5 Reasons the Boston Celtics Have 1 More Shot at a Title
Don't laugh. As unbelievable as it seems, the Celtics may still have one more gasp left in them for an 18th title.
Certainly, a three-game winning streak against the likes of Washington, Charlotte and Utah is nothing to write home about. The last good team they played, Philly last Friday night, ran them off the court. And after a game against the Minnesota Timberwolves on Friday night, their next six games are as follows: Miami, San Antonio, at Chicago, at Indiana, Philly, at Miami.
This upcoming stretch could spell the end for the C's, who will still probably creep into the postseason even if they go 1-5, but would then be faced with playing either the Bulls or Heat in the first round.
But at 13-5 since the All-Star break (the third best mark in the NBA over that span), they do have some things going in their favor with the playoffs fast approaching. Here are a few of them.
The Celtics have been absolutely snakebit by injuries/health issues this season (really, two core rotation guys out for the year with heart ailments?). But it looks like they could be getting healthier at just the right time.
Ray Allen, who has missed the past five games with bad ankles, is tentatively scheduled to return against the Wolves. Even if he doesn't and misses another game or two, one has to assume that this little respite will do wonders for his constitution and energy level over the last month and into the postseason.
Mickael Pietrus, out since suffering that horrifying fall in Philly last week, has already announced that he'll be back this season, though as of now, he's doesn't know exactly when.
Jermaine O'Neal and Chris Wilcox, both counted on to be big parts of the rotation up front, are done for the year, thinning the Celtics' depth down low. But with the recent addition of Ryan Hollins and some rumors floating that the team isn't done stockpiling bodies, that depth may well be fortified somewhat come the postseason.
The Celts, getting a very nice contribution from Avery Bradley of late, will be flush in the backcourt once Allen and Pietrus return. If another bigger body joins up as well, this may actually look like a fully stocked roster.
Just two teams average fewer than the 90.4 PPG let up by the Celts, Chicago and Philadelphia.
The Sixers are the only team that holds their opponents to a lower field-goal percentage than the Celtics' 42.3.
And no one defends the three-pointer better than the Celts, whose opponents shoot just 30.6 percent from deep.
The point is that in the playoffs, when the game slows down and the teams that execute the best in the halfcourt move on, the Celts' continued prowess on the defensive end goes a long way.
And even though they can't rebound and are ranked dead last in the NBA in that category, the Celts have managed to go 11-5 in March despite getting out-rebounded by 10 or more in 13 of those16 games.
Translation? Rebounding is big, but playing great defense is bigger.
It may seem hard to believe, but Garnett is having one of his best seasons as a Celtic, arguably his best since the '07-'08 title run.
After posting 23 points and 10 rebounds in Wednesday night's win over Utah, Garnett now has 16 double-doubles on the season. He's doing this damage primarily from the center position, where he's been forced to play thanks to the absences of O'Neal and Wilcox.
Before the All-Star break, he was putting up a solid 14.4 points and eight rebounds per night on a tidy 50 percent shooting. Since then, the points are up to 17.3, the boards are up to 8.5 and the shooting percentage is up over 52. Not too shabby.
It's been widely assumed that this would be Garnett's last year, at least with the Celtics. His contract is up at the end of the season and there have been no talks about a new one, at least not substantial or public ones.
But now one has to wonder whether or not bringing him back on a short-term deal next year is such a bad idea. He can clearly still play at a high level. He's doing all of this at over 30 minutes per game despite playing out of position and the Celtics' lack of depth up front.
Whether or not he's back in Boston next season, what's clear is that the Celtics' performance since the break and their move to tie Philly for the Atlantic Division lead (which means the No. 3 or No. 4 seed in the playoffs as opposed to the No. 7 or No. 8 seed) has been keyed in large part by KG.
He could very well be the biggest key to another significant postseason run.
4. Unsung Heroes
If anyone out there predicted that Avery Bradley and Greg Stiemsma would have the sort of impact they've provided on the Celtics this year, well then, let's go buy some Mega Millions tickets.
Bradley has made his mark as a terrific defender and he's gotten so much better on the offensive end too. He had a career high 23 points on 9-of-14 shooting against the Wizards last Sunday and has been trusted by Doc Rivers to start and play 40 minutes per night in the absence of Allen.
Bradley is not a point guard; when he's running the show, things tend to get very bogged down. But he's carved out a crucial role for himself on this team and the results have been more than apparent since the break.
Rookie Stiemsma sort of fell off the map after Tommy Heinsohn compared his shot-blocking ability to Bill Russell's early in the season. But thanks to O'Neal and Wilcox being out, he's now one of the first guys off the bench and he's running with the opportunity.
Stiemsma is averaging 20 minutes, four rebounds and a staggering 2.6 blocks over his last five games. He had 10 rebounds and seven blocks (career highs) against the Wizards last Sunday, and put up five blocks and four steals in a win over Milwaukee last week.
These guys are by no means star players. But they are excelling in their roles and providing the Celtics some desperately needed depth down the stretch. Their presence could loom large in the playoffs.
In 1996, after his Houston Rockets won their second straight title as a No. 6 seed, coach Rudy Tomjanovich famously declared, "Never underestimate the heart of a champion!"
You could apply that sensibility to the Celtics as well. The core of this team — KG, Pierce, Allen, Rondo, Rivers — has one title under its collective belt and came oh so close to winning a second one. They are playoff tested, having been there as a group for four consecutive years. And they play their butts off, night after night.
It wouldn't be surprising to see the Celts move on from a first round win over a team like Indiana or even Orlando, and then give the Bulls or Heat all they can handle. This team may go down, but they won't go down quietly.
If we've learned anything about this group over the past five years, it's that they don't stop fighting until the game or the series is completely and totally over. Count on that M.O. carrying over to this upcoming postseason.