc.
They don't disappoint you, ripping off the first six points of the third and clamping down on a Philly team that has stretches of futility that make you wonder if the Sixers will ever score again.
"Yeah," sighs Sixers coach Doug Collins afterward. "Sometimes we have those droughts."
The Sixers go 6 minutes and 44 seconds without a field goal (including the final 3:44 of the first half) and the Celtics are on top 53-49, so that's the game, right? Time to crank it up, extend the lead, put this one to bed and order some roses for the missus for the morning.
But Turner (16 points) is having himself a night, and Andre Iguodala (19 points), too, and Philly's interior passing is impressive and Spencer Hawes (15) keeps converting and the Sixers counter with enough baskets to stake themselves to a 10-point edge with 10:38 left in this basketball game.
Well, that seems to register with Rondo, who decides he better stop napping on company time and impose his will on this game, too. So he starts knocking down perimeter jumpers -- a bunch of them. Suddenly he's pushing the ball off Sixers misses, and the maddening, confounding, confusing, baffling and ultimately lovable point guard takes over the game. He becomes active defensively, deflecting balls or just outright plucking them away. If not for his fourth-quarter heroics, the Celtics are down 1-0 on Mother's Day.
"Rondo was spectacular," confirms Collins.
"When he starts knocking down jumpers, then it starts to get tough because their spacing starts to get really good," admits Williams.
There are big, big shots by both teams down the stretch -- there's KG for a three-point play, there's Pierce over Hawes, there's Iguodala with a monster 3, there's a clutch jumper by Jrue Holiday, who was 2-for-12 from the floor before he took it.
So it all comes down to 3.4 seconds, the Celtics up 1 and inbounding the ball. They throw it back to their point guard, who has Olympic-sprinter speed, and he (literally) runs out the clock with Philly's guards in helpless pursuit.
The 92-91 Celtics victory leaves Iguodala declaring, "We can play with these guys," and Williams adding, "We were good enough to win -- they just made bigger shots than us."
Somehow, some way, the Celtics end up outrebounding Philadelphia, 45-41. Somehow, some way, they end up grinding out a 43.9 shooting percentage from the floor.
Rondo registers yet another triple-double (13 points, 12 rebounds, 17 rebounds), something that seems positively unfathomable at halftime.
The small lineup (KG, Pierce, Ray Allen, Avery Bradley and Rondo) works for Doc when the game is on the line. His crew misses only one free throw (18-for-19, with Rondo as the lone culprit). The Celtics continue to misfire on 3s (2-for-18), but once again, it doesn't matter.
It doesn't matter because the weary, creaky, injured plodding veterans are built tough. Ford tough.