Kevin Garnett once asked sportscaster Craig Sager, “You ever been in a bar fight?”
But he wasn’t curious about whether Sager had ever had to defend his goofy suits with his fists. Rather, Garnett wanted to make a point about the intensity of a game he’d just won against the Orlando Magic.
Garnett and the Celtics see basketball as combat. They are the kind of athletes that will sincerely compare the game they play with war. Kevin Garnett doesn’t kill people in real life, but he gives off the impression that in his mind, when he beats another team, they’re dead.
As we speak, the Celtics are locked in the most combative, gritty, slogging series of the NBA playoffs. Last night, the 76ers evened the count at three games to three by winning in Philadelphia. Tomorrow night’s Game 7 in Boston will probably be a deadlocked struggle. Every point will be excruciatingly hard-won, and every turnover could be the mistake that swings the balance of power enough to decide the game.
Over the course of six games, Boston has averaged a meager 89.3 points, and the 76ers, with 87.2, are scoring even less. Both teams have managed to steal one win in the other’s house and taken two contests at home. This kind of basketball, despite Rajon Rondo’s regular theatrics, can be impossible to watch, because it means shooting percentages in the low 30s, sub-90 offensive ratings, and making only a tenth of your three-pointers. The Sixers are not a sexy, glorious team, aside from the occasional death-from-above play by Andre Iguodala; instead, they will hound you on the perimeter and force you to make difficult, contested jumpers, or they’ll beat the life out of you in the paint.
Seven games of this mess — a.k.a. 336 minutes of Ryan Hollins and Greg Stiemsma aggro-guarding Elton Brand and Lavoy Allen fouling like there aren’t any refs — might make you want to eat a basketball. Except, we’ve made it through the first 288 minutes — alive! — and now we’re in for one of the most brutal, destructive game 7s you’ll ever see.
Sloggy and gross basketball has two sides to it: one, there’s that idea that the players are limited in their abilities, unable to break open the game like a LeBron might, or a Tim Duncan, or a Kevin Durant. But two, there’s also the fact that it usually means the teams are evenly matched. And when sloggy, gross basketball can be condensed into the framework of one game in which everything is at stake, all of a sudden you have the best possible type of athletic competition. Garnett and Paul Pierce will do anything they need to do to ensure a win and a berth in the next round. They know their age, and they can sense that they are nearing the end of the line, that the window of opportunity for a second Boston Three Party championship might end this year.
At the same time, the 76ers have the reckless fear that comes with exceeded expectations and stolen time. The 76ers know they should be dead already. Had Derrick Rose been healthy in the first round, they would’ve been swept, and this whole discussion would be moot. For Philadelphia, the pressure to make use of this good fortune is tremendous, fated, a symptom of destiny, and a loss in game 7 would be an almost overwhelming missed opportunity, the kind of failure to activate that haunts a player for his entire career. The less likely it is that you’re in a certain spot, the more desperately you want to hold on, because you don’t necessarily know if you’ll ever be back.
In a barfight, the participants become enmeshed in something ridiculous and unreal, usually fighting for a reason that is either sketchily determined or imaginary. And pride gets dragged into it: at stake is far more than just physical health or the stakes of the fight. The types of people who get into barfights are the same types who place importance on concepts like masculinity and manhood, and, in these circumstances, their status as “men” become wrapped up in the fight itself. Sports may or may not be different, but it certainly isn’t different when the athlete in question is comparing his games to barfights.
Meanwhile, a battered, hamstrung Miami Heat team (probably) waits in the next round, looking more vulnerable than anyone could’ve ever imagined. Nobody’s thinking, at this point, of the impossible matchup in the Finals against either San Antonio or Oklahoma City, and if they are, they’re at least hoping that the two behemoths will wear each other out enough that crushing defeat for the East’s champion isn’t a foregone conclusion. The time is now for Philly and Boston, and game 7 will be one of those great moments in sport: a contest between caged and desperate men.