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28 Days Later: The Los Angeles Celtics

Boston CelticsWith the Lakers, Clippers and Kings hosting a whopping 28 home games in 28 days from March 11 through April 7 — all happening at Staples Center, which is only a wind-aided Andy Lee punt from Grantland’s headquarters — we couldn’t resist attending these 28 games and writing about as many of them as possible. If you missed Day 1, click here. Here’s Day 2.

My first “Celtics at Clippers” game happened on February 15, 2003, three months after I moved to Los Angeles to write for Jimmy Kimmel. My life was a mess. Jimmy’s show had just launched a few weeks earlier to tepid reviews; we were working 15-hour days and creating the show on the fly. My then-fiancée had just arrived from Boston without a job or a single friend. Our closest family member was 2,900 miles away. We had stupidly rented an apartment in the wrong area of Hollywood, regretting it almost instantly … but were unable to move for 10 more months. We found ourselves overwhelmed by the size of Los Angeles and beholden to our car’s navigation system, to the point that we named our navigation lady’s voice “Carol” because she had become a bigger part of our lives than anyone else. Only our new puppy, the Dooze, made us feel grounded in any way.

You know that annual Survivor episode when everyone has one family member show up, and the Survivors all start crying as soon as they see them? That’s how I felt seeing the Celtics on that Saturday night. There had to have been 4,000 Boston fans there, everyone wearing green, everyone cheering loudly for every Boston basket, everyone starting “Let’s go Celtics” chants. I remember we were trailing late, then Pierce and Antoine nailed consecutive 3s and flipped the game our way. The best part happened in the final minute, with every Clippers fan heading for the exits and every Celtics fan sticking around to celebrate. You could only see green. It felt like being in Boston again. You can’t have these moments at Celtics-Lakers games because it’s too difficult for Boston fans to find tickets. But Clippers games? You can have those moments.

And so the annual Celtics-Clippers game became one of my single favorite things about living in Los Angeles. I haven’t missed a single one. Even if my wife and I love it here now — we have two kids, two dogs, our own house and a bunch of friends, and we don’t need Carol anymore — that sea of green never gets old. When the NBA was creating its condensed post-lockout schedule in December, I worried about losing that game, even badgering my friends in the league’s office to keep it.

“You don’t understand,” I told them. “This will be my 10th year going to that game. I only care about six days: my anniversary, my kids’ birthdays, Halloween, Christmas Eve and this game. That’s it. I can’t lose that game.”

They ended up keeping it, but not because of me — they had the Celtics scheduled for a West Coast swing in mid-March and everything fell into place. Thursday afternoon’s trade deadline gave the game extra meaning for obvious reasons: for all we knew, it was the last time Garnett, Pierce, Rondo and Allen would play together. As the great Bob Ryan remarked a few weeks ago, the Celtics are stuck in Year 5 of a three-year plan. They eked one title out of that nucleus and probably should have won two. Now they’re in no man’s land: just good enough to make the playoffs, not quite good enough to seriously contend. They can’t get fair value for any of their best players, so it makes more sense to flip expiring contracts and a draft pick for one more impact bench guy … only, they can’t find the bench guy, and they don’t want to trade the draft pick. To be honest, I don’t know what the hell they’re doing. And neither do they.

When you’re in flux like that, you end up working backward and asking yourself, “What do we have?” In Boston’s case, they have three proud veterans, an exceptional point guard, two decent role players and a quality coach. They will fight and they will keep fighting, and that’s all we know. You’re not going to break them; you’re not going to disrespect them. On Sunday, they traded haymakers with their archrivals the Lakers for 12 rounds. Thirty hours later, the Clippers tried to get chippy with them and the Celtics quickly slid into “Eff You” mode. You can’t call them dead, simply because it wouldn’t be true. For two straight days, I watched them fight.

I knew we were going to win midway through the third quarter, and not just because Vinny Del Negro was giving the game away by stupidly playing smallball against a team with a depleted front line. Pierce tipped it off: Whenever the team is locked in, and he knows it, he starts carrying himself a little differently. Puffs his chest out, turns to his bench after baskets to feed off their reactions, struts around during stoppages doing his “nodding and staring down the crowd” routine. Puts his swagger suit on, basically. His backbreaking 3 with 2:47 remaining didn’t surprise me in the least, nor did his reaction afterward — the slow jog backward, the prolonged stare at his bench, the nodding that always comes with it. For one night, the Celtics were badasses again.

People around the league believe Boston would trade anyone on its roster, including Pierce, if it meant securing some semblance of an identity going forward. I’m fine with the identity we have now. People grow old, people change, shit happens. You can’t fight it sometimes. I never thought I would live in Los Angeles for a solid decade, but I’m still here. I never thought I’d be afraid to take my daughter to a Celtics-Clippers game because she’s only grown up in Southern California and might instinctively root for the wrong team, but that’s life. I never thought one random Celtics road game would mean as much as it does to me, but 10 years later, it does. I never expected to say the words, “Let’s ride this season out even though it makes much more sense to gut the team and start over,” but I’m saying them.

The truth is, the Celtics aren’t getting Dwight Howard or Deron Williams. Blowing things up for a pipe dream makes no sense, especially when the alternative is making this year’s team better (within reason) and hoping for one last memorable playoff run. The Celtics are what they are: old, proud, stubborn and (mostly) fun to watch simply because they know each other so well. They are going to fall in the first or second round of the playoffs, probably to Chicago in a look-at-how-the-roles-have-flipped bloodbath against the once-precocious Bulls in which they put up the biggest fight you can imagine. And lose. But still.

Of course, there’s a chance that some contending GM caught last night’s game, watched what Pierce or Garnett did, and said to himself, “That guy might push me over the top,” followed by the Celtics quickly dismantling the Three-Year Plan That Lasted Five Years. And that’s fine. We’ll always have that final minute after the Clippers fans filed out, when it was just the sea of green and a nodding Pierce happily soaking in those “Let’s go Celtics!” chants again. Leave them alone and the 2012 Boston Celtics will go down swinging. That’s all we know, and frankly, that’s good enough for me.