The Celtics are not going to even sniff the NBA finals as currently constituted.
-- Trags Bag, Jan. 4, 2013
No, this column isn’t a mea culpa. After all, when yours truly typed those words on his laptop during the Patriots’ playoff bye week, everyone watching the Celtics felt the same thing.
It’s just a way to point out that things certainly can change in a matter of months in the NBA. And, more to the point, they can change when you least expect it.
The Celtics were 14-17. They were near the bottom of the NBA in their trademark statistic of defense. The bench was a mess. Jeff Green was lost. They appeared disinterested on the court, except, of course, for Kevin Garnett.
I even went as far as suggesting why the Celtics should look at trading Garnett since he was the only bright light in a tunnel headed nowhere. It was THAT bad.
Then came the six-game winning streak and everyone immediately thought things had turned. But just when it appeared everyone was on the same page, they lost six straight and were 20-23 heading into the Jan. 27 showdown with LeBron James and the Heat.
During and after that game, they got the news that Rajon Rondo was done for the season with a torn ACL.
Done. The Celtics season was, for all intents and purposes, over. Twitter went nuts. But the Celtics didn’t. They somehow managed to win that game in double-overtime at the Garden, sending them on a most-unlikely seven-game winning streak.
The Celtics were expected to go into the tank with the loss of Rondo, Jared Sullinger (back surgery) and “Mr. Energy” Leandro Barbosa (torn ACL/later traded). They’ve done just the opposite.
The Celtics have gone from a team wandering with little direction in early January with a sensational but sometimes tormented court leader in Rondo to a team that shares the wealth and has bought into the essence of team basketball.
The latest example of this came in dramatic fashion Wednesday night in Indianapolis when Garnett fired a bullet pass under the basket for Green.
Green caught the ball under the basket, got his body under control and made the game-winning layup with 0.5 seconds to go. It was captain Paul Pierce who set up the game-winning play with a perfectly executed back pick to take out not one but two Pacers.
Sharing the wealth isn’t only happening on the court with the players. It’s happening on the bench with the coaching staff.
For all the acclaim that the Celtics get for their vaunted defense, and it has been stellar since the return of Avery Bradley, the offensive execution has been just as dramatic. Doc Rivers made a point of giving credit to his longtime offensive assistant Armond Hill for talking him into a play that worked in the first half.
Garnett is quick to point to Mike Longabardi’s coaching on the sidelines in making defensive adjustments.
"He’s been big in helping us adjust on the fly,” Garnett said last Friday night after the Celtics kept the high-scoring Stephen Curry in check and beat the Warriors. “A lot of what we do is all about adjustments and communicating on the court, and he’s a big part of that on the bench."
A lot can change in the final six weeks of the season, namely more injuries. But right now, everything seems to be pointing to another run to the Eastern Conference finals.
Here are six ways the Celtics have resurrected a season once headed nowhere.
Spread the wealth -- The Celtics are using a spread offense without a pure point guard and it’s really a thing of beauty to watch. They are moving the ball and have gotten away from an offense once defined by Rondo. Courtney Lee, Avery Bradley, Jason Terry and now Jordan Crawford have stabilized the backcourt enough to ensure the ball is brought across the timeline. Once in the offensive set, the Celtics have been masterful in spreading Garnett, Pierce and Green. It’s why the play at the end of the game against the Pacers worked so well. Garnett was up top, Green flared to the basket and Pierce was on the baseline getting ready to set his pick.
Defense is the name of the game -- The Celtics were allowing 100 points a game in the first two months of the season and they ranked 25th in the league. This was not so stunning considering their best defensive player was on the sidelines rehabbing his shoulders. But now with Bradley back, the Celtics have allowed 100 points just six times, they are allowing just 91.5 points a game since Bradley came back in early January and they are ranked ninth in the league in scoring defense.
“Avery’s return is bigger than people know,” Rivers said. “It really was. You think about it. We don’t have Rondo now. We missed the first 35 games without Avery so we’ve had some key guys not in our lineup. I thought right before Rondo went down, our bench was playing great. I kept saying if we can get our starters playing like our bench, it’ll be great. That was an indication that the new guys were starting to come on.”
Said Garnett: “Defense has definitely been the key to our success in the second half of seasons since I've been here. The more we talk, the more we communicate with each other, everybody understanding what's at stake and what we're playing for in the second half of the season. Those things stand out as to what have made us decent if not successful in the second half of the season."
The Jeff Green effect -- No one has raised his game more when the team needed it desperately than the 6-foot-8 swingman out of Georgetown. He has been the puzzle Rivers has spent all season trying to solve, trying to get in his head and make him believe he’s one of the big boys, if for no other reason than the Celtics NEEDED him to be one of them. Green has always had the talent but not necessarily the confidence or drive to fulfill it on the court. Enter Doc Rivers. Since Rondo went down, Green is averaging 14.9 points and five rebounds per game. But it’s the ability to impact the game off the bench that has really changed how Rivers feels about him.
“This is the best I’ve seen him play, consistently,” Rivers said. “What we are always on Jeff about is being consistent. I was really on him hard in the first half because I just didn’t think he had his motor. I rode him pretty good. He’s responding to it as well. I think this is his best stretch because his confidence is sky high. He taking shots, he doesn’t worry about misses anymore.
“He doesn’t feel bad. I thought early on [in the season] if he missed a couple of shots, he’s looking around at Paul and JET and Kevin, and saying, ‘I shouldn’t take another one.’ And we were telling him, ‘Yeah, you should. You’re one of them.’ And that’s really important for him to hear. And now he believes it and you can see it.”
Paul Pierce is showing some nerve -- For all of the things that Kevin Garnett does and says on the court, Pierce continues to lead by example. And now he’s doing it with a pinched nerve in his neck that he says won’t be better until after the season. Pierce is leading the team in scoring at 18.5 ppg, but things like setting the back-pick on the game-winning play against the Pacers really are defining his season. Pierce is giving up some scoring looks to get teammates like Green and Bradley more involved.
Hanging around -- The Celtics are the masters of rope-a-dope in the NBA. Let the opponent tire themselves out, get a little overconfident and let down their guard. That’s exactly how the C's beat one of the hottest teams in the East on their home court on Wednesday night. The Pacers were dominating with Roy Hibbert inside against a Celtics team that was there for the taking. But instead of hammering the Celtics into submission, the Pacers decided to start jacking 3's. They went 6-for-27 from long range, and the Celtics climbed out of a double-digit hole in the fourth quarter, readying for the chance to pounce at the end.
“For our team, it’s a great thing, just hang around,” Rivers said. “It’s what we’ve been all year, just hanging around and we stole the game.”
Getting the new guys to buy in -- Forget Jordan Crawford, Terrence Williams, D.J. White and Shav Randolph, the real challenge of the season was getting guys like Jason Terry and Courtney Lee to buy in to what the Celtics are all about. It took longer -- a lot longer -- than Rivers expected, but they get it now. Lee is the second-best on-ball defender on the team behind Bradley. Terry hasn’t been the long-range offensive force off the bench the C's hoped, but he was on the floor for the game-winning play Wednesday because Rivers knows teams have to respect his shot.
“I just think we’ve come together as a group,” Rivers offered. “I still go back to we have eight new players and it just took them longer to buy in to everything and to play free enough to buy in to it.”
Are they going to the NBA finals? Well, even with all the great karma going on right now, it’s hard to imagine this group beating LeBron and the Heat in a seven-game series.
But the Celtics have proven everyone wrong so far, including yours truly.
Now to the Trags Bag, where we ask fans for their favorite Celtics win of the season and why they believe in this team.
@drjefflo favorite win versus the Warriors, love the defense on Curry-Expectations have only changed as to what round. The Celtics go down to Heat in 7
@BostonGal4Ever Tie between BOS-IND and BOS-DEN (triple OT victory). They've shown they’ve got what it takes; they CAN be a contender.
@NoontimeSports Favorite Celtics game thus far tie between Denver (3OT) and Miami w/o Rondo. See them reaching Eastern Conf. Finals.