60/30: No. 29, TD Garden

Andrew Unterberger has one game left on his quest to see a game in each and every NBA arena. Here’s his next-to-last report…

Driving from DC to Boston, stopping in Philly to meet a friend for lunch, I was reminded just how grateful I was to have burned the majority of December in the deep South. Snow everywhere — the ugly, slushy, miserable kind of snow that just makes being outside and walking around a generally awful experience. It’s easy to pretend it’s not the winter yet with blue skies and clear sidewalks, but coming back up the northeast, this shit was quickly becoming undeniable. At least it wasn’t sticking to the roads, meaning that the driving and traffic on the highways was only as terrible as it usually is going through New York — I ended up driving nearly the entire way to Albany and taking the Mass Pike from there to avoid it, which confused my Garmin to such a degree that it just kinda gave up on me halfway through. So glad to be back!

Before my official return to the Big Apple, I did have a New Year’s Eve game in Boston to get through. When my trip first started, Hornets-Celtics seemed like it might be a match between two finals contenders, or at least two point guards vying for the title of league’s best. But then the Hornets went 3-9 and Rajon Rondo pulled up lame with a sprained ankle, meaning I wasn’t likely to be watching much of either on December 31. Guess a boring, old-fashioned good game was going to have to do.

The Stadium: The TD Garden certainly struck an impressive profile from the outside, located right off the end of the Zakim Bridge, which really must be counted among the most photogenic bridges in the entire United States. The building itself is huge but surprisingly barren on the outside — just a couple of Bruins posters adorning the exterior, with no indications as far as I could tell that the Celtics actually called this their home. Inside, I had really liked how the area outside the entrance to Conseco in Indiana was made up to look like a train station, but the TD Garden did it one better by actually being located within an actual train station — at least I assume, anyway, the whole thing looked a little too legit to be purely cosmetic. Made the whole experience feel definitively bustling, if nothing else. I guess that’s good.

The Bruins-centric theme of the stadium’s outside definitely continued throughout the arena, a little to my surprise. The great majority of the seats were colored Bruin black-and-gold, as were most of the hallways, which is kind of a weird look to begin with, and doubly so when considering how far it is from the green-and-white you’d expect from a stadium housing the Celtics, only one of the proudest franchises in all of professional sports. Even the team gift shop felt like it was tilted a little too much in favor of the B’s merchandise. I mean, the Bruins are doing well this season and all, and they got plenty of history of their own no doubt, but come on — the C’s deserve way more of a presence in their own building than this. (Maybe Boston just has too many good teams in general these days — despite the two finals appearances in the last three years, the Boston fans I talked to still ranked them third on the city depth chart behind the Red Sox and Pats).

The Game: As with their game against the Magic a few days earlier, the Celtics played the Hornets to a sluggish, gritty draw through three-and-a-half quarters. Without Rajon Rondo to push the pace and get the team easy scores in transition, just about everything was half-court with the C’s, and so how well the team was doing (and how watchable their play was) was depending on whether Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and company were making their jumpers. Chris Paul was making things happen on the other end for the Hornets, but their bench play was absolutely brutal (3-15 for 9 points total), resulting in huge offensive lapses at the beginning of the second and fourth quarters.

Speaking of benches — it’s a brave new world for the Celtics out there this days. No Rondo, no Kevin Garnett, no Kendrick Perkins and no Delonte West means that the Celtics have a large number of guys getting key rotation minutes that were pretty low on the depth chart in the preseason. There was a stretch in the second quarter where Marquis Daniels, Von Wafer and Luke Harangody were all playing on the court together, and I couldn’t stop wondering what was going on in Doc Rivers’s head as he watched what was essentially the team’s JV squad helping decide the fate of a close game against a good team. “Has it come to this?” Get well soon, Celtics — enjoy your obligatory post-New Years swoon if you must, but don’t wait too long to get back on track.

As is often the case with the Hornets, it was only a subtly masterful performance from Chris Paul that kept them in the game. Unusually assertive on offense early — the other two games I saw him play, he let the game come to him for the first half — it was quickly clear that CP3 came to play, and he ended with 20 points, 11 assists and six steals, making Emeka Okafor (18 and 13) and David West (19/5/4) look like All-Stars in the process. The one memorable Hornets play that he didn’t make happen was the Trevor Ariza three that ended up being the game-winner, where Ariza launched a tightly-contested bomb at the end of the shot clock. Lucky that it dropped, but the Celtics should probably never have let them get so close. The final C’s possession was a disaster and the game ended as anticlimactically as any on my trip. Final score: Hornets 83, Celtics 81.

The Fans: Respect to the Boston fans — they were in it from the get go, not needing a full quarter to fill up the arena or demanding that their players have to earn their enthusiasm or anything like that. The Garden crowds always seemed like one of the loudest NBA fanbases on TV, and they did a pretty good job of living up to it against the Hornets, being the rare team that actually seemed to move the needle on the “MAKE NOISE” meter (from “Rumbling” to “Wicked Loud” to “Garden Level”) on their own without needing to be handicapped by the team’s PA guy. The biggest cheer of the night was reserved for fan-favorite-to-be Luke Harangody, who followed his own missed jumper with an offensive board and put-back, electrifying the crowd in the process. It’s like Scalabrine never left, really.

The fans that I talked to were confident in the Celtics’ supremacy in the Eastern Conference — as long as health wasn’t an issue of course. (“If the injuries stay off, they got it,” fan Brad told me.) Mark, who sat next to me in the super-upper-deck (“The Halo,” they called it) wasn’t even particularly worried about the surfeit of banged-up players. “Overall, they have the camaraderie and know-how to get it done. It’s not the first time they’ve been through injuries,” he said. Though I heard the Heat and the Spurs as possible threats to the Celts bringing home the championship, no one seemed worried about the Lakers. “I think as far as last year goes, if KG was healthy … they should have won that last game,” Mark told me. Brad agreed, “With Perk coming back, and KG … we were [just] a big man short of the title last year.”

I asked about the difference between the old Garden and the new one. A fan named Derek said he preferred this one because “the last time at the Garden [he] sat in front of a pole,” but Brad said it still couldn’t compare in terms of the history. “That feeling of the presence of players past,” Brad put it. “It just had that special feeling.” Still, he went to bat for the way the C’s fans have made the new building come alive. “This place backs the players completely,” he said. “Every game’s a sell out, and every game the place goes crazy.”

Most Popular Jerseys: The Celtics must be the best jersey-repped team in the entire league, hands down. What other team has five guys (Pierce, KG, Shaq, Ray, Nate) whose name and number could easily be the most popular seller on a lesser team? There were swarms of all those guys throughout the arena, though if one emerged as the favorite, it’d probably be Pierce, almost by longest-tenure default. With all those currents to choose from, there wasn’t much room for throwbacks, though naturally a couple of Larry Bird #33s snuck in there as well.

Also Worth Noting: When I was in Orlando, I saw something I don’t ever remember seeing in an NBA game before — a ten-second violation, called on Dwight Howard for taking too long to shoot a free throw. It felt patently absurd at the time, mostly because there were players I felt certain absolutely took longer than that each and every time out at the stripe, just to do their regular pre-free throw routine. I figured no one in the league would be a worse offender than Celtics center Jermaine O’Neal, so I timed him doing his deliberate four-dribble thing before shooting at the line once: 13.5 seconds. I don’t know whether that made me pissed off that the refs called it on Dwight in Orlando, or pissed off that the refs don’t call it every single time that JO takes half a shot-clock to shoot a goddamn free throw, but it definitely made me pissed off.

Swag Acquired: As a Sixers fan living in New York, I couldn’t get anything that I was actually planning on wearing outside too often, so I got a black-and-green C’s knit cap. I don’t think I’ve actually worn a knit cap since my mother dressed me for snow days, so I should be safe. Maybe I’ll wear it next Dec. 31st if I end up spending New Year’s in Boston again for the third straight year.

2010 Jam of the Day:

Beat Connection – “In the Water” Some day, they’ll be able to put together an awesome box set’s worth of beach-themed (or at least beach-titled) songs from the last half-decade of underground pop/rock. Of course, by then box sets won’t exist, and we’ll all be too busy gazing nostalgically at the Earth’s far-off beauty from the moon’s barren surface to listen to woodblock-heavy dance jams like this anyway.

Going home for one last game. If you’re in New York and see a bunch of people huddled outside Penn Station to watch a lumbering figure in an oversized Caron Butler jersey breaking through a strip of victory tape stretched across 34th street, now you’ll understand why.