Well, folks, they did it.
After a season which saw them lose lose Jeff Green and Chris Wilcox to heart surgery and Jermaine O'Neal to wrist surgery and deal with injuries to Paul Pierce, Rajon Rondo and Mickael Pietrus, a season where they were 15-17 at the All-Star break and were declared dead in the water by media pundits and fans alike, a season where many thought that the compressed schedule would ultimately derail the team's older legs, a season where Ray Allen was almost traded to the Memphis Grizzlies and Paul Pierce was almost dealt to the New Jersey Nets, the Boston Celtics have won the Atlantic Division title for the fifth straight year by way of a 102-98 victory over the Orlando Magic on Wednesday night.
For Doc Rivers and the entire Celtics team, this division crown has to feel more special than any of the four that preceded it. This was the definition of gutsy. From this point on, if you look up the word "gutsy" in the dictionary, there should be a team photo of the 2011-12 Boston Celtics next to it.
Early on in the season, the Philadelphia 76ers were in full control of the Atlantic Division. They were viewed as the upstart team that was too young and spry for Boston to overtake. When they pounded the C's, 103-71, in the teams' first meeting on Mar. 7, those who said that Philadelphia was now "the team" in the division felt validated. They then felt even more validated 16 days later when the 76ers beat Boston yet again. The Celtics were just too old, right?
I hate to toot my own horn, but I had been saying all season long that the Atlantic was still Boston's to lose and that the C's were just coasting through the first half of the year. I said that Philadelphia just did not have enough to hold on to the division lead and that it would not only be surpassed by Boston, but by the New York Knicks as well. Well, now I feel validated, because I was right, and the 103-79 throbbing that the Celtics laid on the 76ers on Easter Sunday silenced the Philly bandwagon for good.
Since the All-Star break, Boston has gone 22-9, good for the most wins in the league. Rajon Rondo (who sat out last night's game due to a sore back) is in the midst of a streak of 22 straight games with 10 or more assists. Kevin Garnett has been rejuvenated since Rivers moved him to center.
Paul Pierce, much like Garnett, has turned back the clock and has been nothing short of magnificent, as evidenced by his 27-point, 14-assist performance in the Celtics' division-sealing victory over Orlando. Brandon Bass has been outstanding since being moved into the starting lineup. Avery Bradley has also been moved into the starting five, and he has emerged as one of the best perimeter defenders in the league and has become a serious threat offensively.
Finally, Greg Stiemsma has proved to be invaluable off the bench, providing Boston with a solid rebounder and reliable shot-blocker down low.
There is not one thing that you can point to and say, "that's the reason why the Celtics have been playing so well."
No. It has been a number of things, and that is why this team is so dangerous heading into the playoffs.
Let's get back to the original point, though.
Let's face it; everyone expected Boston to win the Atlantic Division the four seasons prior to this one. The C's were clearly the top dog in a division that consisted of, other than themselves, the 76ers, the Knicks, the Nets and the Toronto Raptors. Up until this season, no one anticipated that the Celtics would encounter much resistance.
However, midway through the 2010-11 campaign, New York added Carmelo Anthony. Then, in the offseason, it added Tyson Chandler. Now, things were beginning to get interesting.
Before any of the seemingly countless injuries Boston would endure even happened, many predicted that the Knicks would win the division. They thought that you could no longer play the experience card with the Celtics. They were too experienced. Translation: again, they were too old.
Tell that to Rivers, Garnett, Pierce, Allen and the rest of this Boston squad. As you can see, they were having none of it.
Now, the Celtics find themselves in a very similar position to the one they found themselves in during the eerily similar 2009-10 season when they coasted through the first half of the year and then turned it on late: as the No. 4 seed and likely matched up against a team that some will probably predict to upset them in the first round. In 2010, it was the Miami Heat. This time around, it is the Atlanta Hawks.
The C's knew exactly what they were doing all along. They knew Philadelphia wouldn't be able to maintain its level of play, and they knew that New York wasn't all that people were making it out to be, although the Knicks are playing extremely well right now and will present a very tough first-round matchup for the Chicago Bulls or Miami, but that's another story entirely. This story is about Boston.
As special as this division title is to the Celtics, there was no champagne in their locker room after they locked it up last night. Winning the Atlantic Division is all well and good, but it is merely a pit stop for Boston on its way to the promised land. It has bigger goals, goals that nearly everyone would have deemed outlandish in early March.
The Celtics fully believe that they are championship contenders, and you know what? You should too.