As the 2013 NBA Playoff picture becomes clearer, one thing is for certain: the Boston Celtics are one low seed that no opponent should hope to find themselves matched up against.
The Celtics have wended a roller coaster season, spotted with injuries to key players, streaks of ineptitude and prolonged stretches of excellence. It certainly is tough to predict how this Celtics team will fare when the playoffs begin on April 20.
Despite inconsistent play, a slew of injuries and low seed, the Celtics will silence their critics and make another deep run in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
In 2012, the Celtics faced a similar situation to the one they now face. They entered the postseason as a streaky No. 4 seed in the Eastern Conference with question marks about their age and ability.
How far will the Celtics go this postseason?
Boston began the 2011-12 season with a pedestrian 15-17 mark, and worked to claw its way up the seeding ladder for the rest of the season. Though the Celtics ultimately achieved a respectable 39-27 record, doubters felt that age and attrition would prove the their undoing in the playoffs.
But that was not the case, as the Celtics bested both the Atlanta Hawks and the Philadelphia 76ers in a pair of seven-game series to kick off the playoffs. They then went on to build a 3-2 series lead over the heavily favored Miami Heat, before falling to them in seven games.
Boston's valiant 2012 playoff run was not the only time they shocked the basketball world. In 2010, the Celtics also entered the playoffs seeded fourth in the East, and came within four points of a NBA title.
2010's version of the Celtics was a team that limped into the playoffs, finishing the regular season with a dismal 3-7 run.
In the postseason, however, they ignited, and burned through the Miami Heat, Cleveland Cavaliers and Orlando Magic, of whom the latter two held better seeds than the Celtics. In the NBA Finals, they gave the Western Conference's top seeded Los Angeles Lakers all they could handle, before succumbing in the final quarter of the seventh game.
Granted, this year's team is without injured superstar Rajon Rondo, who has been out since January 27 with a torn ACL. Rondo was a crucial part of both the 2010 and 2012 playoff runs, and his presence will not pass without notice this time around.
Despite losing Rondo, Boston is still a remarkable club. The Celtics, to the surprise of many, have gone 22-17 without Rondo, while going just 18-20 with him.
In Rondo's stead, several of his teammates have revealed themselves to be quality pieces of a winning team. Jeff Green is one of those players.
While Rondo was healthy, Green was an utter disappointment coming of the Celtics bench, and averaging 9.6 points, 3.2 rebounds, 0.9 assists and 0.9 blocks per game, while shooting 42.7 percent from the field and 32.9 percent from beyond the arc.
Since Rondo went down, Green has transformed into a star. His numbers have jumped across the board. During the Rondo-less stretch, he has averaged 16.6 points, 4.6 rebounds, 2.4 assists and 1.3 blocks, to go along with his 50.9 percent shooting from the field, and his 43.0 percent success rate from downtown.
The emergence of Green has given the Celtics a great scorer to go along with Paul Pierce. Green has produced some monster scoring performances lately, tallying 27 or more points in four of his last 12 games, including a 43 point game against Miami. That kind of prolific scoring will pay great dividends for the Celtics in the playoffs.
Likewise, Avery Bradley has helped fill that void. His numbers are not quite eye-popping—per-game averages of 9.3 points, 2.1 assists and 2.3 rebounds—but the excellence he provides on the defensive end speak volumes about the kind of impact he has on the team. In early March, Bradley was allowing opponents just 0.678 points per play, which is the fewest of any guard in the league.
That is not to mention the two most crucial pieces on the team, future Hall of Famers Pierce and Kevin Garnett. The 35-year-old Pierce and the 36-year-old Garnett have each conditioned themselves well enough to retain their superstardom at an advanced age.
Per game this season, Pierce averages 18.7 points, 4.8 assists and 6.4 rebounds--not a far cry from his respective career averages of 21.8, 3.9 and 6.0.
Garnett's numbers, while still impressive, are not quite as gaudy as those of his prime. This season, the power forward has put up per game numbers of 14.8 points and 7.8 rebounds.
Those numbers show the contribution that Garnett brings to the team, but his anchoring of the Celtics' defense is really where he makes his bread. The fact that Boston has the 11th most stingy defense in the league is due in no small part to Garnett's imposing presence on that side of the floor.
The pair of stars have been battling injuries during the home stretch of the regular season, but both will be back, and ready to guide the Celtics in the playoffs.
The Celtics' likely seventh seed grants them the good fortune of avoiding the Miami Heat until the Eastern Conference Finals. Unfortunately, their consolation prize is a first-round matchup against a New York Knicks team that is steamrolling its way into the second seed in the East, by virtue of a stupendous 13-game winning streak.
As good as the Knicks are, the Celtics can push them to the limits. The Knicks offense is heavily reliant on three-pointers. They net an average of 32.2 from long-distance shots, which is the most in the league.
The Celtics' defense is perfectly tailored to withstand such an onslaught. They hold their opponents to a 33.5 percent success rate on three-point attempts, which ranks behind only the Indiana Pacers for best in the league.
Neither New York nor Boston has great ability on the boards, as they rank 24th and 29th in the league in rebounding, respectively. If the Knicks were able to exploit the Celtics' glaring weakness on the glass, they would gain a huge edge. But their own struggles in that facet of the game will stop them from enjoying such an advantage.
Should the Celtics advance past the Knicks, they would play the winner of the Pacers and whichever team Indiana is pitted against. Assuming the Pacers can take care of business against their opponent, the Celtics have another matchup they can win.
The Pacers have the most stingy defense in the league, but the Celtics can exploit their defense. The greatest parts about Indiana's defense is their ability to defend against the three and their defense in the paint.
They allow their opponents the fewest points generated by long-range shots in the league. The Celtics score just 19 percent of their points from beyond the arc, which ranks 23rd in the league.
Similarly, the Pacers allow opponents the fewest points in the paint, but that is not one of the Celtics' offensive strengths. Boston averages just 37.8 points per game in the paint per game, good enough for 27th in the league.
The Pacers' defense might be able to stifle the Celtics' offense to a degree, but Boston's versatility in ways of scoring will help them score enough points to beat the Pacers.
If the Celtics were to clear the hurdles of the first two rounds, the nearly-unstoppable Heat are the Conference Finals' foe the Celtics would likely face. As good as the Celtics may be, the Heat would likely be the spike strip to halt a surprising Celtics' playoff cruise.
It is not a foregone conclusion that the Celtics would fall to the Heat. Last season, after all, they pushed Miami to the brink.
While the services of former Celtics guard Ray Allen were transferred from Boston to Miami, the Celtics have some weapons this year they lacked in 2012. Jason Terry has done an adequate job replacing Allen, with his 10.2 points per game. But the real addition that can make a difference is the reinsertion of Bradley.
Bradley missed the 2012 postseason with a shoulder injury. His aforementioned defensive prowess was sorely missed in the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals. Dwayne Wade, the player Bradley usually covers when the Celtics face the Heat, had his way with the Celtics during that series, averaging 21.4 points per game on 44.4 percent shooting in the seven games that series.
This season, Bradley and Wade have matched up twice. In the first game, a game the Celtics claimed in Boston, Wade was limited to just 17 points on 30 percent shooting in 46 minutes of play. The second time they played, a Miami win, Wade was held to just 16 points.
Limiting the damage of Wade will go a huge way in the Celtics' effort to stop the Heat.
Another advantage that the Celtics can take away from the Heat is their prolific three-point shooting. Like the Knicks, the Heat are heavily dependent on the long ball for their scoring; Miami ranks fifth in the
NBA in points scored from downtown. As mentioned above, the Celtics defend the three as well as anyone in the league, besides the Pacers, so this should help them.
Even with those advantages, the Celtics will be hard pressed to beat the Heat. But, the Celtics have proven to be a resilient team, so it is not unreasonable to think they could give the Heat a very challenging series.
Come April 20, all NBA playoff teams should beware, because the Boston is that snake-in-the-grass team that will sneak up on its opponents, and yet again, shock the basketball world.