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On January 20, the Boston Celtics played one of the ugliest games of their season, letting Charlie Villanueva catch fire, and lost, with little more than a whimper, to the Detroit Pistons, 92-86. The team shot 5 for 19 from behind the arc, turned the ball over 19 times, and had a -10 rebound margin against a team that didn’t carry a true center on the roster.
On February 27, the Celtics were even worse. They shot 3 for 19 from 3-point land, had more turnovers than free throw attempts, and lost by 8 at home to the almost-historically-terrible New Jersey Nets, a team that started Trenton Hassell an improbable 32 times. Hassell’s career averages, by the way, are 5.8 ppg, 2.9 rpg, and 1.8 apg.
On May 13, the Celtics absolutely stymied the Cleveland Cavaliers, preseason favorites to win the Eastern Conference. They forced 24 turnovers, allowed the Cavs to shoot just 38% from the floor (By the way, what’s the opposite of having ice in your veins? Having antifreeze in your veins. Can we officially say that Mo Williams is the current league leader in intravenal antifreeze?), and had five players in double figures. They effectively fired Mike Brown and Danny Ferry from their respective jobs in Cleveland and escorted the best basketball player in the universe out of the playoffs for the 2nd time in 3 years.
On June 13, the Celts played in only the 3rd Finals Game 7 in the last two decades. They held the vaunted Lakers offense to 32% shooting (4 for 20 from behind the arc), and harangued Kobe Bryant into a ghastly shooting night, as the superstar struggled to to a 6-for-24 night that was a testament to Boston’s infuriatingly stingy defense. The Celtics lost 83-79.
Any one of these four games could be used to craft this season’s narrative for the C’s. On any given night, fans might see malaise, frayed team chemistry, two starters sitting with injuries, Marquise Daniels obliviously smoking pot on the bench, or a sub stepping up to help the team win. This was a maddeningly inconsistent team (worse home record than than the Charlotte Bobcats, better road record than the Lakers…huh?) whose incredible playoff run may end up as a cautionary tale about losing focus during the regular season.
The C’s are heading into the most uncertain summer since the team lost out on the Durant/Oden lottery, but Celts fans can rest easy knowing one thing: Rajon Rondo is one of the league’s elite point guards (and is signed long-term with the team). Comparing Rondo to Deron Williams (who is a better shooter, but not as good a slasher), Chris Paul (a truly great player whose athletic prime may get submarined by ownership and injury issues), or Steve Nash (the best offensive creator in the league; also possibly the biggest defensive liability) is for another column, but Rondo has cemented his place in the discussion. Having played 64 playoff games in just 3 years in the NBA, Rondo may also be the most playoff-tested 24-year-old point guard in league history. And as his so-good-the-only-comparisons-are-Oscar-Robertson-and-Magic 29/18/13 Game 5 performance against Cleveland showed, he is a singular talent. When at his best, Rondo does things no other human being alive can do on a basketball court.
The former Wildcat took “the leap” this year, although his numbers don’t necessarily reflect it. It was visible on a nightly basis, as Rondo became the sole constant in a green uniform. As defenses began to gameplan around stopping the pesky guard, he adapted his game, bumping up assist numbers (+1.6 apg from the previous year) while becoming even more aggressive (+165 FGA). No longer just scoring when Paul Pierce and Ray Allen spread the floor with their jumpshots (when said jumpshots were not rusty and broken, as was the case entirely too often), Rondo became a viable first option. Utilizing his length, he developed a beautiful reverse right hand layup, a shot with the type of English usually reserved for the ping pong table. Though he developed a tendency towards sloppiness as the playoffs wore on, I’m happy to dismiss that as mental fatigue for Rondo, who played a staggering 113 games this year, including the preseason. After years of mediocrity at point guard, from Sherman Douglas to Kenny Anderson to Chucky Atkins, the Celts finally have a leader and a star at the 1.
It was perhaps the most ubiquitous stat of the playoffs. Pundit after pundit insisted that any team who goes .500 over the last two-thirds of the season was more of an early flash in the pan than a struggling real contender. After the fact, it seems impossible to find any reasonably well-known pundits who actually picked the C’s to lose in the first round, but there was certainly talk on ESPN (I’m looking at you, Tim Legler) about the Celts bowing out to the Miami Dwyane Wades.
That’s not to say that the haters didn’t have their justification. As anyone who watched the team after the All-Star Break knows, they were a dejected bunch. The DNP’s started racking up for Garnett, fueling fears that his knee hadn’t fully recovered from last season’s surgery (those fears gave way to the realization that after almost 1,100 NBA games, KG is simply not the physical specimen he was for so many years). Ray Allen’s jumpshot came and then it went…and just when fans were ready to sign a death certificate for the most glorious jumper even handed down by the basketball gods, there was Ray, zombie-like in his ability to rise from the dead and perform at the highest level. Paul Pierce played with the same fire that has made him a legend in Boston, but it wasn’t available every night, and The Truth finally seemed to be showing signs of wear.
Combine the problem of the team’s age, the volatile situation in the locker room, and the C’s were a powder keg. Hammering home the point were four consecutive losses to the Atlanta Hawks, the young bucks of the East whose youth and energy had made them a trendy sleeper pick for Eastern Conference champions. The 2008 C’s barely held off the same group in a nail-biting first-round series, but now the matchup seemed almost unfair. After losing on January 29th, and dropping to 29-15, the C’s looked ready to concede the top 3 spots in the East to Cleveland, Orlando, and Atlanta; at that point in the season, the C’s were 2-7 against those three teams, at least two of whom they would need to go through in the playoffs.
It was no surprise less than a week later when Rajon Rondo publicly pointed out the locker room rift in Boston. Of the problems, KG said, “I could just sense that everybody, within themselves, was trying to do more than they should, or reverting back to being leaders on this team versus the way we have been doing it.”
Reverting, it seems, was the biggest problem, with The Big Three (most notably Garnett and Allen) trying to put games on their respective backs and failing to integrate the most effective offensive player on the roster, Rondo. It was an old-fashioned generational gap between three veterans used to being THE guys, and the young stud asking to be handed the reins. It was a nearly impossible situation, because although The Big Three had always maintained that winning was the only priority, the most effective offense had been the one flowing through the three of them. Now, the team’s best chance at winning clearly revolved around Rondo, and now the older guys, specifically Garnett, were more or less being asked to step aside. It was brutal to watch; like any group of friends with a problem that everyone realizes but no one wants to talk about, the C’s were imploding. Crunch time routinely became a disaster as guys freelanced or took shots to underscore their importance to the team.
No other coach in the NBA, except for maybe Phil Jackson, could have had the C’s ready to play in the first round of the playoffs. What part exactly Doc played in reorganizing the personalities behind the scenes we’ll never know, but given how much every player on the roster respects Doc, it’s to the coach’s credit that the team cut out the in-fighting at the right moment in the season.
If you’re the type of person looking for a silver lining in the fact that the Celtics basically gave away a championship in the fourth quarter of Game 7 (writing that sentence just made my eyes bleed), you can look at the road the Celts had to travel to even get to the finals. No matter your personal ranking system, the Celtics took down three of the top seven individual players in the league, in shocking fashion.
This generation of Celts have always been good at shutting down superstars. James and Bryant are the only two players in the league who seem able to absolutely go off on the C’s, and that was mitigated in this year’s playoffs by the fact that both were shut down in key moments: LeBron in the infamous Game 5, and Kobe in the 4th quarter of Game 7 (1 FGM, 3 offensive rebounds). But the NBA is still a superstar’s league, and all 3 of the guys the C’s had to go through on the way to the Finals have reputations of being able to bring it when the lights are brightest. Yes, D-Wade is a one-man team. Yes, Dwight Howard is less important to the Magic’s offense than their 3-point shooting. And yes, LeBron James played for a guy who should be coaching AAU. But the lowest common denominator in the playoff exits for those three players is the swarming, nowhere-to-put-the-ball defense that hadn’t been seen since the 2008 playoffs. By returning to the team’s strengths (defense, chemistry, hustle), the Celts sent three of the league’s best, all of whom have been to the NBA Finals before, packing.
If you want one reason, one word, one fault that describes why there was a parade in Los Angeles this week, and not in Boston, it’s inconsistency. It describes perfectly the sloppy transition passes (one thing I will not miss if Ray doesn’t re-sign), the pitiful field goal percentage within five feet of the rim, the infuriating inability to box out, all of the things that contributed to the team’s ultimate defeat. And it’s not like inconsistency is new news to anyone who watched the team; in some kind of horrible self-fulfilling prophecy, Phil Jackson’s Game 5 statement about the Celts knowing how to lose games in the fourth quarter came stomach-wrenchingly true in Game 7. The team that had shown up and executed in the first half apparently stayed in the locker room for the second half, and the team came out impatient and sloppy.
It’s hard not to dwell on the negative when you get this close. In some ways, it would’ve been easier to lose to James’ Cavaliers or Howard’s Magic. If we’d lost before getting to play LA, it would’ve been according to plan; this team, as evidenced by “27-27,” was supposed to be done. But for this hard-working and determined team to figure it all out and get this close, only to return to regular-season form in Games 6 and 7 was heartbreaking. It doesn’t give me any special pleasure to point out that Ray Allen was 3 for 27 in Games 3 and 7, the two supremely winnable games of this series. It doesn’t make me happy as a fan that the C’s were a combined 16 for 67 in the games they lost (a scorching 24%..aaaaaand my eyes are bleeding again). I’m not a Philadelphia fan, for Christ sakes, I don’t actually enjoy the team’s failure. But there was something deeply familiar about the Finals loss for any real fan of the team, because it resembled so closely all the collapses during the regular season.
There are two ways to evaluate the season overall. One, we can call the season a success because, after all the tumult throughout, after being dead and buried by everyone with an opinion on the subject, the Celts came within one or two bounces of being NBA Champions. In the salary-capped NBA, it’s hard to ask more of that from your team. On the other hand, this was a previously unbeaten starting 5 in the playoffs, a team with savvy veterans who’ve been there before, and as much talent as anyone in the league. It was the last year with Tom Thibodeau, and in all likelihood, the last season (for a while, at least) with Doc. It may have been the last year with Ray Allen and/or Paul Pierce, and we have no idea yet what Kendrick Perkins’ future is with the team. And it’s very, very hard to stomach losing any series in which you’re up 3-2.
Whatever side you take, you’re faced with one unpleasant reality: this Celtics team, so gifted and so fun to watch when they were at their best, rarely played to their potential when it wasn’t absolutely necessary. Maybe that’s the way of the world in the NBA, but there’s a reason the champions are almost always 1 or 2-seeds; those are the teams that know how to get it done when it matters, because they got it done when it seemingly didn’t matter. Because of the already-mentioned-so-many-times-you-want-to-punch-me inconsistency, this team’s expectations fluctuated so violently that we (and they) were never sure exactly of their long-term capabilities. And those ups-and-downs made the playoff ride that much more thrilling, but one can’t help wonder whether a little more consistency might have raised an eighteenth banner in the Garden.