Seven months ago, Danny Ainge and the Celtics determined to change. They needed to become bigger and better to outlast LA in the playoffs, so the Celtics upgraded their roster. They signed the O’Neal brothers, and Semih Erden too. And Delonte West. And Von Wafer. Improvement was — and always is, I suppose — the object of the offseason, so Ainge went long and far to hire the guns Boston would need to “beat LA.”
What Ainge likely didn’t realize — and I never would have guessed — has now become obvious: of all the improvement Boston needed, most would come from inside the organization. In a year that offseason additions were supposed to counteract the Big Three’s inevitable downfall, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen have only gotten better. Mostly because of the in-house improvement, the Boston Celtics ran away with a 109-96 road win against the Los Angeles Lakers.
What did the Celtics get from their newcomers today? Jermaine O’Neal was (and is) injured. So was (and is) Delonte West. Von Wafer played two uneventful seconds. Semih Wafer and Luke Harangody received DNP-CDs, and fellow rookie Avery Bradley has taken his talents to the D-League. Of the new guys, only Shaq provided any help at all — and nothing about his zero points and six rebounds shouted “The Big Diesel’s the reason Boston won this game.”
Yet — even with the newbies offering almost literally nothing — the Celtics still owned the glass, and the game, against a Lakers team that convinced Danny Ainge the Celtics needed to reload. The old continue to look younger and younger.
The Big Three were supposed to take a step back this season. They were. Ray Allen is a 35-year old shooting guard. He should be years past his prime. Hell, last year he looked like a man on the decline. Yet here he is, piecing together a career shooting year, draining clutch shot after clutch shot. He looks like a teenager, except with the guile of a 15-year vet.
Paul Pierce is a 33-year old scorer, one who looked on the wrong side of the hill during last year’s playoffs. Yet here he is, scoring more efficiently than ever before, dropping 32 hard-earned ones on Ron Artest. Pierce couldn’t have scored so many against Artest last season. Everything last season was a struggle — Pierce was a step slow, and couldn’t get enough space off to find high-percentage shots. Yet today, he got almost anything he wanted. He had to work for the points, sure, but Pierce still did what he wanted. Pierce’s first step has returned, his body’s in great shape, and he’s creating plays again with far more ease– for both himself and the team. He’s back.
Kevin Garnett is a 34-year old power forward, one who temporarily looked like a 2009 injury had permanently slowed his career. Pau Gasol ate KG for breakfast last season, like KG was a nobody. It looked like you could stick a fork in KG. Yet here he is, dominating the glass against LA like he never could last season, owning both ends of the court, acting a lot like this year’s Defensive Player of the Year. The way Garnett’s playing, he’s again one of the league’s most valuable players — mostly because he affects so many facets of the game. That leg doesn’t look to be hindering Garnett one bit.
While the Big Three turn the aging process upside down, Rajon Rondo follows the normal curve — he’s just your average young player getting better, except he’s “your average young player” who just happens to lead the league in assists. At haltime today, I wondered if Rondo had an injury we didn’t know about. How else could I explain his two and a half game nap, which began in Portland? Rondo only had one assist in the first half, and wasn’t making any plays happen — his average first-half possession consisted of dribbling upcourt, passing to a teammate and standing around the perimeter while the shot clock ticked down. But Rondo followed the forgettable half with a 15-assist second half, in which he took control in the way we have become accustomed to. The way Rondo does most nights, as he establishes himself as one of the game’s best young talents.
With the Fantastic Four regressing not at all, and Glen Davis joining them in improvement land, the Celtics haven’t needed much from their new signees. Which is good because, other than Shaq (and maybe Erden), no new Celtic has lived up to his billing. West and JO have been hindered by injuries, and the C’s haven’t gotten much from Bradley or Harangody (Harangody’s one glorious double-double not included). Instead of getting too many important contributions from newcomers, Boston still relies mostly on the old guard. And, with a tip of the hat to the fountain of youth, relying on the old guard has worked out so far.
Danny Ainge was right. The Celtics needed to get better to remain title contenders this season. And they have. But the improvements have come from unexpected places.
More Celtics-Lakers talk: Everything went right
As a Celtics fan, what did you want from this game?
Paul Pierce going bonkers, and erasing any doubt that he can still score against Ron Artest?
Kevin Garnett owning the glass, leading the Celtics to a 43-30 advantage in that category?
Glen Davis taking one charge down the stretch, and using another perfect rotation to force a Kobe Bryant miss?
Davis playing potential All-Star Lamar Odom to a standstill?
Nate Robinson (finally) making shots, making three of his five three-pointers and four of his seven field goals?
60.3% shooting for the Celtics, compared to 44.4% for LA?
34 Celtics assists, compared to 10 for LA?
The befuddling second-half disappearance of both Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum, caused by a combination of Boston’s defense and LA’s Kobe-centric offense?
15 second-half assists for Rondo, which was, for reference, five more than the entire Lakers team (or, for another reference, 15 more than Kobe)?
A few clutch jumpers to add to Ray Allen’s collection?
Six rebounds and two blocks from Shaq, in only 12:42?
41 points (and, for the most part, an absolute show) from Kobe ultimately proven useless because his team lost, and because he shot a few too many times down the stretch?
Try to remember, this was only one day, only one game. But if you considered this the year’s biggest test to date, the Celtics aced it. Concerns will have to wait for another day.