Proud, suddenly-underdog Celtics improbably found way into Eastern Conference Finals and don’t think run ends here
(video features Boston rapper MasterPiece and his tribute to the “Grit and Balls” Celtics)
Raise your hand if you expected the Boston Celtics to be one of the four NBA teams still standing in the conference finals. If you foresaw how great Kevin Garnett would still be at age 36, how a dogged Boston defense would push it through long spells of offensive filth, how the Celtics would lose four players to season-ending surgeries but keep on plugging in new players and finding different ways to win. If you expected the Celtics, on May 28, to stand eight wins away from an NBA title.
Raise your hand if you thought following these Celtics, in the year 2012, despite many nights when the Celtics and their opponent fire brick after brick, would be so goddamn fun.
For Celtics fans this season has been a journey of lowered expectations and rewards we probably didn’t see coming. It has required the patience to bear with the Celtics through an uneven start and the perspective to realize how improbable their second-half resurgence really has been. It took us from where we were at the All-Star break, wondering if the Celtics would blow things up or if they might not qualify for the playoffs, to where we are now, hoping they can stir together a way to take four games from the Miami Heat and deliver themselves into their third NBA Finals in five years with the Big Three. The Celtics swooned in the second halves of each of the past two seasons, with their effort resembling an ocean tide, sometimes high with waves crashing everywhere and other times low enough to resemble a calm lake. But this year their energy rarely comes into question and they posted the NBA’s best second-half record, even with a scheduled back-loaded with road games and matchups against elite teams.
The Celtics are underdogs now. They have no answer for Dwyane Wade and nobody has an answer for LeBron James. The Celtics are experienced and talented, but they are also old, playing with almost no rest, and have no bench production to speak of. Avery Bradley is out for the season, leaving Ray Allen to chase Wade for 30-plus minutes per game despite bone spurs that obviously don’t allow him to function anywhere near 100 percent. The Celtics needed to survive seven wars of attrition with the Sixers just to meet the Heat, and the Heat are an amped-up version of the Sixers — at least as athletic and defensive-minded, but also with two of the NBA’s top 10 players, including its three-time MVP.
Still, Boston won’t take Miami by surprise. After the Heat dispatched the Celtics from the 2011 postseason, LeBron James admitted it was the Celtics who showed him, Wade and Chris Bosh that they needed each other. Wade and James had tried and failed to beat Boston by themselves. Bosh couldn’t even get to the Celtics with the Raptors. Alone, they couldn’t beat the Celtics. Together, the Heat took a quick series in five games last season. But Wade said recently that because of how difficult it is to defeat Boston, it felt like that series went nine games.
This year’s Celtics are hurting and run down after 13 playoff games in 26 days, but don’t feed that line to Wade, especially since Bosh is also out.
“Get out of here with that,” Wade said Sunday, according to ESPN. “I don’t believe none of that. No feet hurting, no (one being) tired, nothing. This is the Boston Celtics. They’re all 100 percent to me. When they play the Miami Heat, it’s a different ball game. And vice versa. No storylines. No excuses.”
Paul Pierce and Doc Rivers said they always expected the season to arrive at this juncture, with the Celtics flying to Miami for a shot at redemption. And they’re probably telling the truth. But for us fans — remembering the way the Celtics bowed last year, knowing they’re now a year older, watching their 15-17 start, realizing how close Danny Ainge came to blowing the roster to smithereens at the trade deadline — this late-season run has come as a treat, one that’s quite a bit different from the 2010 dance into the NBA Finals.
The Celtics underachieved for most of that year, until they finally gave a damn when they playoffs arrived. They didn’t lose games in the regular season that year so much as they pissed them away. They approached the regular season as if it didn’t matter and they played like it. But this year’s been decidedly different. They earned the 4th seed despite that wretched start, all those injuries, an offense that rarely functions and a bench completely devoid of any play-makers. Their best backup big man is a 27-year old rookie who played in Turkey last season and splits minutes with Ryan Hollins. Their best backup wing (Mickael Pietrus) seemingly hasn’t hit a jumper since March. The Celtics can’t rebound and can’t score, but they are overachieving and have been since the All-Star break, and now they’re in the Eastern Conference Finals. Whereas accomplishment in Boston is often measured only by banners, we need to allow for the fact that getting here, to a rematch with the Heat, is in and of itself a worthy feat.
The Celtics, of course, believe they still have unfinished business. They see the NBA title race as wide open and give themselves as good a chance as any to win it. They are underdogs, yes, but they are proud ones with a knowledge of how to win and a stubborn belief that they can still do it.
This season has been everything a good surprise should be, unexpected and fulfilling and delightful. And contrary to what most predicted earlier this season, it’s not yet over.