Why the Boston Celtics Are Legitimate Contenders in 2012-2013

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Why the Boston Celtics Are Legitimate Contenders in 2012-2013
Jared Wickerham/Getty Images
Rajon Rondo

As Christmas Day rolls around, so does the unofficial beginning of the NBA season. And as we approach the 30-game mark, we can’t dismiss the Boston Celtics as being a legitimate title contender.

And if you think otherwise, remember the 1995 Houston Rockets.

One year after besting the New York Knicks in the 1994 NBA Finals, Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler—each at 32 years old—led the Rockets to an improbable NBA title after going just 47-35 over the course of the 1994-95 NBA Season. The Rockets made the postseason as the sixth seed, yet still managed to win the whole thing.

When the Rockets clinched the title in Game 4 of the ’95 Finals over Shaquille O’Neal’s Orlando Magic, Rockets coach Rudy Tomjanovich famously directed “doubters” to “Never underestimate the heart of a champion.”

I’d advise you to do the same.

Since the Celtics won the 2008 NBA Finals, the roster has experienced significant turnover. And today, only three players—Rajon Rondo, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett—remain from that title team. Even after the Celtics championship team began breaking up, though, the team was able to return to the NBA Finals in 2010 where they ultimately lost to the Los Angeles Lakers in seven games.

And just last year, the Celtics held a 3-2 series lead over the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals. Built around Rondo, Pierce, Garnett and Ray Allen, the Celtics have amassed a 54-39 playoff record since 2008, and led by Doc Rivers, have become a perennial contender.

Now, after Allen’s defection to the Miami Heat, the Celtics—though playing .500 ball through the first 26 games of this season—are poised to make another run at the Eastern Conference title.

The loss of Allen hurts, but Jason Terry is an adequate replacement. This season, as a member of the Heat, Allen is converting an astonishing 47.3 percent of his three-point attempts as opposed to just 37.2 percent for Terry.

Terry, however, is more comfortable handling the ball and creating his own shot off the dribble than Allen. Over his career as a member of the Celtics, Allen has excelled by hitting transition threes and shooting off of screens.

Terry, though not the same caliber of shooter as Allen, is a capable shot-maker off of catch-and-shoot opportunities. Unlike Allen, though, Terry is more comfortable creating his own looks off of the dribble.

The net effect for the Celtics is an offense that doesn’t necessarily have to revolve around setting double screens for its shooting guard. And as a former point guard, Terry is also capable of setting the table for some of his mates when Rondo needs a blow.

Terry may not be a Ray Allen replacement, per se, but he’s an adequate substitute that can replicate some of the contributions that Allen made to make the Celtics winner while adding an element that Allen didn’t have.

And speaking of elements not previously possessed, Rondo continues to impress. Through games played on December 24, Rondo is shooting a career-best 51.2 percent from the field and is averaging 12.2 assists per game. At just 26 years old, Rondo’s best days are ahead of him, but we’re still seeing him fulfill his immense potential.

Even before this season began, NBA general managers voted Rondo as the third best point guard in the league behind Chris Paul and Derrick Rose, respectively. 

Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images
Avery Bradley

Together, he and Terry give the Celtics two very solid backcourt contributors. And while Courtney Lee and Leandro Barbosa are still adjusting to life as members of the Celtics, the imminent return of Avery Bradley is what should breed more optimism about the Celtics' title chances this season.

Bradley, now in his third season, made a name for himself during last season when, as a starter, he averaged 12.3 points and shot 46.5 percent from beyond the arc. More than anything else, he became known for his on-ball defense and his return means better guard depth for the Celtics and a stronger team.

Still, the Celtics will only go as far as Pierce and Garnett can take them. And though they are 35 and 36 years old, respectively, each continue to play at a high level.

Entering play on December 24, Pierce is averaging 21 points per game—his highest output since 2006-07 when he averaged 25. The increased scoring is related to more shots being available since Allen’s departure, but the fact that Pierce is still able to perform at such a high level bodes positively.

Garnett, on the other hand, seems to be getting stronger as time progresses. Since missing 25 games back in the 2008-09 season due to a knee injury, Garnett has missed 12, 11, and six games during the 2010, 2011, and 2012 seasons, respectively.

This season, he’s suited up for each of the Celtics games and is shooting 51.7 percent from the field. His production remains fairly consistent and he’s not showing any serious signs of slowing down.

Though the Boston bunch is aging, the supporting cast that general manager Danny Ainge has assembled is stronger and younger than it’s been in quite some time. Jeff Green has also been cleared to resume his career after being diagnosed with an aortic aneurysm prior to the 2011-12 NBA season.

He gives the Celtics another above-average perimeter defender to match up against the likes of LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Luol Deng. If healthy and engaged, Green could tip the scales in the favor of the Celtics in a potential playoff series against the Heat, Knicks or Bulls.

Thus far this season, Green, like most of his teammates, is still trying to find his way on a team with a lot of new faces. But with a rotation featuring Rondo, Bradley, Terry, Pierce, Green, Garnett, Bass, Chris Wilcox and rookie Jared Sullinger, the Celtics should be respected as a contender.

Jared Wickerham/Getty Images
Paul Pierce

The slow start aside, the Celtics aren’t playing for a regular season division title, so come April and May, the big games that Pierce turned in back on December 19 and December 21 may occur with a bit more frequency.

Overall, the Celtics were somewhat fortunate to have taken the Miami Heat to seven games last season. Derrick Rose’s first-round injury helped them meet the Philadelphia 76ers in the second round and Chris Bosh’s abdominal injury helped them play a weaker Heat team.

Even still, with a strong-willed coach, two strong veterans with championship experience, one of the league’s best point guards and a capable supporting cast, when it’s all said and done, the Celtics will be there.

Like Rudy Tomjanovich said, the heart of a championship isn’t to be underestimated; and though the Celtics have undergone a myriad of changes since 2008, its DNA is still intact.

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