Well here’s the last two weeks of regular season games the Celtics played:
Loss – Spurs (home)
Loss – Thunder (home)
Loss – Rockets (home)
Win – Cavs (home – legit win. LeBron still playing; Shaq hurt)
Loss – Knicks (away)
Win – Raptors (away – Bosh out with an injury)
Loss – Wizards (home)
Win – Bucks (away – Bogut out with exploded arm)
Loss – Bulls (away)
Loss – Bucks (home)
That’s one win against a great team and two wins against teams missing their best players out of their final ten while they were in a race against the Atlanta Hawks for the 3rd seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs. Those results explain why we had all but given up on this Celtics team heading into the post-season.
Hindsight being what it is (more reliable than foresight, less interesting than insight), we get a different picture of what was happening, one that might have left us a little more optimistic of the C’s playoff chances. This was a team that could not finish higher than third. However, if they did manage to beat out the Hawks, what difference would it make? Sure, playing against the wounded Bucks sounded easier than playing against the healthy Heat, but did Doc and the boys every really worry about making it out of round one? The rest of us may have considered them a struggling 4th seed headed int a tough confrontation with a motivated 5th seed and what may be the second-most talented player in basketball.
The Celtics did not see a 4th seed when they looked at themselves. They saw the team that beat Cleveland, the best team in the league, twice in the regular season. They were never concerned about Wade. So what was the major advantage to coming in 3rd instead of 4th? The only instance it could possibly make a difference would be if Atlanta defeated Cleveland and advanced to the conference finals (assuming here that Boston has taken 3rd position) and met Boston there. Then it might be helpful for the Celtics to have home court advantage. I say “might be helpful” because the last time the Celtics lost on the road was game 1 of the semi-finals against Cleveland when Ray Allen and Paul Pierce shot a combined 11 of 31 from the field. Since then they’ve been perfect away from the TD Garden.This team reminds me of the 2001 Lakers in that respect. Their regular season is just not an indicator of their talent level, maturity, or will to win. Of course those Lakers had a stronger regular season, but the league was horribly watered down back then. The entire Eastern Conference was in shambles with the early decline of Miami (Zo’s kidneys) and Grant Hill’s ankle submarining the most talent team in Orlando. The West was better, but only San Antonio was elite, so it wasn’t a shock that the Lakers won another ring. It was a shock HOW the Lakers won another ring. They trampled the opposition ruthlessly. Kobe had his best playoff run prior to last year (by PER and Win Share), and Shaq, who had been injured and out of shape much of the season, returned to his most dominatingly dominant dominance, ruining entire defensive schemes with his power game.
Boston has not been as frighteningly destructive, but it has controlled games almost as well and for much the same reasons. Rondo has reached new levels of greatness (like Kobe had), averaging 17 points, 6 rebounds, 11 assists on 48% shooting from the field including 40% from the three point line, and he’s shooting 69% from the foul line. Here’s the list of players who have managed to put up those numbers for a complete playoffs. Too lazy to click a link? Fine. I’ll tell you: Magic Johnson did it 8 times. Michael Ray Richardson, Oscar Robertson, and Bob Cousy each did it once. End of list. Rondo is giving the Celtics 41+ minutes per game of elite point guard production and leading the entire field in Defensive Win Shares.
The re-emergent figure has not been a solo act like Shaq, but rather the entire big 3 from the 2008 title run have returned from the old-folks home to strut their stuff. In the Miami and Cleveland series Garnett reasserted himself as the team leader on defense and abused the smaller Beasley, Haslem, and Jamison on the blocks. Pierce dedicated his entire game to slowing down LeBron, just like he did two playoffs ago, and now he’s back to control the half court offense for minutes at a time with his array of one on one scoring skills. Ray Allen has rediscovered his play-making abilities in addition to his perpetual motion catch and shoot game. Even Rasheed has stumbled upon a pile of motivation and joined Perkins, Davis, and Tony Allen in the physical, aggressive, confident, intelligent 8-man lineup that Doc Rivers has stuck to throughout this impressive run.So were we correct to write off the Celtics heading into the playoffs? Yes and no. From an outsider perspective the team seemed uneven and disengaged, the perfect recipe for playoff disaster. In hindsight though, we can see that they had this inside, waiting for Garnett and Pierce to get back to full health and the entire veteran squad to get back to full motivation. So I think it’s about time we stopped worrying about what the semi-finals loss to a 4th seed does to LeBron’s legacy and questioning Dwight Howard’s heart in losing three straight. These are no 4th seed wannabes defeating the top two teams. These are the 2008 NBA Champion Boston Celtics on a mission.