Celtics stage improbable comeback

2008 NBA Finals, Game 4: Celtics 97, Lakers 91

Originally Published: December 14, 2009
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CelticsAP Photo/Mark Avery

Before Game 4 of the 2008 NBA Finals, in the bowels of the Staples Center, NBA commissioner David Stern met the media to drive a stake through the heart of the theory that the NBA was rigged.

He was specifically addressing the latest allegations from rogue NBA referee Tim Donaghy, who had filed court papers alleging that some NBA referees acted in cahoots with the league to deliver certain teams to the NBA Finals. Donaghy's allegations resonated with those fans who always wondered about NBA refereeing: Did superstars get calls? Did certain popular teams get advantages? Were referees crooked?

Although the league could point to plenty of "boring" Finals matchups (if the NBA were rigged, would the small-market, media-shunning Spurs ever make the Finals?) as evidence the league was not in any way rigged, June 12, 2008, was a particularly tough time for the commissioner to make his case.

As Stern spoke, down a tunnel and around the corner, the two teams warming up just happened to be the Lakers and the Celtics. If the NBA were hand selecting Finals teams for mass appeal, their rivalry -- imbued with decades of history and memories of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird -- would make these teams the league's first choices.

If there were a script for Game 4, it surely would have called for a Lakers win to tie the series, and it began perfectly in that regard. The home team sprinted to a massive first-half lead. The Celtics' troubles were plain: Rajon Rondo was playing hurt; Kendrick Perkins was grabbing his sore shoulder; Paul Pierce had endured a painful knee injury early in the series. Even Doc Rivers' voice was failing. In the first quarter, nobody could come close to slowing down Lamar Odom, and Laker after Laker found his way to the rim. The Lakers led by as many as 24, and the first half ended with Lakers guard Jordan Farmar banking in a 3-point shot on the run.

It was just one of those nights.

Until the second half, when the Celtics tore up the script, took almost all the suspense out of the series and essentially won themselves an NBA title.

Eddie House came off the bench to replace injured Rondo and repeatedly nailed big shots. Leon Powe made a name for himself. The Celtics frustrated Kobe Bryant with a series of multiplayer defensive looks, including trapping him coming off screens, some zone and the occasional triple-team.

On the biggest possession of the game, the Lakers were steeled to make a key stop, trailing 94-91. Rivers had called for Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett to pick and roll, but Allen waved off Garnett and took Sasha Vujacic himself. Allen was essentially untouched -- by Vujacic or by a helping Pau Gasol -- in waltzing to the layup that sealed the win.

The Celtics stood a win from the title. The crowd in the Staples Center was wholly deflated. The building had been so full of life an hour earlier and now could not have been more morose.

But if the commissioner had a certain satisfaction after the game, it would be forgivable: Even if a storybook Game 7 didn't appear to be in the works, surely nobody would accuse the league of engineering a 3-1 Celtics lead.
--Henry Abbott