Suddenly, the Celtics are chasing a "Big Three"
As a franchise, Boston has had enough long-term success to guarantee that each year the team will wear a target on its back. And, since their gritty NBA Finals victory in 2008, the Celtics players have been trying desperately to show they should continue to be taken seriously.
This year’s team is as proud and stubborn as any in Celtics history, proven by its strained relationships with each of the NBA’s top contenders.
Five teams stand most prominently in the Celtics’ way in 2012-13; the following rankings list opponents by how ravenously Boston hungers to take them down.
I know what you’re thinking. How could a team that pushed Boston to seven games in the playoffs last year fall to fifth on the next season’s rivalry list?
The simple answer is that at least three other teams in the Eastern Conference pose a more significant threat to Boston’s title dreams.
Philadelphia cannot be considered a legitimate adversary until Andrew Bynum figures out how to keep his legs healthy. His most recent bowling-related injury knocks the Sixers further from the top of this list.
However, guard Jrue Holiday consistently gives Rajon Rondo trouble in the backcourt. He is one of the only players in the league who has proven he has the ability to take Rondo out of his comfort zone. This will become increasingly important as the season wears on.
Coach Doug Collins has to be apprehensive about the strength of the Atlantic division this season. Both Boston and Philadelphia are staring up at the Nets and Knicks at this point, with the latter not showing any signs of slowing down.
Regardless, the C’s and Sixers have a long-standing rivalry that won’t be extinguished by a one-year lapse. Games between the two tend to come down to the wire; the intensity of each individual matchup warrants Philly a near-permanent spot on this list.
Every play is a battle between the NBA's two most storied rivals
The chances of Boston playing the Lakers in any game that truly matters this year are slimmer than they have been in recent history.
Yet, it would be impossible to compose a list of Celtics rivals without including the most historically competitive matchup in the NBA.
The Celtics and Lakers could only meet in the Finals, just like in 2008 and 2010. Each time the series was a long, drawn-out slug fest that tested the heart of the rival franchises.
Both teams are significantly reloaded for another go at it this year. The Celtics added much-needed guard depth in Jason Terry, Courtney Lee and Leandro Barbosa. At this juncture, it appears they should have done more to improve interior defense and rebounding.
The two moves may not be exactly the Howard-Chris Paul dual acquisition that GM Mitch Kupchak envisioned last summer; either way, I’m comfortable calling their point guard situation an upgrade from last year’s Ramon Sessions fiasco.
Despite both having an active offseason, neither team can claim to be the best in its conference. Boston stares definitively up at the Miami Heat, while the Lakers are chasing the likes of Oklahoma City Thunder and a quietly scary Memphis Grizzlies team.
Until they meet again in the Finals someday, the rivalry between Boston and L.A. will take a backseat to more pressing matters facing Doc Rivers’ squad.
Joakim Noah will give Boston big problems in the paint
This one may be a bit of stretch at the moment, but it won’t be for long.
He’s not back yet, and it will be impossible to know if he’ll be the same once he returns. One thing is certain: D-Rose’s team and fan base will rally heavily around him once he does. The energy in Chicago that will surround their star’s recovery should bring the Bulls right back into the picture when it matters.
When fully healthy, Chicago possesses enough talent to compete with every team in the league. More importantly, they match up very well against Doc Rivers’ Celtics.
Rose is among one of the few point guards in the NBA who could be called better than Rajon Rondo. Wingman Luol Deng is a terrific perimeter defender who will considerably limit Paul Pierce’s effectiveness.
But perhaps the most problematic matchup this year for Boston will be trying to keep Joakim Noah off the offensive glass. The Celtics haven’t had very much success against anybody in this department; Noah’s motor in the paint will be a major obstacle for the C’s to overcome.
Lastly, Bulls Coach Tom Thibodeau—who recently received a four-year extension on his contract—knows the ins and outs of Boston’s system. He was the assistant coach during Boston’s 2008 Finals run, and his defensive coaching was a large reason behind their success at that time.
Since his departure, the Celtics defense has never fully regained that special look they had about them in ’08. If the Celtics are to make another deep run this year, they better find that level of play quickly.
Learning from competition with the rival Bulls over the course of this season might be just the boost they need.
Nobody on the Celtics is slowing down Carmelo Anthony.
Welcome back, Knicks fans.
If there is one scary thing about the Eastern Conference playoffs this year outside of the Miami Heat, it is most certainly the New York Knicks.
After a convincing 8-2 start to the season, Mike Woodson’s squad is ready to prove that it will be around for the long haul.
Not many teams in the NBA have an answer for Carmelo Anthony’s strength and scoring ability. In fact, LeBron James is the only athlete capable of ruining Anthony’s night. Boston is no different, especially because key defender Paul Pierce is getting older and slower.
Outside of Anthony, the Knicks are proving that they have enough depth, leadership, defensive prowess and bench talent to stick with any team on any night. Veterans Jason Kidd and Tyson Chandler know exactly what it takes to get an NBA title after their run with the Mavericks in 2011.
The only remaining question is whether or not the eventual re-addition of currently sidelined Amar’e Stoudemire will help or hurt the team’s flow. Bleacher Report’s very own Zach Buckley has his doubts.
The team currently sits atop the Atlantic division, where they’ll hope to remain perched for the rest of the regular season. Should they hang on to their top spot, the Knicks will get to play many home playoff games in front of an electrified Madison Square Garden crowd.
Just like old times, right?
Physicality is never absent in a matchup between the Celtics and their current most bitter rival
LeBron James has always been a major foe of the Boston Celtics, dating back to his Eastern Conference Finals days with the Cleveland Cavaliers.
This year, the relationship is different than ever before. Now he’s won it all, erasing his demons against Boston with an incredible individual effort. LeBron's performance in Game 6 of the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals was the single greatest one-man show I’ve ever witnessed on a basketball court.
So, LeBron and the Heat finally got past Boston and won a ring. What else fuels this increasingly bitter flame?
Dwyane Wade certainly hasn’t made friends with Rajon Rondo recently. The two always seem to get caught in a skirmish, originating with Rondo’s unfortunate elbow injury in the Conference Finals in 2011. The bad blood between the two will only continue to grow as the teams clash for bragging rights in the East.
Lets not forget about Ray Allen pulling a Johnny Damon and leaving one side for the other. Allen’s decision to head down to South Beach in the offseason dominated the hype around opening night in American Airlines Arena, and the Celtics surely have not so easily forgotten how they feel about him.
Remember Garnett’s complete cold-shoulder job when Ray came up to greet his former teammate before the opening tip? That moment defines the emotions flying around between the Heat and Celtics.
The most important reason that Miami is Boston’s top rival in 2012-13 is that the C’s will have to find a way to beat them to achieve their goal of an NBA Finals berth. LeBron, Wade, Allen and Chris Bosh stand firmly in the way of every Celtics’ goal and do not appear to be willing to go down without a brutal fight.
Speaking of hunger, happy Thanksgiving everybody! Agree or disagree with my rankings? Respond in the comments or reach out to me on Twitter, @jkeimach9