ATLANTA, GA - MAY 08: Guard Ray Allen #20 of the Boston Celtics dribbles during Game Five of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals against the Atlanta Hawks of the NBA Playoffs at Philips Arena on May 8, 2012 in Atlanta, Georgia. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images)
The Boston Celtics continue to march on in the 2012 NBA Playoffs, but it's been sad to watch Ray Allen transform into an ordinary player thanks to age and injury.
Ray Allen sat in the same seat he had used in pregame introductions for most of his five years in Boston, his perfectly smooth bald head lowered, his leg bouncing slightly up and down, likely with anticipation, as he waited for the TD Garden PA announcer to shout his name.
"Raayyy Allllennnn" came the call through the Garden speakers. The most prolific three-point maker in NBA history rose from his seat to chest bump Paul Pierce, and ran through the two lines of teammates which had formed as part of a long-standing pregame tradition shared by almost every basketball team, at any level. After slapping high fives with most of his teammates, Allen hopped on one leg and pretended to shoot a jumper, always his signature in pregame introductions.
This is what he did prior to every home game he played with the Celtics before April 4. This is what he had not done since then, until Monday.
After scoring five points on 2-7 shooting in the Celtics' 101-85 Game 5 victory, Allen was asked whether his first start in more than a month felt different than any other. He normally responds to even the dumbest questions with a thoroughly-contemplated and articulate answer, but he was uncharacteristically short this time.
"Nope," he replied.
Maybe he was telling the truth. But never before had he begun a game as an outsider within his own starting five.
Allen will one day be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame. It is not a question of if, but when, Allen will be elected to join the company of Michael Jordan, Bill Russell and so many other basketball greats.
Yet prior to Game 5, Doc Rivers lumped Allen into another, very much less-celebrated group. The Celtics coach was trying to predict where his team would replace the presence of Avery Bradley, out with two sore shoulders.
"One of the three -- Keyon [Dooling], Ray or [Mickael Pietrus] -- will take a bigger role without Avery. It'd be easy to tell you before the game who it would be -- obviously you hope it's Ray, but Ray's limited with his health," Rivers explained. "So it may end up having to be one of the other two guys."
In the end, none of Boston's other shooting guards took a bigger role in Bradley's absence, at least so far as offensive production was concerned. The trio finished a combined 3-12 from the field for eight points in 54 minutes. They hit just 1-5 from behind the arc, with Allen's make fewer than three minutes into the game representing the lone long-range bucket. Considering Allen's injury-riddled postseason, it wasn't entirely jarring that none of the three left a huge mark on Game 5. What did strike a chord was that Rivers no longer knows what to expect from the NBA's all-time three-point king.
In all fairness to Allen, the Sixers continue to play him as a threat despite his growing pile of misses. He is 36 years old and dealing with bone spurs in his right ankle, but the Sixers still treat him like someone who could erupt at any time, which, of course, he could.
"If anything, we want a two-point shot instead of a three-point shot. I do have to stay a lot closer to him, I can't help out as much. When Avery Bradley's out there he's still an offensive threat, but I definitely lean more toward Ray Allen," noted Jrue Holiday, who defended Allen for many of Allen's 33 minutes.
Added Jodie Meeks, "Regardless of how he's shooting the ball, he's one of the greatest shooters of all-time. We know he could get it going at any time, and we don't want to let that happen. We don't want to give him any space to get a clean look at the rim. [The Celtics are] definitely a threat no matter what, but with him, you have to be alert at all times, whether he's on the strong side or weak side."
By making 2,718 regular-season three-pointers and 295 more in his postseason career, Allen has earned the way he is defended. The Sixers have trapped him almost every time he comes around a screen, forcing him to dish to his big men on the pick-and-roll or pick-and-pop. More than once during Game 5, Allen faced a double-team almost before he could make a catch and was forced to handle the basketball like one might a burning pile of coal.
As Allen described his new role, "Right now this is a Brandon [Bass] and Kevin [Garnett] series. Rondo understands it, me and Paul [Pierce] understand it. We're making whatever plays we need to make in order to get those guys shots."
Pierce has faced much of the same defensive pressure, and he's done so with his own injury, a sprained MCL. He has still managed 17.0 points, 6.6 rebounds and 3.4 assists during his 39 minutes per game so far in the second round. The Truth bounced back from his seven-point Game 2 to pour in 24 points on successive occasions, then added 16 points in Game 5.
Allen has not been able to make the same impact as Pierce. After never shooting lower than 35.0 percent from the three-point arc in a single postseason, he is hitting at a 28.6 percent clip this year. After never averaging fewer than 15.6 points in a single postseason, this year he is averaging 10.5. After scoring 12.7 points per game in his first six contests this postseason, Allen has scored just 13 combined points while totaling 89 minutes in Boston's last three outings.
Every postseason opponent of Allen's career has tried to take away his jump shot, so nothing Philadelphia has tried or will try is new. Allen, due to age and injury, simply cannot react to the increased attention like he used to.
Earlier in the playoffs, he described his injury's impact. He said he normally cuts around screens at 100 miles per hour, but now must limit the sharpness of his movements. His game relies on being able to create separation from a defender whose job is to allow anything but, and Allen's task is made significantly more difficult now because he cannot move freely. Once able to beat defenses designed to stop him, Allen has become a weapon of circumstance, someone who can be neutralized with the proper defensive attention.
But still, attention must be paid to Ray Allen. The result is Allen as a decoy, a floor-spacer. These roles are not glorious, but they beat Allen's other role Monday, as the replacement starter on whom Rivers can no longer rely for points.
It was Bradley's shoulder injury that allowed Allen to temporarily regain his spot in Boston's starting five, ironic because of the role reversal from earlier in the season. Before Allen injured himself in March, he had come off the bench in just four games over an NBA career spanning 16 years. But Bradley was given Allen's starting spot by default and reacted like a cannonball shot into a world with very little gravity. The 21-year old quickly unveiled an ability to cut behind his defenders and an outside touch from the corner that he'd rarely shown prior. His hounding defense and athleticism helped transform the Celtics. They entered the All-Star break at 15-17, yet finished with the league's best record afterward.
Accidentally, the Celtics uncovered their best five-man lineup. It did not include Ray Allen.
An aging, hobbled athlete wears his status as if it were a neon sign taped to his forehead, and opponents see the marking brighter than anybody else.
Watch how Holiday defends Allen. Their chests are basically stapled together, even with Allen dribbling near midcourt. Holiday clearly fears no penetration. Allen cannot drive by him, he knows. Boston's Number 20 dribbles a few times laterally, as if to gauge whether he can swoop to the hoop, like he might have if this were Milwaukee in 2000 if both his ankles worked properly, if he were still 25 years old, entering his prime as an NBA star. Ultimately, Allen realizes now is not then and he has no option but to pick up his dribble and swing a pass to Rajon Rondo.
This is in the first quarter. Allen has already scored his only triple of the night. After drilling the trifecta with 9:55 left in the first, he will not score until a layup 29 minutes of game time later. The layup is his final hoop of the game. In the third quarter, he walks off the court gingerly and is immediately visited by the team trainer. Asked later whether he felt okay at that time, Allen replies that he did. But his accompanying chuckle tells a different story.
Holiday swears he respects Allen's off-the-dribble game -- "Definitely. He's a smart player. I think he can still do whatever he wants to," he said -- but his actions speak otherwise. Part of his defensive strategy is born from Allen's shooting prowess. Clearly, leaving Allen open at the arc is one of the last things a defender wants to do, one of the last things a coach wants to see. But defending Allen from inside his shorts, even many feet beyond the three-point line, is evidence of a stronger, colder truth. Allen can't dribble by Holiday, not in the year 2012, not with his ankle hurting and the defense focusing on him like this were still a decade ago.
Sometime within the next month and a half, the Celtics will end their season. Allen may or may not have an operation to repair his ankle. A few weeks ago, he thought surgery to be inevitable. But his ankle has responded to treatment well enough to give him second thoughts. With or without surgery, Allen will become a free agent. His destination is unknown, but several teams are expected to have interest in acquiring a deadly perimeter sniper, even if said sniper is four years from 40, has already played more than 42,000 career regular season minutes and has struggled to find shots during the 2012 postseason.
As someone put it on Twitter after Allen managed just one field goal attempt in 25 minutes of Game 3, the Sixers have effectively "Novak'd" Allen by taking away the one thing he can still do better than just about anyone else on the planet: make open shots. But Allen didn't used to be Steve Novak. Once, he could score in many other fashions besides a simple jump shot. Not anymore. Now his legs are slower to react to his mind's urgings, and his forehead flashes with neon colors.
It's possible to rid oneself of the NBA's version of the scarlet letter. Kevin Garnett went through a full season of being an opponent's target in 2009-10 as he recovered from knee surgery. Now, it's Garnett controlling the postseason, taking advantage of weaker opponents. It's possible, but highly improbable for an aging star to remove the neon lettering. It's especially unlikely for a 36-year old shooting guard, even one whose dedication to his craft rests on the corner of obsessive and maniacal.
All athletes get old, but Allen did his best to slow the process. He is known for his meticulous attention to health, which is why it's such a cruel fate that his ankle broke down now with the Celtics attempting one last run at a title during the Big Three era.
Allen's workouts are almost as famous as his smooth outside stroke. He sometimes rides 30 miles on a bicycle in a single offseason day, and that might be just part of his daily cardio work. He takes the court three hours before every game to put himself through a shooting workout -- always the same one, every game.
Allen's dedication has made him a role model of sorts for many other players, including Meeks. After admitting he looked up to Allen and Reggie Miller during his youth, Meeks was asked what he tried to take from Allen's game. His response came without hesitation. It had nothing to do with Allen's results -- the swishes, the clutch makes, the NBA title, the 10 All-Star appearances or the jump shot form that looks like it dropped straight from the heavens -- and everything to do with the process.
"His work ethic," Meeks said.
Earlier in the postseason, Allen marveled at Brandon Bass' dedication, how Bass eats the right foods and always puts so much care into his body, almost like Allen does. He said it was obvious that Bass experienced an injury early in his career that taught him the maintenance required to ready a body for a rigorous NBA season.
Allen said all that like he experienced a serious injury early in his own career which illuminated his path to success, which created the workout monster he's become. But the truth is that Allen didn't miss a single game during his first five NBA seasons. His body, nurtured for longevity, had not failed him often until this year.
After undergoing double ankle surgery that prematurely ended his 2006-07 season with the Seattle Supersonics, Allen missed just 16 games during his first four years in Boston. Even this season, Allen managed to set a career-high with 45.3 percent three-point shooting, the second consecutive campaign in which he posted a career-best. But before the injury hit and caused Allen to miss 20 regular season outings, his defense had already been a step slow, his playmaking skills had taken another step backward and his efficiency had tapered off after a hot start.
Meeks inadvertently hinted at the reasons for Allen's declining production when he revealed the time his admiration for the sharp-shooter began.
"When I was in middle school," Meeks said.
Before leaving the TD Garden late Monday night, an hour or so after a Celtics victory spearheaded by Brandon Bass and Rajon Rondo had concluded, Allen walked through the hall surrounded by a small crowd. He grinned easily at a young child, perhaps his own.
Tall and trim, with a smile that helped make him a hit in Hollywood, dressed like always as if ready for a GQ photo shoot, with a tie that perfectly accented his yellow shirt, the man who has successfully used the three-point arc more often than any other NBA player, active, dead or otherwise, still looked every bit the part of a superstar. He looked content and confident as he strolled out of the arena, so relaxed, like nothing in the world could trouble him. Not his injury, not his cold shooting, not his uncertain NBA future, not anything else, not so long as the Celtics keep winning and keep advancing, not so long as adoring children wait for him after his games.
Not until the moment had passed and Allen had disappeared around the corner could one remember the uncharacteristic abruptness with which he had replied, "Nope."