Levine: The heart of a champion

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Levine: The heart of a champion

We spent a lot of time this season worrying about the Celtics' on-court chemistry.

We worried about health. We worried about depth. We worried they were too old, too small and just not good enough.

And last night, in Game 2 of Boston's first-round series against the Hawks the undisputed biggest game of the season every one of those fears became a reality.

The Celtics had no chemistry: They finished with only 14 assists (narrowly approaching the 14.8 that Rajon Rondo's averaged over the last 20 games) and 14 frustrating turnovers. On defense they were in tune (and then some), but their offense was in shambles. There was no rhythm. No familiarity. It led a brand of hero ball that typically drives Doc Rivers up a wall.

They werent healthy: I know some of these guys are old news, but Jeff Green, Jermaine ONeal, Chris Wilcox, Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo (mental health) were out. If youre counting, thats five of the top eight players from the start of the season. In the time since, those five players have been replaced by Mickael Pietrus, Sean Williams and Ryan Hollins.

Given that previous point, it should come as no surprise that the Celtics also had no depth last night in Atlanta: Their five bench players Keyon Dooling, Sasha Pavlovic, Greg Stiemsma, Marquis Daniels and Hollins averaged a combined 15.6 points in the regular season. By comparison, Atlantas five reserves averaged more than 35 a night, and even that's a little low by NBA playoffs standards.

They were too old:
Paul Pierce @paulpierce34 44 mins tonite to old for this I need a bed right now !!! 1 May 12 Reply Retweet Favorite
They were too small: Kevin Garnett was the only player taller than 6-8 to see more than 10 minutes.

And there were so many times over the course of that game when you just threw your hands up and said, Thats it! Theyre not good enough! Not tonight!

But for all we doubted, criticized and lamented about this team over the last four months, there were a few things that we never questioned.

Pride: In themselves. In the Celtics organization. In their coach.

Competitiveness: On another level. The kind of stuff that's left Ray Allen crawling out of his skin on the bench. That left Rondo sitting alone in his hotel room. That left Pierce and Garnett to pick up the pieces and both ready and willing to do so.

Resiliency: This is a team that was written off so many times. That watched two teammates undergo emergency heart surgery, and another dramatically taken off on a stretcher. That has been threw so much on a physical, emotional and spiritual level that in their minds there's nothing they can't do. To quote a guy: "Anythiiiing's possible."

Heart: This is so cliche it hurts, but it's true: Regardless where and when this season ends, these Celtics have the heart of champions.

But with everything else that was working against them last night in Atlanta, you wondered, even more, you doubted that this team's superior pride, competitiveness, resiliency and heart would be enough to rise above the Hawks and fight off death one more time.

But for one night, all that wasenough.

Well, all that and Paul Pierce. But we'll get to him in a second.

First, let's talk about

Keyon Dooling, whos been fantastic behind-the-scenes this year, but somewhere between non-existent and awful on the court. Last night, he played 21 minutes, which is more than he had in all but six games the entire season, and hit two huge three-pointers (one that cut the lead to six, another that cut it to eight) as the Celtics treaded water early in the second half. He also played great defense and (ironic, given his typically jittery disposition) brought a sense of composure off the bench.

Sasha Pavlovic, who was forced into action after Pietrus found foul trouble and took the court just dripping with that Sasha Swag. There's nothing spectacular (or even close) about Pavlovic's game, but he brings a subtle, stone cold consistency that can pay dividends in the playoffs. He is what he is, and that's what he'll always be. Thirteen minutes, four points, one steal, one assist, one rebound, no turnovers.

Ryan Hollins, who looked every bit the NBAs 11th dirtiest player. He was only out there for six minutes but made an impact. He grabbed TWO rebounds, delivered two solid fouls and helped chip away at the Hawks psyche. Hollins combined with Stiemsma (eight minutes, three rebounds, one block) to give Boston just enough complimentary size and strength to contend with Atlanta's equally diminished front court.

Marquis Daniels. Yup, Marquis Daniels. No, seriously, MARQUIS DANIELS. Who not only saw minutes (15) but also looked alive. Is this something andor someone the Celtics can count on moving forward? It's a little premature to say yes, given how long he's been a total non-factor, but there's no denying what we saw last night. We saw glimpses of the real Marquis Daniels. And thank God we did, because last night also brought a visit from inconsistent Mickael Pietrus. Sure, the foul trouble didn't help, but Pietrus was in another world. Moving forward, Doc Rivers can and should expect better.

Then there's Avery Bradley, who was a little shell-shocked in his first playoff game on Sunday but broke out last night with 14 points, 3 steals and 3 blocks. The kid continues to do and show more every time he takes the court, and with the series heading back to Boston (where he'll be more comfortable and resume his more effective role as Rondo's backcourt sidekick) there's even more reason for optimism about what Bradley will bring to the table. Especially if that corner three starts to drop.

Kevin Garnett, the heart and soul of a team that has so much of both. KG's clearly not quite at the physical peak he was in early April, but he continues to just grind out double-doubles, hold down the defensive fort and never let anyone on that court forget, even for a second, how much is on the line. In a recent interview, Dooling called Garnett "the best teammate in the history of the NBA," and in situations like last night, those qualities are on full display. These guys want to win for Garnett as much as they do for themselves.

And finally, Paul Pierce.

What can you say?

He gives the game what it needs.

HE GIVES THE GAME WHAT IT NEEDS.

That's what he's done for the last 14 years, and that's what he'll do for however long he sticks around. It's reached the point where Pierce has a game like he did last night, and you don't even need the details. All you have to say is: Paul Pierce went off. Paul Pierce took over. Paul Pierce threw the Celtics on his back and carried them to victory in the most Paul Pierciest of ways. Paul Pierce is a living legend.

And as a result, the Celtics with shaky on-court chemistry, limited health, shallow depth, questionable age and minimal size lived to see another day.

Once again, they've gone from dead to the driver's seat. And while's there's still so much work left in this series and beyond, these Celtics the core of Pierce, Garnett, (and even in their absence) Rondo and Allen reminded us once again of who they really are and, regardless of what happens from here on out, who they'll always be.

Champions.

Rich can be reached at rlevine@comcastsportsnet.com. Follow Rich on Twitter at http:twitter.comrich_levine

Crowder on Cousins' style: 'Step up to the test or you get run over'

Crowder on Cousins' style: 'Step up to the test or you get run over'

BOSTON – There was a point in the fourth quarter when Sacramento's DeMarcus Cousins was fouled trying to score which brought about an automatic, intense and angry scowl from the all-star center. 

He raised his hand as he were going to strike back at the potential assailant. 

And then he saw the man was Jae Crowder. 

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Cousins, who had a game-high 28 points, then went to the free throw line, incident-free. 

“I’m not one those other cats he be punking,” said Crowder with a grin.

That moment was one of many throughout Friday night’s game when Crowder made his presence felt when the game mattered most, and wasn’t afraid to mix it up with whoever stood between him and helping the Celtics win – even Cousins. 

But as Crowder explained following Boston’s 97-92 win, that moment was about two physical players who have developed an on-the-floor rapport that speaks to their intensity and desire to win at all costs. 

“He’s going to bring the game to you; his physicality,” said Crowder who had 16 points on 6-for-12 shooting. “He’s a very physical type of guy. If he senses you’re not physical at all, he’ll let you know. He’s a dog down there; he’s a bull. I love to go against a player like that. He’s going to give you his best shot each and every night. You either step up to the test or you get run over.” 

As soon as the two made eye contact, Crowder knew it was one of the many intimidation methods used by Cousins against opposing players. 

Crowder wasn’t having it. 

“That’s my guy; he’s my guy,” Crowder said of Cousins. “He plays a lot of tactics against a lot of other players. I’ve earned that respect with him. He knows I’m going to fight him just as hard as anybody else. We leave it on the court. He’s a good friend of mine. We’ve become friends, just playing ball, playing basketball the right way.”