In just a few short days, the NBA playoffs begin. The bizarre, all-over-the-map nature of this shortened regular season will finally be behind us and the real games can begin.
The second season means the start of what many presume will be the last hurrah for the Celtics as we currently know them. Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett are free agents at year's end and although one of them should be back in Boston, there's no way to know if fans are about to see the last round of games this Big Three will play together.
The playoffs couldn't be coming at a better time for the C's either. After running off an impressive set of games after the All-Star break that saw them reborn as one of the league's best teams and begin to be discussed once again as a legit contender, they were able to manage the minutes of their stars down the stretch to the point that everyone will enter their first-round series against Atlanta at least partially well-rested.
The Celtics, as presently constituted, look like a team that can put a real scare into the Eastern Conference's top dogs. Here are a few reasons why.
Playing just five games in the season's final month should help Allen immensely come playoff time.
Check out some of the box scores from the past month or so.
Ray Allen has played five games in April, none in the past three weeks. Kevin Garnett hasn't played since last Wednesday's win over Atlanta and is questionable for Tuesday night's penultimate regular-season duel with Miami.
The point is, these guys are rested and ready. They may have given up on home-court advantage to the Hawks by resting everyone not named Avery Bradley or Brandon Bass last Friday night. But there's a school of thought that the C's don't care how many times the play in Boston in Round 1, just so long as it's against Atlanta.
With all the old bones, nagging injuries and well-tread tires kicking around the Celtics roster, making sure they're healthy, rested and possessing enough stamina to navigate the grueling grind that is the NBA playoffs is crucial.
Headed into the tournament, it looks like they have that aspect of things wrapped up.
Rivers is hands down one of the best coaches in the league.
Upon perusal of the Eastern Conference standings, one of the things that stands out is that the Celtics have arguably the best coach of the bunch in Doc Rivers.
Erik Spoelstra? Hah! Larry Drew, coach of the C's first-round opponent? Not a chance (and if you don't believe that, watch Atlanta's best player, Josh Smith, play sometime and then tell me how much control Drew has over him).
Stan Van Gundy has no authority in Orlando. Doug Collins is a player mutiny waiting to happen everywhere he goes (and it's started in Philly). Frank Vogel is doing a great job in Indiana but is way too young and inexperienced to be considered here.
And there's no sense wasting your precious time even thinking about the likes of Mike Woodson in New York.
The point is, Rivers has been to the top of the mountain. He's the guy for whom most NBA players want to play more than anyone else. He's made himself into one of the best coaches in the game, easily in the top five along with Popovich, Thibodeau, Rick Carlisle and perhaps someone like George Karl or Lionel Hollins.
Coaches don't play the games, but they can have an effect on their outcomes. The Celts have a nice advantage in that regard.
Rondo will likely be the x-factor in any potential playoff series.
As we've seen numerous times so far this season, Rondo is capable of taking over a game at a moment's notice and completely controlling it for as long as he pleases.
He's particularly interested in doing so when the lights shine brightest (why he doesn't necessarily treat every game the same way is another column entirely) and what bigger stage is there than the playoffs?
Rondo averages 14 points, nine assists and six rebounds over the course of his postseason career. In 2009, he basically averaged a triple-double in 14 playoff games (16.9 points, 9.8 assists, 9.7 rebounds). He's averaged roughly 10 assists per game in each of the last three seasons in the playoffs while shooting 47 percent from the floor over that stretch.
The Hawks don't have anyone who can handle Rondo, who is good enough defensively to neutralize point guard Jeff Teague and even be able to cover Joe Johnson in a pinch. If the Celtics are to advance, Rondo has proven that he's a matchup nightmare against Miami as well and has had some of his best games against the Heat over the past couple years.
If the C's face Chicago, things may get a little trickier but given his penchant for the sensational, there's no reason to doubt Rondo could turn it on against the Bulls. He will be the most unique player in any series the Celtics play and in some potential matchups, the best player, period.
These guys have enough experience together to potentially make another trip to the White House.
Old jokes aside, there are no teams in the Eastern Conference with the playoff resume of the Celtics.
The coach and four best players each have won a title and came roughly 10 minutes from winning another. As a group, they have participated in 73 playoff games over the course of the past four years. And they've won 42 of those.
The Heat proved last year that talent and younger legs don't necessarily win you anything (although those qualities certainly helped them roll the Celts in the Eastern semis). But if you take the amount of guile and know-how on this Celtics team and add it to what should be a rested, relatively healthy group of players and the C's could go places.
The Celtics know how to win. And that goes a long way.
These three all could be gone. But they aren't.
Don't underestimate the power of stability.
There were so many trade rumors swirling around this team right up until the deadline that it's no wonder it took so long for the players to loosen up and start playing the way they have since the All-Star break.
When the trade deadline passed, everyone was still in the same place and any anxiety of the team getting broken up prematurely had passed, the Celts took off. They were solidified. They knew who they were and where they were going.
And they knew exactly who would be going there.
Getting back to the experience factor for a moment, the core members of this team and their coach have been together for ages. The amount of miles on their collective odometer, with all the playoff games and extra flights and extended seasons is astronomical. That the group was maintained and given the opportunity to complete its objective speaks volumes.
The Celtics won't be favored in the playoffs. They won't have home-court advantage. And they'll be playing teams that are younger and more talented than they are.
But they're still champions, something none of their potential Eastern Conference foes can claim.
Never underestimate the heart of a champion.