CHICAGO The lights went down for pregame introductions, and a familiar song came across the United Center PA system.
Dun dun dun, dun dunDUN dun dunDUN . . .
Dun dun dun, dun dunDUN, dun dunDUUUUNNN!
Bulls fans rained boos upon the court as the NBAs version of Darth Vader (and not just because theyre old enough to be everyones father) was introduced. With every name, the booing intensified, but this wasnt your typical insincere, jumbotron-generated hostility.
This was real. This was honest-to-goodness hatred.
For the Boston Celtics, this was a dream.
Over the years, especially the last two, the Celtics have become the team that everyone loves to hate, but also and more importantly, the team that loves to be hated.
Theyve learned to thrive in atmospheres like Chicago; often times even requiring the loathing and genuine disrespect of unruly fans (or loose-lipped opposing players) to unlock their full potential.
Any opportunity to make a statement, to prove someone (or everyone) wrong, was seized like Joey Crawford does the spotlight. The Celtics were too proud for anything less.
Of course, it wasnt always smooth sailing.
A random Monday night in New Jersey? The second leg of a back-to-back against Indiana?
Yeah, on nights like that, theres always a chance the Celtics play dead; that age, complacency or just the 82-game grind of the NBA regular season sneaks up and bites them in the ass.
But Thursday night in Chicago? Primetime? TNT?
This was a game the entire NBA world was watching, against the team that had stolen the Celtics' spot atop the Eastern Conference. A team that had essentially stolen their identity, stolen their way of life and who through 77 games was living better, and healthier, with more promise and even greater expectations.
This was a team whose point guard has sky-rocketed passed Bostons insanely competitive counterpart to claim the title of the Eastern Conferences best; a team whose center has publicly, and repeatedly, disrespected Bostons insanely emotional leader; a team that everyone now seemed convinced was just plain and simple better than Boston.
This was tailor-made. This was what they lived for.
And now, before the game even started, there were 20,000 fans pushing every one of the Celtics motivational buttons. There was that music, the cloak of evil being forced upon them. They were in the role theyve grown to love, with the whole world against them, and all their hard-earned pride on the line.
At that point, you couldnt have guarantee a win, but man, youd have bet your life on a fight.
Instead you got . . .
Umm, so what exactly did you get?
Afterward, the team called it a butt-kicking. Everyone from Doc to KG, right on down the line, admitted their own faults and Chicagos success. They lauded Rose, complimented the Bulls defense and came up with all sorts of different reasons why the game got away.
They didnt find the right pace. They settled for too many jumpers. When they got the ball into the post, they missed too many easy shots. They werent tough enough. They didnt defend well enough. They didnt execute.
In the locker room, the Celtics rattled off a litany of, not excuses, but entirely legitimate explanations for their embarrassing 16-point loss; one that even when it was close, it never really felt that way. They faced the music and took their lumps, and then . . . they walked out and turned the page to Friday night and the Wizards.
They had to. When youre in the NBA you cant dwell on the past, not when the immediate future is so much more important.
But the rest of us will be left to wonder: What will the future bring?
Of course, at the end of the day, this was just one game, and everyones entitled to a bad night. But the truth is that the Celtics have had a lot of bad nights recently. Theyve had plenty of games, like, say, a random Monday in New Jersey or the tail end of a back-to-back in Indiana, when theyve left so much to be desired. But those nights have always been somewhat overlooked thanks to the knowledge, or the belief, that when they have to this team can always step up. Its a dangerous mentality, but time after time the Celtics have proven that they can do it. For most of the past two years theyve proven that the onoff switch does exist.
That doesnt mean theyll always win. But theyll always compete. When, like a sleeping grizzly, theyre drawn out of their cave and forced to fight for whats important, they can always rise above the drama and play Celtics basketball. Thats always been the assumption. Thats what's kept Boston sane.
But theres no denying that Thursday was one of those nights. They were faced with the perfect Celtics situation. They were the bad guys AND the underdogs. They were being disrespected on both ends. They had the spotlight. The stage. And every reason to turn it on.
And they couldnt.
Yeah, it was just one game, but it was also Game No. 78. It was one of their final two real tests before the only test that matters. And this time they reached back to show the world what they had and it wasnt enough.
The question is why, and the answers a double-edged sword.
First, you can ask: Have the Celtics just reached the point where not even pride and an arena full of unabashed hatred can break the mental funk thats haunted them since the deadline? Where not even a matchup with Derrick Rose can motivate Rajon Rondo to attack the hoop? Where nothing can remind them, Hey, you know, that Ray Allen guys pretty good. How about we get him the ball?
Or maybe theyre the same. Maybe they really were up for this one; ready to prove everyone wrong and re-establish their dominance, but was just up against a better team.
A team with Rose, whos on another level from everyone in the world, never mind Rondo. Luol Deng, whos always possessed the combination of size, length and athleticism to give Paul Pierce a headache. Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer, who are relentless on the boards, and so strong on the block. Obviously, this advantage is slightly negated if Shaq ever gets back or if Sam Presti forgot to say no backsies, but on Thursday the Chicago front line was too physical for Boston. Noah played only 23 minutes and had only two points he's not yet 100 percent but was still beating up KG. Garnett consistently fought for position, worked his ass off for the ball, but Noah hardly budged. He wore KG down, and over a seven-game series the Celtics will feel those effects. And as great as Jermaine ONeal's been since coming back, he cant hang with Boozer or Noah for any extended period of time. Theyre too relentless and hes too fragile. They don't stop and he can barely get it going.
Theres also Keith Bogans, who seems so out of place in that starting lineup but spent 17 minutes getting physical with Allen and disrupting the Celtics rhythm. Theres a bench featuring established pros like Kyle Korver, Ronnie Brewer and Taj Gibson. Kurt Thomas, who gives the Bulls everything P.J. Brown gave the 2008 Celtics and then some. Theres Tom Thibodeau, whos running the same exact system thats brought the Celtics so much success, but is doing it with a younger, quicker and healthier team thats growing more confident by the day. By going to Chicago, hes pretty much just taken the Celtics and turned the clock back. And as a result, especially after last night, it looks like time is finally running out on this Celtics reign atop the East.
Of course, we've been here with this team before. We've written them off and prematurely handed their thrown to the conference's "next" great team. And they've proved us so very wrong.
But at some point, the run will have to end. They always do. Hell, even Darth Vader's run eventually went down in flames.
And while I dont know if Derrick Rose has any Skywalker in him, he certainly can fly.
And he and the Bulls look ready for take off.