Currently, lodged atop the Eastern Conference standings with an impressive 33-10 record just past the season's midway point, the Boston Celtics seem poised to make another solid run through this year's postseason.
Do they have what it takes to contend for another title?
Critics cite the team's age as a huge obstacle. Rajon Rondo is the team's only starter under 30 and they say that the Celts often lack the competitive edge of many younger teams. Claiming the team doesn't have the hunger of the Miami Heat or Chicago Bulls, their top Eastern Conference rivals. The Celtics are also one of the poorest rebounding teams in the league, getting outdone on the offensive and defensive board totals nearly every game.
Apart from some uninspired playing against the Houston Rockets on January 10th, and last night's inexplicable loss to the Wizards after being up by 16 in the first quarter, the C's have come out with the same ferocity that earned them the 2008 NBA Championship. Their record is made all the more impressive when one takes into account the injuries that have plagued the team since Kendrick Perkins tore his ACL in Game Six of last year's dramatic series against the Lakers.
Newly acquired Shaquille O'Neal, center Jermaine O'Neal, and point guard Delonte West have all been bit by the injury bug, with Rondo and Kevin Garnett also missing time for health reasons.
Perkins is particularly missed. The 26-year-old starting center for the team contributed far more than merely 10.1 points and 7.6 rebounds a game. Perkins, like Garnett, is a player with unmatched intensity. He never gives up on a possession or becomes complacent during a ball game. Though the C's have been playing admirably, when you're a perennial playoff contender, it's hard to get excited about regular season games.
Once West recovers from the broken wrist he sustained during a November game against the Nets, he'll be able to fulfill his back-up point guard duty. With West back, Rondo can get more rest, which is vital considering he currently plays the most minutes of any Celtic.
There was talk of Rasheed Wallace wanting to return to the team for the sole purpose of beating the Lakers. A player like 'Sheed, though he undoubtedly had talent as a smart defender who created constant mismatches with his size, is exactly the opposite of what the Celtics need.
He meandered through the regular season, and while he did manage to turn it on in the playoffs, it wasn't enough to clinch a decisive victory. Though I may catch some flack for this, they need more players like Glen Davis. Guys who'll dive for loose balls and throw themselves recklessly into the paint to draw a foul. Davis, the No. 1 offensive foul drawer in the league, is an invaluable part of the Celtics attempt at another banner. He's young and hungry enough to keep the team energized when the play starts to lag.
The team certainly has enough talent. Ray Allen is set to pass Reggie Miller's All-Time three-point record this season and is easily one of the smoothest shooters in NBA history. Paul Pierce is as good a finisher as anyone in the league, his three-point play in the dwindling seconds of the Celtics-Magic game last week can attest to that. Garnett is a force on either side of the court; a proficient shooter and rebounder, but most importantly, the emotional leader of the team.
Rondo, the league leader in assists with 13 per game, can create shots and find open teammates in a way few before him ever could. Even Shaq has adjusted well to his smaller role, his field goal percentage is at a career high 67.7 percent.
The only thing holding back the Celtics from Banner 18 is their own determination... and maybe the Los Angeles Lakers.