One can safely say the Boston Celtics—whose impressive 38-9 record is second only to Cleveland, and included a franchise best 19-game winning streak—have silenced critics who doubted how “hungry” they would be to repeat as NBA champions this season.
But how have the Green been able to maintain the same high level of intensity and performance from last season, despite losing key role players like James Posey and P.J. Brown, all the while playing in a tremendously improved Eastern Conference?
Many point to the remarkable improvements of role players such as Kendrick Perkins, Leon Powe, and particularly Rajon Rondo, each of whom is playing at a beyond-his-years level. Perhaps the most notable improvement from last season, however, has been the outstanding play of consummate veteran Ray Allen.
During a season in which this adept Celtics team has emphatically silenced their critics, it is the soft-spoken, 33-year-old Allen who is perhaps making the most noise.
To say that Allen, a perennial All-Star who has hit more three-point field goals than any other player in NBA history besides Reggie Miller, is one of the most improved players from last year’s squad must come across as an odd claim. But it really is true.
The numbers speak for themselves so far this season, as Allen is averaging just over 18 points per game (second on the team to Paul Pierce), shooting a whopping 50.4 percent from the field (tied with Rajon Rondo for Celtics’ guards) and has already hit an astounding 112 three-pointers (which leads the team by a landslide, and accounts for more than a third of the Celtics’ three-point field goals made this season).
In order to fully understand Allen’s improvements from last season, however, you must consider his journey with the Celtics from its very beginning in June 2007.
On paper, Allen’s regular season performance was just as effective last season as it has been so far this season.
When the Celtics’ organization acquired Allen from the Sonics (along with Glen Davis) in a wild draft-day trade, Celtics’ fans received exactly what had been advertised—a prolific scorer (21.0 points per game for his career) who possessed a relentless work ethic, one of the smoothest strokes in NBA history, and a knack for coming through in the clutch. Allen also shoots just under 90 percent from the free-throw line for his career.
By all standards, Allen had a fantastic season, as he scored 17.4 points per game, third-best on the team, and was named to his eighth All-Star game as a replacement reserve for the Eastern Conference squad. He also played a critical role in the Celtics’ league-best 66-16 record—a record-setting 42-game turnaround from the previous season.
Heading into the playoffs, the Celtics earned home court advantage throughout, and had the entire city of Boston captivated by their storybook season.
The playoffs themselves, however, proved to be somewhat of a different story for Allen.
In first round against the Atlanta Hawks, it was a feast-or-famine series for Ray-Ray. Although he managed just over 16 points per game for the series, he struggled mightily with his jumpshot, particularly from downtown.
The wheels truly came off for Allen, however, in the next round against LeBron James and the Cavaliers as Allen averaged only 9.2 points per game for the series—a bizarre decrease in production which was marked by a nightmare-ish Game One in which he went scoreless in a playoff game for the first time in his illustrious career.
In addition, Allen had an ineffective Game Seven in which he was benched for most of the fourth quarter of the nail-biting victory.
Although fans in Boston were thrilled about the team’s first conference finals appearance since 2002, concern about Allen’s uncharacteristic slump grew louder.
Sports talk radio stations in the city were flooded with callers wondering if Allen was playing through a hidden injury, or if the worst case scenario had occurred—that the then-32-year-old was simply fatigued, and his legs had given out.
Even more eyebrows were raised when Allen, recognized throughout the entire league as a model citizen and truly unselfish team player, publicly criticized point guard Rajon Rondo for failing to pass him the ball when Allen found an opening.
It seemed that Allen, by his standards, had truly fallen into a funk at the worst possible time.
However, the Boston fans never gave up on Allen during the conference finals against the Detroit Pistons, as they cheered particularly loudly whenever Allen scored. As expected, Allen never gave up on himself.
Just as the Celtics appeared to be turning the corner as a team after beating the Pistons in a close Game Five at home and clinching the series in Detroit in a gritty Game Six, Allen appeared to be snapping out of his funk for good.
Allen posted a stellar 29-point performance in front of the home crowd in Game Six, and a solid 17-point effort in the series clincher, the old Ray appeared to officially return.
His play in the NBA Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers served as the proof of this, as Allen was arguably the Celtics’ most consistent performer.
The rest is history; literally because Allen played a huge role in helping the Celtics earn its league-best 17th NBA title in franchise history, but also because Allen’s highly publicized struggles appear to be a thing of the past.
Allen’s ability to pick up this season right where he left off last June can be attributed to two major causes.
One is that Allen is 100 percent healthy this season, whereas last year, Allen was plagued by nagging ankle injuries and missed nine games because of his health issues.
Allen has played in every game so far this season. Good health has meant full leg strength behind his jumpshot—a benefit that was not always there last year.
The other reason is that Celtics’ coach Doc Rivers, with one year of experience coaching Allen now under his belt, has admitted on several occasions that he is much more confident in utilizing Allen within the C’s offense. Last season Allen never appeared to be lost within the offense, but he did at times seem uncomfortable.
This year, Allen is thriving off of set screens, and is thus getting the ball in better positions.
Due to his improved health and acclimation to the Celtics’ system, Allen is playing with the energy he had at UCONN and the confidence of Jesus Shuttlesworth from "He Got Game."
Look for this trend to continue throughout May and into June.
Michael Wahle is a junior at the University of Notre Dame, and has resided in Hingham, MA, a suburb near Boston, for the past 19 years. If you have any questions or comments about this article or any Boston sports story, Michael can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.