While most people aren’t bullish on the Celtics now, many analysts have refused to write them off completely at this point, and I can understand their line of thinking. It is hard to dismiss a team with three, or even possibly four, hall of famers that just two years ago hoisted the Larry O’Brien trophy.
With all of that said, though, after watching that 40-point swing Thursday night, I am crossing them off my short list of title contenders. In fact, I will even be so bold as to say that they won’t even make it out of the first round come playoff time.
Now let me begin by saying that the other night’s game against the Cavs was not what convinced me that the Celtic’s short reign of terror was over, just the tipping point. Ever since the first few weeks of the season I have been proclaiming the demise of the Celtics; it became more and more evident that Kevin Garnett was no longer the same force of old.
Despite having been in Boston only three short years, Garnett has developed into the heart and soul of that team, even more so than Paul Pierce. He is the player who sets the tone for everything that this team does at both ends of the floor, offensively and defensively. Playing at only 60 percent, though, this tone doesn’t resonate like it used to. However. KG’s well documented aliments are only the tip of the iceberg.
In addition to Garnett’s injury woes, Ray Allen has been uncharacteristically streaky at best, big free agent acquisition Rasheed Wallace is throwing up so many bricks that he needs a building permit, and now captain Paul Pierce is struggling through some of his own problems with an injury to his shooting thumb that has cost him the last few games. And to think that’s only the big four. When you factor in a pretty weak bench, highlighted by “Mighty Mouse” Nate Robinson, this team has bust potential written all over it.
General manager Danny Ainge had to realize the there was a small window of success for this aging team, now with an average age of about 30 years old, but I don’t think anybody could have seen the window slammed shut like it has been this season.
There are a lot of questions swirling around the future of this team, especially in regards to the “Big Three.” Ray Allen’s deal expires this season, Pierce has a player option for next season, and both Garnett and Wallace have deals that run through 2012. How long Ainge decides to keep this aging foursome together is anybody’s guess, but let us get back to the season at hand.
The one bright spot for the club this season has been the emergence of second-year point guard Rajon Rondo, who, averaging nearly a double-double in points and assists per game this season, has elevated his game to the level of some of the upper echelon point guards in the game today. Rondo is not a player that I trust to carry this team through the postseason, though.
Teams don’t really have to worry about guarding him away from the basket, given he’s a poor spot up jump shooter and he is among the worst guards when it comes to free throw shooting. In the crunch, it’s scary giving the ball to him to close out the game. Also, speaking of scary, take a look at the Celtics production out of the point guard position when Rondo is out of the game.
The other thing the Celtics do have going for them though is their experience, having a veteran group of guys that has been there, done it before, and know what it takes to be NBA champions.
They haven’t had their team play at 100 percent with the aforementioned injuries to Garnett and Pierce, and the struggles of Ray Allen and Glen Davis, and some analysts argue that the Celtics at full strength could beat anybody. Problem is, I can’t see this team ever being at 100 percent. If Kevin Garnett isn’t feeling well now, how is he going to feel after 23 more games of punishment before the playoffs begin? How is the rest of this senior league roster going to hold up?
I don’t doubt the hunger of the players in their locker room, but the swagger around Boston just seems a little bit different these days. You can see it on the court, in interviews, and was never more apparent to myself as when I saw the Garden empty out with just less than six minutes left Thursday as the Cavs pulled away.
This just isn’t the same Boston team that posted back to back seasons of 35-6 at home en route to two 60-plus win seasons. Already this season they’ve lost 10 games at home, and in the postseason you can’t be giving away wins at home. In addition to that, they are a combined 2-8 against the Cavaliers, Magic, and Hawks so it is hard to still consider them among the cream de la crème in the East. It is doubtful that the Celtics would have to play any of these three in the first round as they currently sit in the third seed in the East clinging to a half-game lead over Atlanta.
By the end of the year, I expect the Celtics to have dropped below the Hawks to at least No. 4, perhaps even falling to No. 5 if the Raptors get hot. In each of the previous two years, the Celtics have encountered quite some resistance in the first round. Yes, I am aware that this season the Celtics currently are a combined 6-1 against their possible first-round opponents so far (Toronto, Miami, Milwaukee, and Chicago), however, as has been proven, the postseason is a whole different animal; that’s why it is called the "second season." The Celtics have been very fortunate these past two years in surviving the seven game gauntlets in the first round against Atlanta and Chicago, respectively. Both these teams were young and inexperienced yet energetic bunches that nobody gave much of a chance against the big, bad Celtics. Look back to that list of possible opponents now. All of those teams are built in a similar mold.
In their two previous series against Atlanta and Chicago, the Celtics were able to fall back on their wealth of experience, while exploiting their opponents lack thereof, as well as rely on a roster that was clearly superior to that of the opposition. While in any series they would still have the edge in experience, I honestly can’t say that the gap in talent between themselves and their opponents would be nearly as wide.
The Celtics should be especially concerned with running into either Toronto or Miami, who both have superstars in Chris Bosh and Dwayne Wade and surrounding rosters that pose even greater challenges than those Hawks and Bulls presented. With the game so star driven when it comes to the second season, I am confident Bosh and Wade allow their teams to put up a good fight against anybody, especially this old shell of a Celtics team going game, rest, game, rest. In the end, no matter what happens, I don’t think fans around Boston should be as worried about whether their team will be making the Finals as what their vacation plans will be for Cinco de Mayo come the first week of May.