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Celtics, Spurs prove the antidote to the L.A./Miami show

Jan 6, 2011, 1:57 AM EDT

Manu Ginobili, Paul Pierce, Rajon Rondo

This was a basketball’s fan’s matchup.

It wasn’t about the hype or the reality shows, it was about the game. With all the focus on Los Angeles and Miami, too many have missed that Boston and San Antonio have played the best basketball and have the best records in the league.

It is far too early to talk about this as any kind of preview, but watching the Spurs and Celtics go at it in January showed us all this would make a fantastic NBA finals. You know it’s not what David Stern is pulling for. You know it’s not what most of America wants to see in June. You know the suits at ESPN/ABC want Kobe and Phil and LeBron and Dwyane. They want the glitz and soap opera to help sell the telecast.

That’s not Celtics vs. Spurs — this was pure and about the game. It was a basketball fan’s matchup. This was for the die hards. If those seven games in June were half as fun as this this 105-103 Celtics win on a cold Wednesday in January, the rest of the country would catch on. This was entertaining.

Not that a finals between these two would look like what we saw Wednesday night, for example the Spurs would not be on the second night of a back-to-back. And you can bet the execution in the last two minutes will be a lot better by both teams (this got sloppy). Plus, you can bet both teams will be a lot tighter defensively by then. (They will be or they won’t be there.) If the Spurs don’t start playing better defense soon I fear for Gregg Popovich’s health. He benched DeJuan Blair early, called two quick time outs and his blood pressure was clearly way up.

That was in part because Popovich’s Spurs had no defensive answer for Rajon Rondo, who had 22 assists to go with his 12 points, 10 rebounds (the last scooping up Paul Pierce’s block of a Manu Ginobili shot at the buzzer) and six steals.

A lot of Rondo’s assists went to Ray Allen, who destroyed the Spurs with 31 on the night. Boston ran Allen of screens early and Ginobili could not keep up, giving Allen time for good look catch-and-shoots. Allen had a very quick six points, and that got him going. The Spurs went to George Hill on Allen and he was better but that didn’t work, Allen had his momentum and nobody was stopping the roll he was on. After the game, Popovich fell back on sarcasm to talk about Allen, as reported at Celtics Hub.

“Ray needs to work on his shooting a little bit. He only hit 13 out of 16.”

Both Rondo and Allen played key roles in the run that won Boston the game. From the 2:28 mark of the fourth quarter — when the game was tied 96-96 — until :56 seconds remained Boston played about as well as they could (without Kevin Garnett). And the Spurs made uncharacteristic mistakes.

That run by Boston started with Rondo probing, stopping 18 feet out, finding Glen Davis open along the baseline and hitting him with a snap pass from out top. Davis felt the help coming and slid the ball off to a cutting Marquis Daniels for the lay in.

Then on the other end Rondo baited Ginobili into a bad pass to Tony Parker that Rondo stole. Boson slowed it down (after a time out) and then once again Ginobili was slow coming off a Pierce screen and Allen got another good look at a three. You can guess how that went.

Then after a defensive stop got the Celtics the ball back, they came down, Rondo came off a Pierce high screen and drove uncontested until he was 8 feet from the rim, at which point he hit a pretty little floater in the lane. Then seconds later Allen stripped Hill and took it for a breakaway layup.

It was a 9-0 Boston run to put them up 105-96 — and they would need every bit of that to hang on and win, because it was time for the Spurs to execute and Boston to stop.

First Ginobili hit a catch-and-shoot three. Then Tony Parker stole the ball from Pierce (there might have been a foul there) for a layup. Then Manu stole a pass intended for Rondo (there was a foul there) and Richard Jefferson got fouled trying to convert that to a layup. Hill hit the free throws, and it was 105-103. Then came maybe the strangest part of the game — after a Pierce miss and Nate Robinson offensive rebound, the Spurs had to foul and so they fouled Allen. Who promptly missed two clutch free throws. I can’t remember the last time he did that.

The Spurs got one last chance but that’s when Pierce blocked the Ginobili shot at a three to win it, Rondo grabbed the rebound and that was the ballgame.

But what a ballgame.

Who knows what the NBA finals will look like? There’s more than half a season to go and both these teams need to stay healthy. Plus, those teams that Stern and the ABC suits like are good. It’s too early to say what will happen in the Eastern and Western conference finals.

But if the two teams that have played the best basketball in the NBA so far — Boston and San Antonio — were to meet again in June real fans of the game would be happy. Because that would be a fan’s matchup.

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