Stacking the Deck for Banner 18: Five Wildcards in the Celtics' Hand
If ever there was a day to lay a big, fat, green-and-white egg, I suppose Easter would be it.
The Celtics' effort—or lack thereof—at Cleveland on Sunday afternoon left something of a bitter taste in the mouths of those hoping to see a preview of the Eastern Conference Finals. I'm sure nobody was more disappointed than the head honchos at ABC, who were forced to swallow the most tasteless Easter dinner imaginable—a game that was over five minutes after it started.
One has to wonder if the Masters did so well in the ratings because people care about golf, or simply because ABC might as well have been showing Designing Women.
But given the Celtics' recent rash of injuries and Cleveland's relatively invincible nature at home so far, there were probably those who felt Sunday went the same way a potential postseason match-up would go. Perhaps it wouldn't be as lopsided, but many around the country have no doubt made Cleveland the favorite should the teams meet again in a month or so.
Not so fast. At least, not yet.
Here's a look at five wildcard situations the Celtics could face, including a best and worst case scenario look at each and a prediction as to how it will actually go. For the interest of this exercise, a potential trip to the Finals is factored into each category, since we're looking at all possible scenarios. And I've made the assumption the Lakers will be in the finals, because it's easier than making predictions against eight possible matchups from the West.
Also, because who doesn't want a Boston-L.A. rematch?
No. 1—Stephon Marbury:
For weeks, Starbury has been the great unknown. In the weeks after he signed he was relatively inconsequential, playing limited minutes and making no greater impact than any other backup point guard would. Only recently has he started to find his rhythm.
Best Case: Marbury relishes his role on a championship contender and lights his fire once again.
The truth of the matter is he has the potential to win at least one playoff game himself over the course of the tournament. When hot, he's the perfect sixth man, providing energy and offense off the bench. And, despite Rajon Rondo's amazing development—he's got to be considered among the league's most improved players this year—he's still prone to an occasional flat performance, especially when defenses sag off and make him shoot.
If Marbury's in the zone, the Celtics are that much more dangerous than they were last year, when Sam Cassell's corpse was filling the role currently held by Steph.
Worst Case: Marbury mopes, the second unit fizzles.
Of course with Marbury, you never know whether you're going to get Jekyll or Hyde. And he has the potential to be a combustible force. If he's whining about his role or not playing to his potential, more stress gets applied to the Big Three and everything starts to go south.
Prediction: Though he's certainly not going to be the difference between winning a title and not winning one, my guess is he'll behave himself throughout the postseason. But—and consider this my bold prediction—I do think he'll make the difference in at least one game.
This is a wildcard every team will have to deal with. And the overall performance of the zebras this winter has made me consider chewing on glass on a number of occasions. But considering the Celtics path to the finals could require them to face Dwight Howard, LeBron James and Kobe Bryant in consecutive series, consider me officially concerned.
Best case: We all follow the rules!
In a perfect world, officials would make calls without noting the players involved, would occasionally call LeBron for traveling when he totes a suitcase through the paint and maybe—just maybe—read the rule book. In all honesty, though, one can only hope that the superstars don't get calls simply because of who they are.
Worst case: The Celtics get another parade: One featuring the other guys at the foul line.
To be perfectly honest, this scares the crap out of me. The likelihood that BronBron and Kobe get all the calls—and I mean ALL the calls—is high, and growing by the game. It seems any time LeBron drives in the final minutes, a whistle has to be blown. In fact, I think it's been league mandated at this point.
So the worst scenario would be one in which all 12 Celtics foul out and LeBron shoots 163 free throws a game.
Prediction: The stars will get the calls. I don't really see any way around this. LeBron will get fouled—a lot. Kobe will get fouled—a lot. And if the Celtics are fortunate enough to make it through the playoffs, I'll be eating a lot of glass. If Boston is going to repeat, they are going to have to prepare to get none of the big calls in crunch time.
No. 3—Paul Pierce and Ray Allen's Gas Tanks:
Pierce will finish the season having played 81 games (assuming he sits out tonight, as the C's have planned) and Allen has played 79 already. And with Garnett out for so long, the burden on this pair has been bigger. Plus, it's no secret that they aren't exactly spry 20-somethings anymore.
Best case: They rest—in July.
Despite the fact that Pierce and Allen have played more than Doc Rivers would have liked, they are two of the most quietly competitive people on the planet. It's entirely possible that adrenaline alone carries them through the playoffs playing at the same high level they've both played at all season.
Worst case: Creaky knees set in.
Of course, it's also entirely possible that they will look gassed by the time June rolls around. Both take more than their share of bumps, especially Pierce, whose herky-jerky drives create lots of contact. It wouldn't be a complete shock if one or both struggled for a series or two.
Prediction: Both will be fine. Given that they went through the playoff grind last season and know what to expect, and given the heart they displayed last season and during the current run with KG sidelined, I'd expect nothing less than a complete performance from both. In fact, I don't think this will be much of an issue.
No. 4—Home Court Belongs to Both Cleveland and Los Angeles:
Doc Rivers says this isn't a big deal, but the fact of the matter is the Celtics could potentially play Game 7s in two of the toughest buildings in the league. And, based on the regular season, it'll be a monumental task getting through the first one.
Best case: The Celts emerge as road warriors.
Through the first two rounds of last year's tournament, the knock on the Celtics was they couldn't win on the road—because they couldn't. But they toppled the Pistons in a big Game 6 in Detroit and completed one of the greatest comebacks in NBA Finals history in La-La land, essentially putting to bed all those difficulties. So will the C's be intimidated in anyone's house anymore?
Worst case: It's Atlanta, circa 2008, all over again.
Last year's first round series with the brash Hawks continues to confuse me. How the Celtics lost three games to that bunch I'll never understand. Considering that a run to the crown could include eight games in Cleveland and L.A, it's entirely possible the Celtics get tripped up early.
Prediction: The Celtics won't be intimidated on the road. In fact, I think it's possible Sunday's clunker in Cleveland could turn into a Boston rope-a-dope, setting the Cavs up with a false sense of security (though obviously that wasn't the intent going in). The road to the title is decidedly more difficult than it was a season ago, to be sure, but this team is more prepared to handle it.
Still, Cleveland scares me more than L.A. And any Game 7 against LeBron is absolutely terrifying. But, playing on the road is not the single biggest roadblock in Boston's way. That honor goes to—
No. 5—Kevin Garnett's health:
The Big Ticket hasn't played in weeks, and when last we saw him he was a shell of himself hobbling around against the Magic. Since then, the timetable for his return has been pushed back three times, further worrying everyone wearing the green and white.
Best case: He's baaaaaaaaack.
Though he looked terrible against the Magic, he was downright impressive in the three games prior, posting double-doubles in less than 20 minutes on more than one occasion. Given the extra few weeks of rest and his insane desire to succeed, it's possible Garnett is back at about 80-85 percent for the postseason run. And I'll take 80 percent of Garnett over 100 percent of most anyone else.
Worst case: He's done.
Though I hate to admit it, this is the far more likely option. He hasn't played in weeks, and the Celtics' brain trust is obviously scared silly about what is going on. It's quite possible he winds up playing 20 hobbled minutes a game at something like 50 percent, which will get Boston past the first round and perhaps past Orlando. But the train would stop there.
Prediction: It'll be somewhere in the middle. I don't think Garnett will be posting 20-15 games in the playoffs, but nor do I think he'll look like Dikembe Mutumbo. If the Celtics can maybe get him some rest in the first round, and not overuse him against Orlando, he could muster enough to tangle with Cleveland and L.A.
And you can't possibly underestimate the positive impact he has simply by being in the huddle and on the bench. And one other thing is certain: I would never, ever challenge Garnett's will and desire. If he has to hold himself together with rubber bands and super glue, he will.
The bottom line is the Celtics will need him to. Because even though this list features five factors, it really starts and ends with KG. Banner 17 hangs in the rafters because of him, and Banner 18 will remain an apparition unless he can will himself through another month or two of playoff action.
I know one thing: I wouldn't be against him.
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