The Boston Celtics looked like the NBA world champions of old for the first time this season on Sunday.
When Paul Pierce drained a huge three-pointer from downtown with 7:29 minutes left in the fourth quarter, it give the Celtics an 11-point lead over the Chicago Bulls and had the fans in the TD Garden on their feet. The 95-91 victory had the home crowd believing that the big three could still compete and a date in the finals was once again obtainable.
To claim the Boston Celtics are back may seem like hyperbole after just one win, but they were playing against a Bulls team that came into the game with the best record in the NBA and on a five-game win streak.
The Bulls, even without Derrick Rose, who was missing again due to back spasms, are a big, strong athletic team. The Celtics defense was able to contain the Bulls and not only out rebounded them 44-42, but kept the Eastern Conference leaders down to shooting 39 percent from the field and forced 13 turnovers. The C's were led by Rajon Rondo, who scored a triple-double with 32 points, 15 assists and 10 rebounds.
Rondo is becoming something of an enigma. In Thursday's 88-87 overtime defeat against the LA Lakers, the Celtics point guard didn't seem able to drive the Celtics to victory and only scored 14 points with 7-of-13 shooting.
The following night, in the awful game against the Toronto Raptors, Rondo went 2-of-10 from the floor and finished with just five points in the 86-74 loss. The call for Rondo to be traded was loud and clear with fans, including myself, ready to see the whole thing blown up.
But when Rondo plays like he did against the Bulls, the Celtics No. 9 is one of the best point guards in the NBA. He is so wildly inconsistent that he has me reaching for the lithium.
Is all the trade talk a problem for him? When his name is mentioned as possible bait for a swap, as it has been this week, does he just lose interest and not care? Then when he's over that, does he come out all guns blazing, determined to show everyone that to trade him would be idiotic and that the Celtics would never get what he's worth?
Rondo isn't the only one who has had me feeling bipolar this season. The whole Celtics team has been Jekyll and Hyde. Even in the game against the Bulls, the C's let a fourth quarter 14-point lead slip to just three. It may make for exhilarating basketball, but the big-winning Celtics of the 2007-2008 season were just better for the nerves. The performance on Sunday was however by far the best of the season.
This year has been such a hodgepodge that it's impossible to know which Celtics team will turn up. For most of the season the Celtics have looked good enough to make the first round of the playoffs, but no further. After the Raptors defeat, Boston didn't look enough to finish in the top half of the Atlantic division.
Now, if they can play for the rest of the season like they did on Sunday, they look good enough to win the NBA championship. In the playoffs, the Celtics wouldn't even have to play every game like champions; just four out of every best-of-seven series would be good enough. Sixteen wins in 28 games is easily within the grasp of this Boston team.
The Celtics still have some problems and need to address several issues before the playoffs. Ray Allen will get you baskets, but extended minutes seem to be tough on his old legs right now. Points in the paint are still hard to come by, and the Celtics looked undersized and slow when compared to some of their potential playoff rivals.
But on Sunday the bench showed they are more than capable of stepping up and helping out the starters. It was also good to see Doc Rivers show them some love with extended minutes. If JaJuan Johnson, Chris Wilcox (who started on Sunday for injured Jermaine O'Neal) and Avery Bradley can continue to contribute, then the Celtics will be a force to be reckoned with come May.
Maybe it's time for some of us to shut up for awhile and just let the Celtics get on with it and play. Let's stop all the silly chatter about trades and getting rid of the Big Three until the season is over. If we can accept that every game isn't going to result in a win but know that a healthy starting five will match up against anyone in the NBA, then we have no reason to doubt.
After the victory against the Bulls, it's time for all of us to get behind this Boston team and show them the support they deserve. There are some fans who have never waivered in their support while others have gone back and forth. Now would seem like the time for all the faithful to start to believe.
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