The Boston Celtics arrived at the All-Star break looking like a team that would need to claw for a playoff berth. They were 15-17 after the charitable portion of their schedule, riding a five-game losing streak, and had just lost a blowout to the Oklahoma City Thunder.
After the 119-104 shellacking administered by Mr. Durant and his cohorts, during which the Celtics surrendered 72 first-half points, Doc Rivers even had the audacity to declare it a “team-building game,” as if the proud Boston Celtics take lessons from 15-point defeats. Since I write online and all of my work is thus filed in the interwebs, I can shamefully tell you my exact response: “Gag me with a wooden back-scratcher, shoot me in the temple with a pellet gun and throw a 100-MPH heater directly at my gut.”
Since then, even the worst things to happen to the Celtics have left Boston’s favorite basketball team smelling like roses. Maybe Doc was right about the team-building game. Maybe the Celtics took a while to piece the puzzle together but found answers in Oklahoma City. Maybe that loss had nothing to do with the ensuing push. Regardless of whether Doc’s “team-building game” was pure psychic genius, look at everything that’s happened since:
The Celtics’ second-half schedule was a mess
In the middle of March the Celtics departed on an eight-game road trip that featured games against the Lakers, Clippers, Nuggets, Hawks and 76ers, all playoff teams. The Celtics then started April against the Heat, which was followed by an 11-games-in-15-nights stretch that featured eight meetings with playoff teams, including the Spurs, Bulls and Heat. The three games that weren’t against playoff teams all came on the road during three consecutive days. Boston should have slipped after the All Star break.
Instead, the Celtics finished the season on a 24-10 tear that was the league’s best second-half record.
Down go Jermaine O’Neal and Chris Wilcox
O’Neal and Wilcox were both lost for the season and Boston was left with one natural center, a 27-year old from Wisconsin whose most competitive basketball experience prior to this season came in Sioux Falls, who blocked six shots while drawing Bill Russell comparisons (just from Tommy Heinsohn, but still) in his NBA starting debut, and who had fallen off significantly since then.
Rather than murder the Celtics, the pair of season-ending injuries/heart issues:
A) Forced Doc Rivers to put his most productive big man (non-Garnett division) into the starting lineup. Brandon Bass and his odd-looking-yet-deadly jump shot have been awesomely reliable this year.
B) Forced Rivers to play Stiemsma more minutes. Stiemsma, with his shot-blocking instincts and weirdly-soft touch, has quickly become one of the more valuable backup bigs in the league.
C) Invert the floor. With Bass and Garnett both starting, Boston’s bigs spread the floor in all kinds of ways, opening the paint for Rajon Rondo to weave his webs. It’s no coincidence that Rondo’s double-digit assists streak began once Bass and Garnett shared the starting lineup.
Miami and Chicago are the top Eastern Conference contenders
Miami and Chicago were both lauded as the cream of the Eastern Conference crop, maybe the entire NBA crop, since the season’s beginning. That makes all kinds of sense considering that they finished 1-2 in the conference last season, battled in the 2011 Eastern Conference Finals and would presumably improve this season as they gained continuity.
Miami and Chicago will still be difficult to defeat in the playoffs (even after Derrick’s Rose’s unfortunate injury), but several developments among the Eastern Conference favorites have gone right for the Celtics. The top two:
A) Miami’s supporting cast stinks. When the Heat signed Shane Battier, he seemed like a perfect fit, a James Posey-an small forward who could come off Miami’s bench, drill threes, take charges and defend the opponent’s best wing. Instead, Battier shot worse than he ever has from the field, hit barely more than one-third of his three-pointers, and posted the worst PER of his career. Aging sucks. The Heat’s big supporting-cast signings of the past two seasons (non-Udonis Haslem division) have been Mike Miller and Battier. That’s very “Rasheed Wallace and Jermaine O’Neal for the mid-level, please”-ish, although Miller did shoot quite well from the arc this season.
(Note: When Miller drills 79 three-pointers and Battier draws 832 charges against the Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals, if both teams get there, you know who to blame.)
B) Derrick Rose tore his ACL. What, did you expect something else? The Bulls are still tough due to their defense and rebounding. They can still push any team to the brink and maybe even beat any team. But the Celtics lucked out when Rose’s left knee buckled underneath him.
Ray Allen injures himself
If you told me at the All Star break that Ray Allen would miss 15 of Boston’s final 20 games, I would have spit out my milk, kicked the nearest trash can and began thinking of ways to rig the NBA lottery odds so the obviously-lottery-bound Celtics might get Anthony Davis. Instead, Avery Bradley wrestled the Hall of Famer’s starting spot, Boston’s top-notch defense became even better, the Celtics inadvertently found a starting lineup that outscores opponents by 20 points per 100 possessions, and damn it, here the Celtics are, confident in their title chances.
No matter what obstacles faced the Celtics in the second half of this season, they persevered. I love this team. The playoffs are here. Let’s hope we enjoy the ride, but regardless of how this ends, these Celtics came together and became a team I would root for even if they didn’t wear green.