Saturday May 29th, 2010

BOSTON -- This unlikely Celtics team is headed back to the NBA Finals, where they believe they belong. But how did they make it this far? The unlikeliest fingerprints on the Eastern conference trophy belonged to Nate Robinson, whose 13 improbable points turned second-quarter gloom into fourth-quarter chants of "Beat LA!"

"Nate Robinson was huge," said Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy, who was too disappointed in the Magic's closeout 96-84 loss in Game 6 on Friday to recognize the multiple ironies in what he just said.

The story of Robinson is the latest verse in a season-long narrative of pain and doubt and happy endings. Afterwards coach Doc Rivers traced their return to the Finals back 12 months to their Game 7 loss in the second round on this same court to these same Magic.

"You knew it wasn't going to happen last year," he said of Kevin Garnett's season-ending knee injury.

Garnett's extended rehabilitation combined with Paul Pierce's lingering knee issues limited how much the Celtics could accomplish before the playoffs. They went 27-27 while treating the final four months like a never-ending preseason.

"The last month we had a meeting, Danny (Ainge the GM) and I, we brought all three of them in," said Rivers of Garnett, Pierce and Ray Allen. "I told them, 'Listen, we're going to practice harder, you guys are going to play less, you're going to have a minute restriction and you're not going to like it.'"

Garnett didn't like it most of all.

"We lost leads with him sitting on the bench, and he's looking over at you," said Rivers. "I had Tom (assistant coach Thibodeau) and Eddie (Lacerte, the athletic trainer) just shut out the minutes. They said, '26!' and I said, well we've got to wait, he can't play over a certain amount of minutes. The only chance we had was [becoming] healthy."

That backdrop made the early rounds of the playoffs so inspiring, to see the elders looking spry as 24-year-old point guard Rajon Rondo bridged them toward another NBA Finals with his pressuring defense and end-to-end drives through the series against Miami, Cleveland and Orlando, against whom the Celtics seized a stunning 3-0 lead. Then just as quickly did they begin to look old again, because Rondo was slowed by cramps in his right leg that invited Orlando to make a series of it.

Rondo displayed his comforting burst of speed to score a dozen points in the opening quarter Friday while launching the Celtics to a 30-19 lead. Unfortunately for him, he used that speed in the quarter's final minute to knife in between Dwight Howard and Rashard Lewis. In the air he was flipped horizontal and crashed hard like a mannequin without a seat belt. He was writhing on the floor, clutching at his painful right hip. Though Rivers tries to pay little attention to injuries, he could not mask his worry this time -- he didn't wish to hover over his point guard, but he leaned down and around for glimpses of Rondo through the crowd of teammates encircling him.

"We've had so many injuries," said Rivers. "So, yeah, I was concerned."

At this time Rivers had no concrete idea that the solution was Robinson. Though he had played well enough in Boston's horrid Game 5 loss at Orlando to earn a place in the rotation for Game 6 -- "I had made the decision before the game, I told our staff Nate would play tonight," said Rivers --- Robinson had appeared in no more than 15:51 in this series, and not at all in the opening two games.

Robinson had been a disappointment ever since the Celtics had dealt Eddie House and Bill Walker to New York for him in hope of receiving a burst of needed energy at the February trade deadline. He had proved to be neither a reliable defender nor a true point guard. He wasn't on the bench so much as he'd been buried six feet under it, which is a great depth for someone three inches shorter than six feet. But now the Celtics had no choice. The second quarter began with Rondo lying on his stomach along the sideline, Larry Bird style. He was looking up -- and not having to look up very high -- to see 5-foot-9 Robinson in his place.

"During the playoffs at every single practice, I made a point of going over to him," said Rivers, who then recited his daily speech to Robinson: "Stay engaged. At some point you're going to win a game for us. I can't tell you when you're going to play, I can't tell you if you're going to play, on what night at least, but at some point you're going to win a game for us."

This was that game. The Celtics were up by a scant nine points just before Robinson let go of a well-spun three off the dribble and yelled out to the crowd, forcing an Orlando timeout. Moments later he was bounce-passing to Garnett for a cutting dunk. Then Robinson pulled up in transition for another three and backed away nodding and nodding.

Jameer Nelson lost his dribble in the frontcourt to the harrassment of Robinson for an over-and-back turnover. When he canned another jumper off the dribble to balloon his Celtics ahead by 48-27, Robinson blew at his fingers to cool them off. His glorious 8 minutes and 46 seconds culminated with a drive in which he really did appear to believe he could dunk over the 6-10 Howard, much as Howard had allowed him to do in the slam dunk contest two seasons ago. This time Howard went up to block the shot and fouled him hard as Robinson strutted away.

"I'm not saying they're a better team without Rajon Rondo," said Van Gundy, "but tonight they were in the first half. Nate Robinson was great."

Rondo would return for the final 3:27 of the half, and he would finish with 14 points and 6 assists. But the moral of this game was the same kind of point this team has made again and again in any number of ways. When Garnett and Pierce have needed help, Rondo has been there for them. When Kendrick Perkins has been in foul trouble, Rasheed Wallace and Glen Davis have come through. Allen has hit big threes as he did to open the second half of this game, and Tony Allen has helped Pierce defend LeBron James, and now, when Rondo was in trouble, here came Robinson.

It was a tale of two point guards, one tinier than the next. Rondo had come out of nowhere to emerge as a star, and now Robinson came out of nowhere's shadow. The Finals await, preceded by five full days of needed rest.

"The first thing we said when we got in the locker room is this is where we thought we would be," said Rivers of their postgame celebration. "So don't be surprised. This is what we talked about before the season started."

They talked about the ends, but never these means. Never could they have imagined at training camp in October that Nate Robinson would be there for them at the end of May. But that's how championship stories are written. Full of little surprises.

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