Despite sitting atop the Eastern Conference standings for the majority of the 2011 NBA season, the Boston Celtics find themselves staggering into the playoffs once again, this time looking up at the Chicago Bulls in first place.
Nonetheless, as the Celtics proved in 2010, they can still remain a formidable opponent to any team despite any falls in seeding.
After letting second place in the Eastern Conference slip away to the Miami Heat, the Celtics must put a tempestuous finish to the regular season behind them if they have any hope of winning a record 18th NBA Championship.
If the Celtics stay healthy, and display the solidarity and dedication that propelled them to the Finals last year as a No. 4 seed, they will emerge victorious this June.
In copious games throughout the regular season, the Celtics have let late leads in the fourth quarter slip from their grasp. In the playoffs however, losing focus at the end of games could mean the difference between advancing and going home.
If the Celtics hope to make a repeat trip to the NBA Finals, perpetual motivator Kevin Garnett must inspire his teammates to close out games, and coach Doc Rivers must keep his players resolute for the entirety of each game.
“We got our BUTTS kicked and we need to work harder. The second half, we didn't have the right spirit! We need to fight with the right spirit.”
For the Celtics, “the right spirit” means competing for the duration of each game, and making sure all players are exerting their full mental and physical energy until the final whistle.
Last year, the Celtics’ run to the Finals was fueled by countless hustle plays, and, collectively, the team seemed determined to outwork its opponents. From Rajon Rondo’s epic steal and layup against the Magic, to Glen Davis’ dominating interior performance in Game 4 of the Finals, each performance energized the Celtics, while consequently demoralizing their rival.
With a 2011 frontcourt that may be lacking in size, due to the unpredictable health of centers Jermaine and Shaquille O’Neal, the Celtics must continue to outwork and outhustle their opponents, especially on the glass. Throughout this year’s playoffs, the Celtics must maintain their signature enthusiasm and physicality if they hope to compete with the NBA elite.
The Celtics must hold their ground against a talented crop of young centers in this year’s playoffs in order to control the rebounding game and avoid ceding a major advantage to their opponents.
With the loss of defensive behemoth Kendrick Perkins, the burden now falls on Nenad Kristic, Jermaine O’Neal and Shaquille O’Neal to make up for the former Celtic’s shot-altering presence in the paint and prowess on the boards.
Without substantial contributions from all three centers, both on offense and defense, the Celtics will struggle to defeat any team in the playoff field, and the Perkins trade will prove disastrous to the team’s Championship hopes.
In spite of any offensive inconsistencies, the Celtics relied on suffocating defense to fuel their two trips to the NBA finals in the past three years.
However, the 2011 playoffs will provide a new set of challenges, and a probable date with MVP frontrunner Derrick Rose will await the Celtics if they reach the Eastern Conference Finals. In addition, the Celtics will have to face Lebron James, a familiar playoff opponent, if the Heat advance past the first round.
Both Rose and James are critical to their respective teams, and victory or defeat often hinges on each player’s performance. As a result, if the Celtics hope to beat the likely top two Eastern Conference seeds in the Heat and Bulls, they must build on their previous success stopping Rose and James, and cater their defensive strategy to limiting these two dynamic players.
Every year that the Celtics make a deep playoff run, a previously overlooked group of bench players seem to step and make critical plays. In 2008, it was P.J. Brown and James Posey who propelled the Celtics to the NBA Championship, with clutch shots that helped put away the Lakers. Last year, Glen Davis and Nate Robinson teamed up to close out Game 4 of the Finals, bringing the Celtics within two games of the title.
With an aging group of veterans starting each game, the Celtics will need their talented backups to contribute of they are going to make another Finals run. Jeff Green can cement his importance to the team with a breakout performance in the playoffs, and validate his trade for Kendrick Perkins in the process. In addition, productive play by Delonte West would greatly improve the Celtics’ chances, giving starter Rajon Rondo valuable rest in the postseason.
After a string of recent losses, numerous analysts have questioned the Celtics’ motivation and ability to compete in the playoffs. However, if the team embraces the underdog mentality that led them to within one game of the championship as a No. 4 seed last year, they will once again find success.
The Celtics know that they are no longer considered the favorite to come out of the Eastern Conference, and the players realize that their ability to remain competitive this season despite myriad injuries has been overlooked. However, the Celtics can use their newfound status as motivation, and utilize any perceived lack of respect to help them come together as a team. Regardless of matchup, the Celtics must heed Garnett’s advice: “The playoffs are coming and we gotta fight for our lives.”