From top to bottom, the NBA's Eastern Conference has been wrecked with instability this season. Even the playoff race has featured an alarming number of star injuries and inconsistent play.
Beyond the Miami Heat, now with an 11.5-game lead in the conference, everywhere you look you can pick apart a contender. There are only three teams in the conference who hold a winning record over their last 10 games. The Heat are obviously 10-0, holding that impressive 22-game win streak. The Milwaukee Bucks have managed to go 6-4, but have lost three of their last four and are just a game over .500.
The third team is the Boston Celtics, 7-3 over their last 10 games and climbing the standings at a rapid rate. Thanks to the inconsistencies of divisional foes like the New York Knicks and Brooklyn Nets, the Celtics stand just 2.5 games out of the Atlantic Division lead. Right now the Knicks hold that spot, earning them the No. 3 slot in the conference.
It is even feasible that the Celtics could leverage into the No. 2 spot, where many predicted they would be in the preseason. Even though four teams separate the two in the standings, Boston sits 3.5 games behind the Indiana Pacers for that position with 17 games to be played. The two meet on April 16 in Boston, each team's second-to-last game of the season.
On the face of it all, the Celtics are just like the rest of the Eastern Conference's jumbled middle. They've suffered meaningful injuries on par with the Chicago Bulls, Atlanta Hawks, Pacers and Knicks. You could argue Boston has been harmed even more, because Rajon Rondo and Jared Sullinger aren't coming back this season.
The Hawks' Lou Williams is no Rondo and his loss, while harmful, can't compare. Danny Granger should return to the Pacers lineup soon. Even Derrick Rose has been cleared to rejoin the Bulls, once his mind is right. The Knicks' injured trio of Carmelo Anthony, Amar'e Stoudemire and Tyson Chandler are all nursing relatively minor injuries in comparison to Rondo's ACL and Sullinger's back. While Stoudemire should be out until the playoffs, the others will return shortly.
That argument, however, falls off a cliff when you realize that the imminent return of those players is an enormous distraction for each team. The Celtics don't have to worry about Rondo's mind being right before he returns, nor do they have to worry about him re-injuring anything once he gets back, which has happened to both Granger and Stoudemire. Rondo and Sullinger aren't coming back, and the Celtics made peace with that six weeks ago.
The Boston Celtics are who they are right now. They may very well be the only team in the conference, other than the Heat, who know what they can and can't do. With the 82-game season winding down, stability is one of the key ingredients to playoff success. Despite losing their most dynamic player and best rebounder in the span of a week, the Celtics are stable.
Stability is what it will take to defeat the Miami Heat, the NBA's most stable team. The Heat do not get injured; it just seems to be a fact of life at this stage. They've gotten 63 games out of 37-year-old Ray Allen and have had eight players see time in 58-plus games. They have had their entire rotation on the floor for roughly 90 percent of their games. How many other teams in the conference, or even the league, can say that?
This run the Heat are on right now is incredible. They've won 22 straight games, beating teams by an average of 11.7 points per game. They've thumped good teams like the Los Angeles Clippers by 22 and the Bulls by 19. They've also taken care of business against the dregs of the Charlotte Bobcats and Orlando Magic.
Looking back over their schedule, L's are hard to find. Their most recent one came on the first day of February, and it is now the middle of March. On Feb. 1, the Heat dropped a game at Indiana. Just before that, though, on Jan 27, Miami battled the Boston Celtics through two overtimes, losing 100-98.
What has to concern the Heat about that game is that it was no mid-range shooting anomaly. The Celtics occasionally have games where they just can't miss a jumper; however, they shot a mediocre 40.9 percent that night. They hit only five threes and were out-rebounded 53-46. They allowed 17 offensive boards and Rajon Rondo wasn't on the floor. Everything lines up for a Miami victory, but the Celtics pulled it out after 58 minutes.
These Celtics are as stubborn as they are stable, and their hate of the Miami Heat is as visceral as anything they feel. It is a hatred that breeds confidence and fearlessness—one that allows a player to numb the pain of injury or loss.
Which lengthy Eastern Conference injury is the most harmful?
About a year ago, Yahoo!'s Adrian Wojnarowski wrote a compelling piece on how Rondo stood looming as the Heat's lone threat in the Eastern Conference. The story holds up today, if you just replace the singular player with a franchise that won't quit. What Wojnarowski witnessed and expressed about Rondo was just an extension of his team and colors.
Rondo was an arm or a leg of the Celtics' larger machine. He was a brain of creativity, being used as a dominating weapon. Losing that weapon is possibly the second-worst thing that could happen, but it isn't the worst.
The worst thing to happen would be to sit and pine over the loss. To concern oneself with what is missing is more debilitating than any injury.
That is what the Chicago Bulls are being forced to go through now, with Derrick Rose sticking his toes in the water on a daily basis. It is what has stalled the Indiana Pacers, now 6-5 since Danny Granger reappeared and disappeared. Indiana was 8-2 in the 10 games before Granger returned on Feb. 23.
The New York Knicks don't have the slightest idea what to do. They appear prepared to sacrifice however many games it takes to get Carmelo Anthony and Tyson Chandler back. Since these injuries started up, they have lost four straight by an average of 19 points. Amid losing Rondo and Sullinger for the season, Boston reeled off seven straight victories.
The Celtics get two more games against the Heat, along with two against the Knicks. They also see the Pacers and Nets in the final week of the season. The opportunity is there to make up ground in the conference and division.
It seems like fans, analysts and maybe even Celtics management want them trying to avoid the seeds that would lead to a Miami Heat series in the first two rounds.
But when the playoffs do come around, I don’t think the Boston Celtics care when, or where, or how long it takes.
They want the Heat.
And right now, they are the only people on the planet who can say that.