There are a number of obvious storylines dominating the press in the wake of Bulls/Celtics Game 4, the now instant classic double overtime shootout. It was a thriller, no doubt, full of surprises, and not so surprisingly, playoff heroics–whether it be Ray Allen’s three bomb towards the end of regulation, or Ben Gordon’s improbable yet predictable game tying (garbage) off-balance three to send it into 2OT. Rose and Rondo pushed their freshly established I-Can-Do-Better rivalry into triple double territory (rather, Rose joined the club, even if he missed it by one dime), Big Baby auditioned for the WWE with his face rake on Brad Miller and subsequent “fall” backwards, Gordon proved that high jumping need not be done on mats, and Hinrich turned in a much needed and appreciated all-around performance reminding us Bulls fans that there aren’t many better bench options that the old Captain.
So I noticed a rivalry growing between two of the series’ most overlooked and unsuspecting contributors. Masked in the haze of traditional playoff/basketball coverage, there lurks a beneath the surface, courtside battle of cheerleading. Like the horrible, hissing ants eating away at the severed ear in the opening scene of Blue Velvet, this rivalry is right under our noses, but we might miss it if we’re not paying attention. And no, it does not involve Luol Deng, whose contributions on and off the court are less than desirable, and I’m not the only Bulls fan rejoicing in his absence (even though he’s untradeable and all).
What I’m talking about here is the sideline pep of the The Big Ticket and The White Panther. Kevin Garnett and Aaron Gray. Two big men, sidelined for opposite reasons. And when one actually begins to compare, the differences are striking. Garnett, an out of high school phenom and 12 time NBA All-Star. Intimidator, long sufferer, Garnett has dominated posts all over the league for over a decade. Aaron Gray, Third Team All-American at Pitt, a no doubt, perennial bench warmer who logged 12 minutes a game in 2009, and whose court presence is underwhelming to say the least. It’s not a traditional rivalry, but trust me when I say they’ve become important contributors in this deadlocked series.
Garnett, ever the team leader, is restless on the sidelines, uptight and serious. Dare I say all-too-serious? Always a fierce competitor, Garnett’s been involved as much as he can this playoffs – standing constantly, throwing high fives and chest bumps, and sticking his lower jaw out and clenching it like an angry bulldog. His face (especially the eyes) resonates with sadness as he sits impatiently on the sideline, barking his teammates on as a suit & ice wearing assistant coach. Heavy is the head that wears the crown, and as the reigning champions of the NBA, one can only see that weight getting heavier as the Celts stand all tied up with a coach-less team held together by scotch tape and ex-Kings. So while Garnett’s cheerleading/coaching behavior is more than understandable due to his court absence (as it pains him more than we’ll ever know that he’s not out there), it seems like his self-seriousness and tough guy manners might be having a negative impact on the Celtics themselves. One needs only to catch the serious look on Pierce or Ray Ray’s face as they met their demise on Sunday to see what I’m talking about*. While they’ve proven themselves as sore losers all year (and prior), prone to pout and cry, even when things are going well do they rarely seem to have fun**.
A juxtaposition: Bulls are down by 5 in the first overtime of Game 3 on Sunday, and the camera cuts to a shot of the Bulls bench. Tyrus Thomas, taking a breather, is caught standing next to the t-shirt wearing Gray. In his ear, Gray whispers something, and the two have a laugh. The camera cuts back again, and Thomas and Gray continue to laugh on the sidelines. All of this highlighted by my roommate getting verbally angry (“Why are you laughing?!” he demanded to know. “What’s funny?!”) And this was when I realized that The White Panther might actually be contributing something valuable here – looseness in the tightest of situations.
Aaron Gray won’t see the light of day playing wise in this series, and he knows it (he’s been wearing a t-shirt the whole series). But any small amount of attention paid to the Bulls bench and you’ll have noticed he’s not only been celebrating more outlandishly than anyone, but he’s also been giving the real players all sorts of shit. In game 2, Gray’s shit talking was so abrasive that none other than VDN turned around to tell him to STFU and sit down. And what did Gray do in reaction? He shrugged, with a smile, making a hand gesture at Vinny to get the fuck outta here and laughed it off. Gray’s role as court jester isn’t exactly surprising, but he seems to be embracing and enjoying it, much like how Kyle Orton enjoyed his triple back up quarterback position, leaving only time for Jim Beam and neckbeards. And since he’s not involved, he might as well be involved, even if it’s completely inappropriate and rude. He is part of the team, after all.
Now we have to be honest here. The Bulls were pretty bad throughout the year, at times abysmal, and their making the playoffs has more to do with an embarrassingly lenient playoff system than it does the team. But now that they (i.e. The Bulls) are here, and in a serious position to take a series from the defending world champs, they need to play it as it is–an improbable yet possible story of coming together at the right time for an underdog victory. But what the Bulls shouldn’t do is act like they deserve this, or act like they’ve been there before. They shouldn’t make bulldog faces and hit their chests real hard like they are all bad boys and shit. Instead, they should have the time of their lives, laugh it up and shove it down the throat of seriousness in the name of having nothing to lose. So let JK Noah hush the Garden Crowd after a put back dunk, let Brad Miller fight Big Baby for no reason, and most of all, I say let Aaron Gray yuck it up on the sidelines, blowing his hand like Tim Thomas with every three pointer the Bulls make. Because really, why the fuck not? With the way The Bulls played this year, with the way VDN coached this year, it’s remarkable that they’ve found themselves in this position. Let Garnett and Co. worry about reputation and defending titles and other things the Bulls have no business caring about. So what’s funny about being down by five in overtime? Nothing, unless Aaron Gray makes a hilarious joke and you end up winning in double overtime anyways. Stay loose Bulls, stay loose.
*Can you imagine how annoying it is to get reamed by Doc Rivers, only to walk down the bench and then get drilled even more by Garnett? Shit’s gotta be unbearably stressful.
**I know this is extraordinarily subjective, but seriously, when’s the last time you saw a Celtic express emotion that wasn’t dead pan seriousness or complete disbelief on a foul call (Perkins)?