Boston Celtics' Slow Start Fooled Us All Again as Playoff Run Awaits

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Boston Celtics' Slow Start Fooled Us All Again as Playoff Run Awaits
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The Celtics, including Jason "Jet" Terry, started slow but now have a playoff spot all but locked.

The Boston Celtics have an uncanny knack for fooling the nation. Year after year, they defy the odds and overcome adversity to stage late-season turnarounds. It seems like the Celtics are out of contention two months into each season, only to make an ultimate case for the Eastern Conference championship.

Take last year: in a shortened 2011-12 season, the Celtics started 15-17. Many already began to wonder if a rebuilding stage was looming. But Boston rallied, going 24-11 to close out the season.

They eliminated the Atlanta Hawks in five games, and beat the Philadelphia 76ers in a tough seven-game series. The only team that got the better of the C's was LeBron James' Miami Heat, prevailing in a knock-down, drag-out affair that lasted seven games.

Many Boston fans consider any playoff elimination a failure. But coming 12 points away from the NBA Finals, after losing 17 of their first 32 games? That's a damn fine success.

And despite continued adversity, this season has been a success as well. Rajon Rondo, the team leader and top assists-man in the NBA, suffered a season-ending ACL tear on January 25 in Atlanta.

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When Rajon Rondo went down, followed by Jared Sullinger and Leandro Barbosa, things looked bad.

At the time, the Celtics were in the middle of a seven-game losing streak, sitting three games under .500 at 20-23. Disaster appeared imminent.

A week later, rookie forward Jared Sullinger hit the IR after back surgery. Veteran guard Leandro Barbosa made it a trifecta, when he injured his knee.

But while the nation haphazardly dismissed the Green's playoff chances, Boston fans never got the chance to hang their heads, once again learning that “anything's possible.”

After Rondo went down, the Celts won seven straight games, and 14 of 18. They beat Miami, the LA Clippers, Denver Nuggets and Utah Jazz in overtime affairs. They surmounted the rival Hawks, Chicago Bulls and LA Lakers, and overcame tough competition from the Indiana Pacers and Golden State Warriors.

Suddenly, people started to believe in Boston again. They were playing a brand of team basketball that just flat-out worked. They were running up and down the floor, hustling at all times, playing solid defense and passing the ball effectively. Newly-added guards Terrence Williams and Jordan Crawford started to mesh with the offensive scheme. Things were clicking all around.

Paul Pierce again asserted himself as the leader of the squad. His points, rebounds and assists all shot up in Rondo's absence, and he made the rest of the team better by creating offense. Fellow veterans Kevin Garnett and Jason Terry also stepped up.

Garnett's strong defense seemed even stronger after the loss of Sullinger. His fire down low showed on every possession, even during the heavily-rumored period before the trade deadline. Terry, meanwhile, started hoisting shots with a confidence level he never attained between October and January. His bombs from long-range quickly became a hit in Boston, allowing the “Jet” to take flight.

Everything appeared to be unfolding like a Disney sports movie. The young guard who everyone counted out (Avery Bradley) returned from injury and picked up right where he left off the previous season, terrorizing opposing ball-handlers.  AB's jump shot improved, and his play at the point astounded critics who claimed he was nothing more than an undersized two-guard.

Then there's the former open-heart surgery patient, Jeff Green, who started to emerge as a star in February. He put up 20 points on 8-of-12 shooting in Denver. Then he scored 31 on 11-of-14 in Phoenix. Most recently, he eclipsed 40, shooting 14-of-21 (including 5-of-7 from three) for 43 points against Miami.

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Jeff Green has become one of Doc Rivers' go-to guys this season, and a key to the Celtics' resurgence.

Since Rondo's injury, Green has averaged 15.2 points per contest. He's posting 4.2 boards and 2.5 assists since the All-Star break, while shooting .488 from the field (11.8 shots a game) and .383 from three-point land. The boy's on fire, bringing new meaning to "heart and soul."

But while all these positives have garnered the attention of media and fans around the nation, adversity has once again struck. Garnett has already missed two games due to inflammation in his ankle, and Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge hinted that he could miss 10 total when all is said and done.

"I'll guess two weeks, just because we want to make sure he's really ready," Ainge said of Garnett's expected return.

An injury to KG is a huge blow to a Celtics team that has no real center besides 12th man Shavlik Randolph. Boston will miss the savvy veteran's defensive presence, go-to post moves and rebounding.

And fellow starter Courtney Lee, the 27-year-old guard whose numbers have almost all skyrocketed since the All-Star game, has ankle issues of his own. His left ankle sprain kept him from Monday's practice as well as Tuesday's game against the visiting New York Knicks.

With Crawford and Green starting, the Celtics got walloped by their division rivals, 100-85. New York attempted an astonishing 90 shots, 21 more than Boston. The C's also turned the ball over 20 times, while only forcing eight. Boston's bench scored a meager 19 points, outdone by New York sixth man J.R. Smith alone, who had 32.

Even worse, this marks their fifth consecutive loss and seventh in the last 10 games. With injury woes and a 36-34 record, coach Doc Rivers has to be concerned about these last 12 games, which include playoff foes Atlanta, New York (again), Miami, Indiana and the Brooklyn Nets.

Some conspiracy theorists surmise that the Celtics are just resting players, and almost accepting defeat. A top-four seed is all but impossible at this point, and they sit a comfortable nine games ahead of the Philadelphia 76ers, the first team below the cut. They believe Boston might be purposely tanking, to ensure the eighth spot and a first-round matchup with Miami, followed hopefully by the Heat's easier path to the Eastern Conference Finals.

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But such theories are nonsense. Ainge and Rivers would never jeopardize the offensive rhythm and collective momentum this team experienced in February and early March. These injuries are serious, and more importantly, the style of basketball during this skid cannot hold a candle to Miami's A-game.

The Celtics must utilize the five upcoming games against subpar opponents (Cleveland Cavaliers twice, Minnesota Timberwolves, Detroit Pistons, Washington Wizards) to get themselves back on track. Tough games versus Atlanta on March 29 and in New York on March 31 will not serve as problem-solving days for this team, especially without KG and potentially Lee.

Boston is still capable of an Eastern Conference Finals bid, as demonstrated by their monstrous midseason streak and continued ability to battle NBA powerhouses. But the chips must all be in place. Right now, they are scattered around, waiting to be snatched up by a stronger, deeper and healthier opponent.

But if Garnett and Lee recover, and the Celtics once again mount a strong championship run, don't be fooled this time. Shocking the nation by proving doubters wrong has kind of become their thing.

 

All stats for this article were compiled using NBA.com, ESPN.com and Basketball-Reference.com.

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