A team’s top player goes down for the season with a potentially career threatening knee injury, ending the team’s hopes of replicating the historic success of the past season. While the team soldiers on without its star, the season is ultimately disappointing, causing fans to defer their expectations to 2009-10. Upon his return, the star performs well in leading his team to a good record in the early part of the season. But as the season wears on, the star and his teammates are plagued by a series of injuries and ailments, leaving fans wondering if they will ever see the future Hall of Famer and his team return to their pre-knee injury form. Despite some bad losses and very few quality wins, the team’s good-but-not-great record is enough to win its weak division and the right to host the first round of the playoffs. After an emotional roller-coaster of a regular season, the fans attempt to look past a number of glaring weaknesses on offense and defense and convince themselves that their formerly great team has a puncher’s chance to come out of its underwhelming conference and play for another title.
Patriots fans surely recognize this recap of the last two years, and don’t need to be reminded that the past season’s regular season roller coaster immediately came off the rails in the playoffs. And Red’s Army readers, whether Pats fans or not, must see the eery similarity to the Celtics’ experience over the last year. Assuming (knock on wood) that the Celtics don’t suffer a devastating injury to their best offensive player at the tail end of the regular season like the Pats did, are they likely to perform as poorly in the playoffs as their pigskin peers?
Granted, the analogy loses some of its force because of the vast discrepancy in the two sports’ number of regular season games and playoff formats. But, in a rough equivalent to the Pats’ playoff result, could an emotionally and physically spent Celtics team struggle through an opening round series against the Bucks, Bobcats, Heat or Raptors, finally losing Game 7 in the Garden by getting blitzed in the second half (those readers experiencing severe post-traumatic flashbacks to the Pacers travesty of 2005 are advised to stop reading and immediately pop in the 2008 championship dvd)?
SI.com’s Chris Mannix apparently thinks so, placing the Celtics all the way down at #13 in his latest NBA power rankings. And some Celtics fans might see such an outcome as a fitting ending to an enormously disappointing season. But as much as the Celtics have spent the last two and a half months destroying the high expectations and optimism that fans justifiably brought into the season, there is no way that they will flame out like the Patriots did in the playoffs. Simply put, the Celtics’ roster is more talented from top to bottom. Despite their aging core and often out-of-synch bench, the team still does just about everything – with the exception of rebounding — reasonably well.
They don’t defend as well as they did in 2008, but they still give up the second fewest points per game in the league. They don’t shoot as well as they did in 2009, but they still connect at the fourth highest rate in the NBA. Sixty percent of their starting lineup is bound for Springfield, and their point guard has the potential to join them there one day. Their deep and versatile bench is finally learning to play together now that everyone is healthy and Danny Ainge is done adding veterans to the mix. In contrast, the Patriots had talent deficits in the back two lines of their defense and at running back, and no depth in the receiving corps. Both in the starting lineup and throughout the depth chart, the Patriots had too many inexperienced or long-washed up players.
But the biggest reason that the Celtics are likely to fare better in the first round lies in the quality of their likely opponent(s). The Patriots faced a Ravens team with a strong veteran defense led by the legendary Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, and a solid ball control offense directed by Joe Flacco and powered by Ray Rice. During the regular season, the Ravens gave the Patriots everything they could handle at Gillette Stadium, falling only after Mark Clayton dropped a pass on fourth down that would have given the Ravens a first-and-goal. When the teams met for the rematch in the playoffs, the Pats’ Welker-less offense was simply overmatched by the Ravens’ defense.
Fortunately, the Celtics’ likely first round opponents aren’t nearly as imposing. Their recent win over the Hawks notwithstanding, the Raptors have been dreadful the last couple of weeks. In recent losses to league bottom feeders Philadelphia, Sacramento and Golden State, the Raptors’ porous defense was lit up for an average of 117 ppg. Moreover, the Celtics have feasted on the Raptors’ (to borrow a phrase from Mike Millbury) “Euro-trash game” in four wins this season, scoring at will while physically dominating Toronto. Indeed, during several stretches of poor play by the Celtics this season, the Raptors appeared on the schedule as an oasis of victory. Suffice it to say that every Celtics fan should be rooting for Toronto to move up to the 5th or 6th seed by the end of the season.
The Heat have been playing much better of late than Toronto, with home wins this month over the Lakers and Hawks. However, their recent stretch of quality play comes on the heels of a run in late February when they lost four games in a row, including a home loss to the lowly T-Wolves and a 23-point home loss to the Bucks. And the Celtics are also undefeated against the Heat this season, winning three hard fought games that were in doubt until the final minutes. Fans who recall the dramatic overtime win in January that looked to be lost before Rajon Rondo forced OT with a YouTube-worthy alley-oop layup off an inbounds pass might be envisioning a re-run of last year’s knuckle-whitening Bulls series should the Celtics face the Heat in the first round. But with Kevin Garnett in the lineup, the Celtics shouldn’t face any greater obstacles against the Heat than they would have against the Bulls last April had KG been playing. He, Kendrick Perkins and even Rasheed Wallace have feasted on Miami’s undersized and defensively-challenged frontline. Indeed, the Heat are one of the few teams that the Celtics have outrebounded this season. Fueled by playoffs-inspired adrenaline, the Celtics’ bigs should continue to abuse Jermaine O’Neal, Michael Beasley and Udonis Haslem. So even with Dwyane Wade acting as a bigger, better version of Derrick Rose, a first round series against the Heat in 2010 won’t resemble the one against the 2009 Bulls.
Like the Heat, the Bobcats followed up a poor February with a strong effort in March so far, boasting impressive wins over the Lakers, Magic and Thunder. But the Celtics have made the ‘Cats look like a D League team this season, outscoring them 304-229 in three blowout victories. The Celtics shot a combined 62.5% from behind the arc in the teams’ last two meetings, while Charlotte has gone 2-30 on 3-pointers over the course of the three games. With so much more talent and skill on the perimeter, the Celtics should prevail easily if they are lucky enough to meet the Bobcats in Round 1.
Which brings us to the red-hot Bucks. After posting a 10-4 record in February, Milwaukee is 9-1 this month, with home wins over Cleveland, Utah, and of course, the Celtics. Yes, Andrew Bogut is a rising star who gives Perkins fits, averaging 25 points, 15.5 rebounds and 3 blocks, while shooting 60% from the field in two games against the Celtics. And yes, Scott Skiles deserves consideration for coach of the year for guiding his young Bucks team to the middle of the Eastern Conference playoff pack without the services of Michael Redd all season. But take a look at the players in the Bucks’ rotation other than Bogut: Brandon Jennings, Charlie Bell, Carlos Delfino, John Salmons, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute (don’t try to figure out how to pronounce it, just move on), Luke Ridnour, Ersan Ilyasova, Royal Ivey and Jerry Stackhouse (yes, he’s alive and well and still in the league – just not very good anymore). While talented, Jennings and Mbah a Moute are very young and inexperienced. Jennings’s 37% shooting from the field is ample evidence of his frequent lapses in judgment. The balance of the rotation is made up of journeymen (Salmons, Delfino, Ridnour), a has-been (Stackhouse), and some never-wases (Bell, Ivey and Ilyasova).
It doesn’t matter what happened in Milwaukee last week or how well the Bucks have played for the last 6 weeks, the Celtics simply are NOT going to drop a best-of-7 series against this astonishingly undistinguished group of castoffs. The Big 3 still have way too much left in the tank to bow out against this lowly crew. Rondo has too much talent and pride to let Jennings come close to outplaying him in a playoff series. Even Sheed (maybe) cares too much about the game to get outplayed by a basketball nobody from the Turkish hinterland. And Perk will find a way to
make Bogut work harder for his points and rebounds.
The Celtics still have two more regular season chances to send this message to the upstarts from the land of Happy Days. The games are at the tail end of the season, so Doc might be giving the starters some valuable rest when the teams play in Boston on April 10 and Milwaukee four days later. Regardless, the Celtics’ bench is good enough to deliver the message on behalf of the whole team: The Celtics Aren’t Dead Yet.