The yelling from the Boston Celtics' locker room down the hallway behind him was an incoherent blend of taunts, laughter and arguments as coach Doc Rivers walked away from the noise and turned left into his TD Garden office. Game 5 of the NBA Finals was less than 28 hours away.
He shut the door behind him and luxuriated in the quiet. "Every day when you walk through our locker room, it is loud," said Rivers from behind his desk after practice last Saturday. "Now they're arguing over this." He waved across the office at his flat screen showing the U.S.-England World Cup match—the same game his players were analyzing next door.
Forward Kevin Garnett was the lone soccer fan in the locker room, which is not to say he was the only Celtic with an opinion; the more he tried to instruct his teammates on the beautiful game, the louder they questioned and ridiculed him and his expertise. "In 2008," said Rivers of the Celtics' last championship team, "when Kevin raised his voice, everybody got quiet. Now it's like, 'Oh, f--- you, Kevin!' They're always fighting or arguing, but it's like a family dinner. The debate starts and guys will not back down. Early on I didn't know what to make of it, and then I saw it's good for our team."
One benefit of speaking their minds was beyond debate following the Celtics' 92--86 win over the Lakers on Sunday, which gave Boston a 3--2 advantage as the teams headed back to Los Angeles for the final two games of this highly contentious Finals. The team that quarrels together was just one win away from its second title in three years (and 18th overall for the franchise). As a No. 4 seed Boston would become the lowest-ranked champion since Hakeem Olajuwon's Rockets triumphed as a sixth seed in 1994--95.
Even more impressive was the list of MVP finalists the Celtics were bumping off this postseason: the Heat's Dwyane Wade (who finished No. 5 in MVP balloting), the Cavaliers' LeBron James (MVP for a second straight year), the Magic's Dwight Howard (No. 4) and now they had cornered the league's most brilliant shot maker, the Lakers' Kobe Bryant (No. 3). Bryant had threatened to make like Jack Bauer and hijack Game 5 with 38 points, including a run of 23 in a row that straddled halftime. How did the Celtics overcome his melodramatics? The same way they'd dispatched each diva of the previous rounds: They outnumbered him.
While the Celtics were receiving double-figure production from a quartet of starters, including 27 points from forward Paul Pierce, their team defense was isolating Bryant and minimizing the impact of All-Star 7-footer Pau Gasol, who managed just 12 points on 12 shots against Garnett and backup Rasheed Wallace. The lingering effects of center Andrew Bynum's meniscus tear in his right knee limited his effectiveness during the Lakers' losses in Games 4 and 5, while placing extra burdens on their short bench. In the end Bryant's virtuosity was self-defeating: During the 14:07 in which he accounted for all 23 of his team's points, squirming up improbable threes, contested runners and corkscrew turnarounds, the Celtics nonetheless opened up a 13-point lead by scoring 35 of their own as Pierce and his teammates moved the ball for relatively simple jumpers and easy baskets in transition. "It was all in the team flow," said Pierce. "We run more of an equal-opportunity offense. That's why throughout the course of the playoffs you see different guys leading us in scoring each game."
Through a record 17 playoff games over the opening three rounds the Celtics never featured the same leading scorer for two games in a row, a triumph of floor balance in this era of The Man. But their altruism did not come naturally: Rivers traced it back to their struggles during the regular season, when injuries and other drawbacks of age shortchanged Boston to a halting 27--27 record over the final four months. Pierce, 32, Garnett, 34, and Ray Allen, 34, were forced to acknowledge they were no longer the singular superstars they'd been as recently as two years ago.
"That's the thing I love about this run, and it's probably why people didn't think we could do it," said Rivers on the eve of Game 5. "Going into [the playoffs] we all knew—at least our staff knew—that our guys were not going to be great every night. They accept that now, where maybe in the middle of the year no one accepted it."
Hubris, though, is the secret ingredient of Boston's unexpected run toward the title—the Celtics are loaded with players who believe deep down they can be stars. Garnett, Pierce and Allen already are penciled in as future Hall of Famers. Rondo believes he is the league's most electrifying point guard. Backup forward Glen (Big Baby) Davis and reserve guards Tony Allen and Nate Robinson also hold high opinions—real or imagined—of their abilities. "Baby has to think that way," says Rivers. "Tony has to think he's the best player on the floor when he plays, and I encourage that. I think it's important for them to think that they can be a star—but while they're not, they have to play the team role."
If the second-stringers hadn't embraced those roles, the Celtics would have gone on vacation weeks ago. As much as Rivers has cautioned reporters to not write off the Celtics because of their age, he has acknowledged the limitations of his older stars. "At the end of the day it's still going to come down to their legs," he confided during the Eastern finals. "And you worry about that every game. Is this the game they're going to be old? You just don't know."