Ten thoughts from a Game 1 that made us wonder if Rasheed Wallace is a bargain ...
1. On Feb. 27 the Celtics lost at home to the New Jersey Nets, who moved to 6-52 with the victory. This humiliating defeat came the day after a blowout loss at Cleveland, which at the time seemed little more than another failed test to see if the Celtics could sit at the NBA's version of the adult table. They looked lost, old, and disinterested.
Any Celtics fan with a even a shred of objectivity on that day would have told you that it was more likely they would get swept in the first round than be in the driver's seat in the Eastern Conference finals after getting past the Cavaliers (raise your hand if you picked the Heat in the first round -- it's OK, made plenty of sense at the time.)
But here we are.
I've never seen a season like this. The 1968-69 Celtics are the closest template, but they made their run before I was around. Older teams just aren't supposed to get better during the season. But it's happened.
The Celtics, in less than three months, have gone from a team that surprised no one by losing at home to one of the worst teams in NBA history to being called "the favorites to win" the NBA title by Jeff Van Gundy. And that proclamation probably surprised no one. No one paying attention, anyway.
2. Of course, if Ray Allen and Paul Pierce miss a couple of free throws and Rashard Lewis makes a few 3-pointers in the fourth quarter, we might be talking about something else. I'd be willing to give the Celtics a pass on this almost-collapse -- everyone makes a run in the NBA, the Magic have too many shooters to keep down for the full 48-- but this has happened way too many times for a veteran team. There is no third-quarter lead with this team that feels within 50 miles of safe. The C's could be up 70 and if Vince Carter hit a 3 I'd start to think, "Well, a little 60-2 run and it's single digits."
3. This season maybe was not the best of Paul Pierce's career, but it was his most efficient. Career bests in field goal percentage, 3-point shooting and free throw percentage. He only attempted 12.2 shots per game (easily the lowest in his career) but still averaged 18.3 points per game. Sure seemed as if he was embracing the "cagey veteran that picks his spots" role on the team. But that guy had been largely absent during the first two rounds of the playoffs. Only once in the first two series did Pierce have a game in which he shot over 50 percent from the floor. And we all know that he was, as Charles Barkley would say, "turrrable" against the Cavs.
But for my money in Game 1 on Sunday Pierce was the best player on the floor for the Celtics. He scored 22 points while only taking eight shots (contrast that to the so-called "big game" he had vs. the Cavs in Game 5, when he needed 21 shots to score 21 points.) Pretty sure that the Celtics will trade Vince Carter scoring one more point than Pierce in each game if it means that Carter takes 10 more shots, as he did in Game 1. Pierce's third quarter (13 points) really turned out to be the difference in the game.
4. And Ray Allen scored 25 points on 16 shots. Not too shabby, either. In the "Things that seemed absurd three months ago" department, the idea of re-signing Allen has to be discussed at the end of the season. Assuming Pierce doesn't opt out of his contract (he won't -- he's owed $21 million next year), you've got Kevin Garnett and Pierce locked in for the next two years. No rebuilding going on as long as those guys are around. So don't you try to keep Allen for those two years and make a couple of more runs at a title? I know that there will be injuries and the inevitable decline. But we've seen the best the Eastern Conference has to be offer, haven't we? Does any team strike you as unbeatable over the next two years? Don't the Celtics with the Big Three* and Rondo have as good a shot as any until 2012? If Allen were OK with, say, two years and $18 million I think the Celtics would have to make that move.
5. A little Player A, Player B.
Player A: 18.3 points, 13.2 rebounds, 2.8 blocks, 61.2 percent shooting
Player B: 13.8 points, 13.0 rebounds, 3.5 blocks, 51.0 percent shooting
Player A is Dwight Howard in 2009-10. Player B is Dikembe Mutombo in 1993-94.
The point of this is not to insinuate that Mutombo was as good as Howard is now. He's not. But is there a huge difference? Sometimes I wonder.
I get that Howard is maybe the best pure athlete in the NBA. A terrific defender, great rebounder. Works hard, seems like a nice kid, all that stuff. But he has now played in the NBA for six years and still has NO post-up game. All his scoring comes from dunks and offensive boards. I just think that when you take away the Superman act and ESPN junk it's possible that we are looking at a player that, right now, is a little better than Dikembe Mutombo was at his peak. No shame in that, Mutombo made $143 million in his career, was a seven-time All-Star, four-time Defensive Player of the Year and will wind up in the Hall of Fame someday. But for Howard to become an all-time great he's going to have to become a threat in the post. Kevin McHale did more in the post in any one quarter in 1987 than Howard has done in his entire 500-game career. The Celtics are comfortable when Howard has the ball in his hands. The thought of double-teaming him is ludicrous. How many truly great players can you say that about?
6. Oh, and I still can't fathom that Howard allowed Rasheed Wallace to pull the Old Man Games on him. Really, Dwight? It's that easy to get you rattled? The 12-year-old kid at the YMCA that gets an elbow in the mug from the 45-year-old with goggles and a headband? He has an excuse to pick up his ball, call his mom and go home. He is 12. Can't Superman match wits with the evil Sheed?
7. Hard to believe, but if Wallace continues to play at this level and the Celtics win a title, he will have to be considered a good signing by Danny Ainge. That's how fast things change. The truth is that the regular season was never going to be how we judged Sheed in Boston, but his play and effort was so alarmingly bad that it just seemed a given that he was cooked. Turns out that maybe he really was saving it for the playoffs. It would be easy to write how that is a huge disservice to the fans, taking 82 games off, but let's be honest: The fans don't much care about the regular season with this team either. They'll live with six months of tanking if it leads to a title. Wouldn't be a bad book title either. "Rasheed: How six months of tanking led to glory."
Gotta love Sheed, though. I can't think of an athlete that has led to so many "Hey, (insert player name here) is trying tonight" e-mails and texts.
8. I have no idea how valuable the contribution of Tom Thibodeau is to this team. I've read about it, sure, and I'm told by the guys on TV, but there is nothing tangible. Have we even heard him speak? What we do know is that the players (and Doc) swear by him, he makes about a million bucks a year (could be the highest-paid assistant coach in the NBA) and by all accounts he runs the defense. And it seems that he is finally the hot assistant coach. So he's either A) taking over for Doc when he leaves after this season (which is either inevitable or has zero chance of happening, depending on who you talk to) or B) finally getting his shot somewhere else. Seems the Cavs series pretty much locked up a head coaching gig for him in 2010-11.
(I saw that the Hornets interviewed Mike Fratello last week for the job. Mike Fratello? That's who you go after when Doug Collins says "no." And not just for coaching, either. TV jobs, speaking engagements, bachelor parties. Listen, I like the Czar and still maintain that he's the only living coach that has gone with both the perm and toupee look in his career, but wouldn't you hire Thibodeau over him in a second? You know what you're going to get with Fratello, and it isn't David Stern handing your owner a trophy at the end of the season.)
9. Hey, maybe the Celtics can win without Rajon Rondo putting up 22-14-12 every night. Very quiet in Game 1. Still, I suspect that if the Celtics are going to advance, they'll need a couple of stat-stuffers from their point guard. And I'm not sure he's going to get much bench time the rest of the way. During a game in which the Celtics had a double-digit lead for the great majority, Rondo played 46 minutes. Not exactly a ringing endorsement of Nate Robinson.
10. Game 2? Well, depends on if the Celtics feel that they've already done what they needed to do. I'm sure they would have happily signed for a split on Sunday morning. But now will they get greedy? It's tough, though, to imagine that the Magic will lose what is essentially an elimination game. I just don't think the game means nearly as much to the Celtics as it does to Orlando.
Prediction: Magic 96, Celtics 90