It’s about that time of year when leaves change colors, chili stews on stoves every Sunday and fans of mediocre NBA teams convince themselves there’s a chance.
Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but this isn’t baseball, and these Celtics aren’t the 2013 Red Sox. This is the NBA, where amazing happens but aberrations don’t.
After the Celtics fell to 1-4 in the preseason, battling Paul Pierce and a depleted Nets roster to the bitter end, at least one fan still holds to the hope that Brad Stevens might catch lightning in a bottle the same way John Farrell has since spring training.
“Give them a break,” a Green Street commenter using the handle Celtics6 wrote. “The same people who all but delivered the World Series trophy to Toronto in February and were convinced that the Red Sox were destined for last place have come alive once again to beat down the Celtics. Think of Gerald Wallace as a ‘[Shane] Victorino,’ Kris Humphries as a ‘[Jonny] Gomes,’ Avery Bradley as a ‘[Daniel] Nava,’ and you may realize that having a marquee player or three or four is not always the answer. A team of grinders can work quite well.”
A commendable sentiment, sure, but not one the team’s president even believes.
“Baseball is such a different sport,” said Danny Ainge, one of a dozen people ever to walk the planet as both a Major League Baseball and NBA player. “You have so many more players, and in baseball not one player dominates a game as much. In basketball, I don’t think there’s any correlation we could draw from that situation.”
Since 1980, all but a single title team featured one of the game’s 25 greatest players, and most fielded multiple Hall of Famers. The lone exception -- a 2003-04 Pistons squad often cited as the underdog blueprint -- started four All-Stars, brought another off the bench and ultimately reached six straight conference finals.
The only player on this Celtics roster even capable of entering any conversation about all-time greats and future Hall of Famers is Rajon Rondo, and he’s not even sure the next time he’ll play a meaningful game of basketball. And neither ESPN nor Sports Illustrated ranked a recovering Rondo among the top 25 players this season.
That’s not to say this won’t be an entertaining winter. This group may be more talented than the 2006-07 edition that played hard despite missing its superstar for chunks of the season and produced a four-time All-Star point guard, a two-time First Team All-Defense selection, a starting center on a title team, a slam dunk champion and a bunch of pieces that turned into Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen.
While that group won only 24 games, Pierce, Rondo, Tony Allen, Kendrick Perkins, Gerald Green, Al Jefferson, Delonte West & Co. were worth the price of admission, especially at $10 a balcony ticket, and made the following season that much sweeter.
Bookmakers have set the over/under on Celtics wins this season at 27.5, but they could potentially compete for a playoff spot with Rondo. After all, he’s the same age (27) with the same number of All-Star appearances (4) as Pierce was when the C’s won 47 games in a terrible Eastern Conference, captured an even worse Atlantic Division crown and earned the No. 3 seed only to be bounced in the first round by the Pacers in a series that included the infamous head-wrap game.
Still, a handful of NBA teams start the season as championship contenders, two of them make the finals and more often than not the favorite wins. The 2013 Heat are the umpteenth example of this rule. I challenge you to find a modern NBA era example of a Red Sox-esque roster defying every major publication’s predictions, capturing a No. 1 seed and supplanting themselves as a title favorite.
Likewise, as a reminder, only three eighth seeds have ever beaten a No. 1 seed in a seven-game series -- the wonderfully entertaining 2007 Warriors, an equally engrossing 2011 Grizzlies bunch and a 2012 76ers team that benefited from a first-round ACL injury to the game’s reigning MVP. All three lost in the next round.
If Rondo returns in December, if Jeff Green cements himself as a legitimate second banana, if Wallace regains some semblance of his 2010 All-Star form, if (as expected) Humphries plays for his next contract, if Bradley and Jared Sullinger take steps forward, if Kelly Olynyk emerges as a Rookie of the Year candidate and if Vitor Faverani’s El Hombre Indestructible nickname translates -- and that’s a whole lotta ifs -- then the Heat, Bulls, Nets, Pacers and probably Knicks are still better.
Without Rondo, this a lottery team, plain and simple, and Tuesday night’s loss to the Nets was a reminder why. The Celtics once again fielded a point guard patchwork of Avery Bradley, Jordan Crawford and Phil Pressey against the Nets. In other words, a guy Doc Rivers wasted a year and a half trying to turn into a point guard before finally unleashing him as an undersized 2 guard whose offense thrives off the ball (corner 3’s, backdoor layups), a guy with almost as many career turnovers as assists and a guy Cedric Maxwell pegged at 5-foot-8 during the television broadcast.
In previous seasons, Pierce acted as facilitator in Rondo’s absence, just as he did Tuesday in place of Deron Williams. That’s how the Celtics survived so long without Rondo last season, and they just don’t have anyone else capable of regularly creating baskets in close-game situations on this roster.
Here are the final three Celtics possessions against the Nets in an 80-80 game.
1) Crawford picks up his dribble near half-court and has to call a timeout. Out of the break, Brandon Bass takes an entry pass, falls to the ground and coughs up the ball.
2) Crawford sets up Bass near the 3-point line, where he attempted zero shots last season. Bass dribbles twice and dumps it over to Lee, who fakes a 3, dribbles once and misses a long 2 just before the shot clock expires.
3) With seven seconds remaining, Wallace tosses a dangerous crosscourt entry pass to Lee in the corner, where three Nets are crammed into a confined space, and he attempts an off-balance 15-footer two seconds into the play.
That’s why, since Rondo emerged as an All-Star in 2010, the Celtics are 1-6 in seven games without him and Pierce. The lone victory? A 112-102 win over a Knicks team also resting its starters in the final game of the 2010-11 regular season. This past spring, Pierce missed four games after Rondo’s season-ending ACL injury, and the Celtics finished 0-4, including losses to the Bobcats, Timberwolves and Cavaliers.
Meanwhile, Stevens is implementing new schemes without the one guy capable of running an effective NBA offense. It’s like teaching a sailing class without the rudder.
Again, this isn’t baseball. Grit and balls only take you so far in basketball, and Pierce and Garnett pushed that envelope as far as anybody. Trading those two isn’t like dumping Josh Beckett, Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez on the Dodgers.
So, as you’re sitting down to that bowl of chili, watching the leaves change outside your window and pondering the possibilities of an unprecedented Celtics season, take Ainge’s advice, “I guess just realistic expectations is what I preach to the fans.”