In good times and in bad, it’s always fruitful to seek the guidance of that eminent philosopher, Lawrence Peter “Yogi’’ Berra, who long ago said . . .
“If you ain’t got a bullpen, you ain’t got nothin’. ’’
Sorry, wrong one.
“Nobody goes there anymore; it’s too crowded.’’
Oops, not that one, either.
“It ain’t over till it’s over.’’
That’s what I was searching for.
The Boston Celtics are up in the Eastern Conference finals against the Miami Heat, three games to two. They are at home Thursday night. On the surface, the circumstance could hardly be better.
Doc Rivers doesn’t want to hear about it.
“I told them, we’ve done nothing,’’ explained the Celtics coach. “We’re playing a heck of a basketball team. So just because we’re going to Boston, I told them, we have to play. They’re not going to give it to us. We have to go get it.’’
Only in Boston are the Celtics the primary focus in this series. Oh sure, there has been the requisite amount of rhapsodizing about the inspired play of the Three Geezers, not to mention the inexplicably creative play of the point guard, but the national story is the plight of the Miami Heat, for whom a series loss would not just be a loss, but more along the lines of a very personal humiliation.
The Heat play in a circumstance unique in NBA history, perhaps unique in North American sports history. No Heat game is in any way “normal.’’ Each one is a passion play, and the team is judged not just on a game-by-game or even quarter-by-quarter basis, but with a play-by-play surveillance.
Hyperbole? Well, consider that in this Twitter universe, it really is possible that someone, somewhere has posted a comment on every Miami possession.
At the center of the story is LeBron James, who can seldom do enough to satisfy his critics. About the only way he could win them over would be for his team to win the championship, for him to be the Finals MVP, and for him to directly deliver the goods in the clinching game, be it a Game 4, 5, 6, or 7.
He could start by asserting his will on Thursday night’s Game 6. You can be sure that Doc Rivers and the rest of the Celtics coaching staff do not buy into any of the LeBron criticism. What they see is a 6-foot-8-inch, 260-pound athlete who combines power and quickness to a degree never before seen in a man his size; who is as good as any passer in the league; and who is such a versatile defensive presence that Rivers has stated that, in this series, “He’s guarded everyone but me.’’
Let the critics smirk. Rivers & Co. see a man who could hit them with 40 points, 20 rebounds, and 10 assists on any given evening.
LeBron James is Reason No. 1 why the Celtics will be hearing a pregame sermon from Doc Rivers whose theme is, “Take nothing for granted.’’
His counterpart has the most thankless coaching job in this hemisphere. If the Miami Heat were ever to win the NBA championship, Erik Spoelstra would receive zero credit. It would all be about those magnificent, highly paid stars. Spoelstra can only do wrong things in the public eye.
Consider the fallout from Game 5, when there was a national outcry because Spoelstra did not employ returning big man Chris Bosh, who had missed nine games with an abdominal strain, in the fourth period after he had contributed 9 points and 7 rebounds to the cause in 14-plus minutes in Periods 1 through 3.
Granted, Spoelstra’s explanation was a bit shaky. “I didn’t think it would necessarily be fair to him to throw him in with three minutes to go,’’ Spoelstra explained.
Bosh may not be anywhere close to 100 percent, but he is a skilled 6-11 player, and had he made the difference in one key possession, the Heat might have won.
Twitterers and bloggers phrased it in somewhat harsher terms. Of course, had Bosh played and then perhaps turned the ball over or missed a pair of free throws, Spoelstra would have had to answer for that.
Not for anything on this Earth would any NBA mentor choose to trade places with Erik Spoelstra right now.
Spoelstra has enough problems trying to X-and-O his team to victory. He also must prop up, inspire, or just plain apply a mental two-by-four to a team that appears to be feeling the weight of the world on its shoulders. It is a unique coaching challenge.
“It’s a loss,’’ Spoelstra said following Game 5. “That’s all it is. And that’s what our focus is right now, to fight any kind of noise from the outside or any human condition, and to collectively come together strong enough to prepare for the next game.’’
The problem is that it’s never just “a loss’’ when you’re the Miami Heat and you’re playing a team that is in Year 5 of a Three-Year Plan. Finding themselves trailing the Celtics after winning Games 1 and 2 is official nightmare territory.
Rivers has no such worries. His team is trending upward, having won three games in a row while conducting little How-To basketball clinics at some point in every game. And nobody knows what has been going on more than the beleaguered Erik Spoelstra, who can only dream that one day he will be coaching a true team like, well, like the one wearing green and white.
“They have championship DNA,’’ he said. “They have what we’re trying to get. There’s a great way to take a big step forward with a win on Thursday.’’
You might want to tune in.