My guess is that this 2009-10 season has not exactly shaped up the way the Boston Celtics brass anticipated.
The banner at the top of their official Web site says "Drive to the Playoffs" and "Reloaded"—you know, that they have reloaded the team for the drive to another championship, that this team was built for the playoffs.
Rasheed Wallace was brought in for his size (probably 7'1", despite his insistence that he's only 6'11"), his toughness, and his playoff experience. He was so excited to join Boston's "Big Three" of Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, and Kevin Garnett that he promptly declared the all-time record for wins in a season (72) was now in jeopardy.
Instead, we have had to hear national announcers say things like "when Rasheed gets into game shape"—that was in March, mind you—while we watch Wallace avoid the post like it was lava. So much for the size and toughness.
Garnett was supposedly recovered from the mysterious knee injury that kept him out of last year's playoffs, and he was ready to lead the C's back to the promised land.
Instead, we have been treated to the near-nightly scene of a player considered one of the very best to play the game reduced to a one-legged shell of his former self. Garnett will tease us with quarters or halves of games where he looks similar to the KG that the C's mortgaged their future for, but then he goes back to dragging that leg up and down the floor.
The defensive and spiritual leader of the Celtics now cannot guard a swivel chair. If you're nice enough to stand still, Garnett is still a lock-down defender. If, on the other hand, you have some lateral quickness (like most every player KG attempts to defend), use your game performance against the C's in your next contract negotiations.
The captain of the team, Paul Pierce, has missed 10 of the 80 games the Celtics have played so far. He probably should have missed another 15, but he is a fan of ignoring his injuries and instead having crappy games.
Am I picking on the guy for getting hurt or playing through injuries? Absolutely not—but I will tell you that Pierce is looking like a very old 32.
He's looking like a guy that will no longer fly into the lane looking to score or get fouled when his shot isn't falling, at least not on a consistent basis. He still leads the team in free-throw attempts, but Pierce is starting to look like a guy that is going to live or die on his jump shot from now on.
Speaking of jump shots, Ray Allen, the third member of the "Big Three," has actually been the most consistent. His percentage on three-pointers has dropped a bit, but he has also been taking a lot more contested, end-of-the-clock threes than in past seasons. Allen is second on the team in scoring and tied for first in games played.
Through 80 games, the Celtics stand at 50-30. They lead the Atlantic division by 12 games, they have the fourth-best record in the Eastern Conference, and they have just recorded their third consecutive 50-win season since the Bird era.
Ordinarily, this would have to be considered a good season—not great, but certainly good. A quick glance at the media coverage, though, suggests that the C's have no hope in the rapidly approaching playoffs.
The Western Conference features a quartet of teams (the Mavs, Nuggets, Jazz, and Suns) who have all posted similar records, and all are considered serious threats to make a run at the conference finals.
Not many experts are picking against LeBron James and the Cavs in the Eastern Conference. If forced to rank the contenders, the consensus is that only the Magic have any kind of shot.
This begs the question, "Why not the Celtics?"
Granted, the Celtics' season has been a picture of inconsistency and pockmarked with some embarrassing losses (losing at home to the Nets and Wizards?), but these guys are still proud professionals. They clearly aren't showing it, but there is no law that says that they have to give a crap during the regular season.
Yes, I said it. I firmly believe that the primary problem this season, besides the acquisition of Rasheed Wallace's Corpse and the one-legged version of KG, has been one of motivation.
"Turning it on" in the playoffs is certainly not a good strategy, but it is possible.
The previously mentioned WC quartet all have one thing in common—a player who can kick it up and dominate a game. Dirk Nowitzki, Carmelo Anthony, Deron Williams, and Steve Nash can all put their team on their back and win a game.
The Celtics can still rely on Allen. They can still rely on "The Truth." Most of all, they can rely on young Rajon Rondo and his 14 points and 10 assists per game.
Rondo can dominate a game without scoring a ton of points better than anyone in the league. Look for Rondo to explode in the playoffs, even more so than he did last year.
What the Celtics also have is the experience of 2008, of banner No. 17. This team will not lie down in the playoffs.
Garnett, Pierce, and Allen know that they don't have many (any) years left as top-tier players. This is it for them. If Danny Ainge and Doc Rivers know what they're doing, the 2010-11 Celtics will be Rajon Rondo's team. Is an early exit—or anything short of the NBA Finals—the way these guys want to go out?
No—it isn't. Paul Pierce seems to think the C's can still win the championship, and I happen to agree with him.
Boston will beat Chicago on Tuesday in a game that both teams badly need. The Celts will then close the season at home by beating the Bucks, bringing them to 52 wins.
A gaudy regular season record is no guarantee that you will win the championship, or even reach the finals—just ask last year's 66-win Cavs team. The Heat won it all in 2006 after posting just 52 wins in the regular season. The Pistons won it in 2004 with just 54 regular season wins.
Who says the Celtics, despite playing way below expectations so far, can't pull it together in the playoffs?
My preseason prediction was Spurs and Celtics in the Finals. I'm sticking with it until proven wrong—beware of the old guys!