Boston has never been an easy place for the Blazers to play. The teams have played in Boston 54 times, and the Celtics have prevailed in 36 of those games. It's almost like they're perpetually punishing Portland for ruining their perfect home record in 1986.
Despite that, I went into last night's game against the Celtics optimistic. Yes, they're a very good, overachieving team with an excellent coach who empowers his players to become better than the sum of their parts. But the exact same description applies to the Blazers. Plus, Portland has won the last two games in TD Garden! I, perhaps foolishly, was cautiously optimistic.
As a Blazers fan, the first quarter was a joy to watch. Portland's offense sliced and diced its way through the Celtics defense to the tune of 33 points. CJ McCollum, especially, impressed the fans around me. Going into the game the local media devoted a lot of time to Damian Lillard's hot streak - hitting all the key points of his season (e.g. snubbed from the All-Star team, on a 30-point tear, 51 against the Warriors). McCollum, on the other hand, had flown under the radar. So when the Celtics' defense started forcing the ball out of Dame's hands and CJ showed his full array of offense the crowd was a bit stunned. I heard several people around me say, "Wow, that guy actually IS really good!"
Lillard also had the full attention of the crowd. At one point he missed a walk-up three which led to jeers of "You're not Steph Curry!" Despite that miss, Lillard was able to score easily in the first on jump shots and lay-ups. The near-four-point play from halfcourt led to audible groans from the crowd as they nervously protested that the shot "definitely" shouldn't count. My thought: No, he's not Steph Curry, but he is Damian Lillard. At this point, the fans behind me began to lament that we were in for a close game and hoped that "I.T." could outplay Lillard down the stretch.
During the first quarter, the Boston fans had not cheered too loudly. The Celtics faithful are a particularly partisan bunch - you see very few fans in opposing colors at the games and TD Garden is always filled to 95 percent capacity. For sheer volume, they are some of the best in the NBA. They're also some of the most vocal critics of officials in the entire NBA - call it the "Tommy Heinsohn Effect." The first quarter, however, left them nervous. The Blazers had acquitted themselves well, and the officials had confused everyone by allowing some physical play, but also calling some touch fouls. Nobody really knew where the game was headed.
That uncertainty, however, started to disappear in the second quarter. The Celtics' defense stepped it up a notch and the Blazers couldn't keep up. Other than McCollum, the Blazers' players struggled to stay effective. The crowd started to notice this and really woke up for Jared Sullinger's dunk in the lane and Marcus Smart's fastbreak dunk two plays later. That was the first time all night that the home fans started to loosen up and let the excitement wash over them.
From there, things got easy for the Celtics. Portland's tired legs played a major factor in the third quarter as Boston started grabbing every offensive rebound, and stout defense kept the Blazers shooting nothing but contested jumpers. The Boston crowd sensed its team was running downhill and the by the end of the third the customary "should we leave at six minutes or three minutes?" conversations had begun.
As a previously optimistic Blazers fan, the result was, of course, disappointing. But the game was still enjoyable. Ed Davis, McCollum, and Lillard all really impressed me. In person, it was apparent that Davis is actually a bit undersized compared to other NBA power forwards (or maybe he just looked that way next to Sullinger). Watching him claw for every loose ball, and seeing the focus it takes to find the right angle to get the rebounds, was especially impressive. The other move that really impressed me was the lateral-stepback "moonwalk" that Lillard and McCollum both use to get open shots. For relatively short players, they cover an absurd amount of ground in an unusual direction with the move.
On the other side, Isaiah Thomas was fun to watch. You can't help but appreciate a regular sized guy scoring 30 points against the giants of the NBA. His super tight handle is even more impressive in person - you can barely follow the ball at times! Thomas looked like an All-Star tonight and easily led in "oohs" and "ahhs" generated.
Marcus Smart was also weird to watch. I had seen Sullinger play in person before and was prepared for his combination of size and mobility, but I was not prepared for the "bowling ball with legs" approach from a guard.
Gameday Experience in Boston
Going to a game in Boston is something of a throwback experience. Much like the Moda Center, TD Garden is more than 20 years old and it's really beginning to show. The stadium was built on top of a train station and there are only two escalators to funnel the crowd into the actual venue. The late commuters catching their trains, combined with the escalator choke points, creates some serious chaos in and around the arena. I'm guessing modern urban planners would detest the setup.
The interior of TD Garden is also becoming antiquated. They've done their best to update the main concourse by adding large LCD displays everywhere, repainting the walls with Bruins/Celtics murals, and adding airport-bar style lounges. But the upper level concourse is still far too narrow, lines at the restrooms are too long, the upholstery on the seats worn out, there are no cupholders, etc.
That being said, as I already implied, the crowd at Celtics game ranks among the best in the NBA. During the Garnett era, the notoriety of the team changed the demographics of the crowd a bit. Boston has a large student population, plus the team attracted the usual bandwagon fans, so the "pink hat" phenomenon became noticeable.
The success of this year's team, however, has caught the city off guard so the diehard fans are still in the majority at the Garden on a nightly basis. The crowd is filled with Boston accents and has a blue collar boisterousness about it. Hustle plays and chases for loose balls often grab the loudest cheers of the night. In addition to loving their Celtics, they also particularly enjoy the mistakes of opposing players, taking every opportunity to mock a turnover or missed free throw. At times, it can feel a bit intimidating, but the overall dedication to the Celtics has to be commended.
The in-game experience in Boston is also great. Timeout entertainment largely consists of dance cams and stunt crews, and there is no music being played during the game. For the most part, they let the actual game be the entertainment. It's apparent that the team has purposely eschewed the corporate-ified "game-day experience" of other arenas.
Pat Connaughton, a native of Arlington, MA, had a strong cheering section. The only excitement of the fourth quarter was listening to his friends and family lose their minds every time he touched the ball. He rewarded them with a 3-pointer and driving layup on back to back plays.
There were some interesting fan-worn jerseys on both sides as neither fanbase seems to have fully adopted to their new rosters yet. From Portland fans, I saw several Lillards and Aldridges, a couple throwback Drexlers, as well as a Przybilla(!), Connaughton, and Fernandez. One guy in front of me even had a Lillard Weber State jersey (bottom right in the photo below)! For the Celtics, Thomas was the most prevalent current player, but Larry Bird and Paul Pierce are still popular. I also spotted a home white Danny Ainge throwback.
Listening to locals with Boston accents cheer for this team is pretty funny. Sully, Crowdah, I.T., Smahhht, Huntah... It felt like Ainge purposely constructed this team for the city's dialect.
Maybe I'm imagining things, but the crowd almost seemed to have projected an inferiority complex onto Thomas. Constant cheers of "He's our All-Star!" and "That was an All-Star play!" could be heard. I don't remember anything like that for Kevin Garnett or Paul Pierce. To me, it felt like the fans believed they had to re-affirm his star status to the rest of the league.
Allen Crabbe's bleach-tipped mohawk is way cooler than Sullinger's or Smart's.
As an ardent NBA fan, I'll never stop being impressed with Celtics' history: