As the Miami Heat continue to stumble toward something that looks like mediocrity -- at least in the win column -- the comparisons to the first season of the Celtics big three have started again.
The Heat are 9-8 and have lost four of five with a three-game losing streak in the mix. The 2007-08 Celtics had one three-game losing streak, in February on a west coast trip, and didn’t lose their eighth game until late January.
In retrospect, the Celtics made it look too easy. They made it look so simple, so matter of fact, that by the end it seemed obvious.
Kevin Garnett was not only the best defensive player in the league, he was also a selfless superstar. Not just willing to make the extra pass, but hardwired to always look for the open man. Ray Allen and Paul Pierce complimented each other perfectly as scorers off the wing, using different ways to attain the same means.
Rajon Rondo turned out to be better than anyone dared to dream and Kendrick Perkins developed from a necessary piece of machinery into a defensive monster. But, in the end, talent wins out and putting Garnett, Allen and Pierce on the same team at this point in their careers was too perfect not to work.
Only it wasn’t that simple. Yes, Pierce, Garnett and Allen were ready and willing to make the appropriate sacrifices to achieve this goal, but the point that gets missed is that they still had to actually do it. On the court and in practice, on the plane and in the locker room, they had to make the relationships work. What the Celtics knew, and what the Heat are finding out now, is that it takes more than talent to become a team.
As the legend goes, their bond was formed in training camp and solidified during a preseason trip to Rome, but it wasn’t that instantaneous and it has been tested time and again over the last four years. The Celtics have taken pains to grow and evolve from that starting point to get to where they are now.
“You can’t bring in any of your pre-conceived ideas of what this team is going to be like,” Ray Allen said back in October. “You have to absolve yourself of who you are to try to come to this team to try to figure out what this team needs from each individual.”
That may sound a little too new-age for a grown man’s league like the NBA, but variations on that selfless theme have served the Celtics well over these four years.
With the current season already 20 percent done, the Celtics are contenders again, while the Heat are degenerating rapidly before everyone’s eyes. The latest round of recriminations has included closed-door postgame players-only meetings and a widely-circulated incident in which LeBron James bumped/shoved his coach, Erik Spoelstra.
As the Heat suffer through their growing pains, it’s worth remembering the differences between the two teams.
THE RIGHT TIME, THE RIGHT PLACE
By the time they had assembled, Garnett, Pierce and Allen had all had career’s worth of leading their respective franchises and all had experienced frustrations and disappointments.
They had each advanced to the conference finals on their own exactly one time, but none had ever made it to the NBA finals. Interestingly, Dwyane Wade and James had experienced more success in a shorter amount of time than any of those three. Wade already has a championship and James made it to the finals with a subpar supporting cast.
Only Chris Bosh had experienced anything like the disappointments of Garnett, Pierce and Allen, but he doesn’t have nearly the mileage of any of those three.
Garnett, Allen and Pierce knew they had to change. They had definitive proof that they couldn’t do it themselves and what’s more, they were willing, and even eager, to embrace that change. Doc Rivers has said on numerous occasions that it wouldn’t have worked with all three in their prime and that’s a reality the Heat are slowly beginning to understand.
THE RIGHT FIT
The thing that no one really knew at the time, but seems elementary now, is that the Celtics stars all complimented each other’s games.
With Garnett occupying space away from the basket, Pierce had ample room to work his mid-range game. Rather than compete for real estate with Pierce, Allen’s ability to run baseline to baseline facilitated movement and served as the basic blueprint and structure for their offensive sets. The adjustments they had to make were in terms of shots and points, but not so much in their respective games.
It certainly didn’t hurt that the best of the three, Garnett, is a willing passer who would rather expend his energy on the defensive end. Freed from the burden of having to do everything offensively, and helped along by Garnett’s example, Pierce and Allen both showed themselves to be better defenders than people realized.
As we have seen throughout the years, the Celtics are never better than when all three are healthy and together. Pierce has sometimes mused that if the need arises he can still be a 25-point scorer, but he is wise enough to know that would only be a stop-gap measure.
In Wade and James, the Heat have two of the league’s best at creating their own offense, but they have never had to do it within the confines of a structured offense. The expectation was that the two of them would play off each other and allow their talents to flourish. It hasn’t happened yet.
This is their biggest on-court burden and the onus falls on Wade and James. After taking more criticism in a month than he has in his entire career, Bosh has begun to carve out his niche. But James and Wade not only have to score the points, they also have to run the offense, keep everyone involved and stay out of each other’s way.
If it clicks, and it still is more likely than not that it eventually will, it would be a devastating 1-2 punch, but until it does the whole experiment hangs in the balance.
It took until midway through the last postseason for the rest of the league to catch on to Rivers’ genius on the bench. For too long he was praised solely for his obvious motivational abilities and talent for getting everyone to buy into a team concept.
Those are real and valuable skills for a coach at this level, but along with that, Rivers has established himself as one of the best at understanding the flow of the game and making adjustments. Quibble with his indifference toward younger players, but Rivers is rarely wrong when it comes to managing a game and his players trust him in that capacity.
It will be interesting to see how Rivers adjusts to all the injuries to his supporting players. Avery Bradley, Semih Erden and Luke Harangody have all become more important with each successive injury, but for a team with championship aspirations there are worse things than having a coach who is more attuned to the feelings of his veterans than his rookies.
The pressure is now on Spoelstra if the Heat are going to pull themselves out of this funk since neither Wade nor James have shown the inclination to assume the leadership role thus far. Spoelstra is held in high regard throughout the league, but there’s a difference between having a plan and getting NBA players to execute it.
OK, Rondo is better than everyone -- with the obvious exception of Rondo -- thought he would be, and Perkins is a legitimate defensive force at center. Though still a work in progress, Glen Davis is a valuable contributor and might still become even more than that. (Who says Rivers can’t develop young players?)
The Heat have been hampered by injuries to Mike Miller and Udonis Haslem, but even with those two solid veterans, the inescapable conclusion is that they suffer from a severe talent deficiency, especially at point guard and center.
This illustrates the difference in how the two teams were assembled. While Pat Riley stockpiled expiring contracts to free up cap space, Danny Ainge was dealing from a roster full of young talent. Ainge made the right calls on keeping Rondo and Perkins and showed off his second-round acumen by grabbing Davis in the Allen trade. The Celtics, then and now, simply have more to work with than the Heat.
Wade, James and Bosh were supposed to be able to make up that difference, but it should also be noted that the Celtics veterans were open to the idea of having the younger players carve out their own niche. It hasn’t always gone smoothly (notably with Rondo) but there is something to be said for the atmosphere that was created around that 2007-08 team.
Here’s the funny thing about intangibles. If players believe that they win games because of some sort of magical connection or good vibe in the locker room, then who are we to argue? On the flip side, it can be an all too convenient excuse when things don’t go well. Generally, winning and losing go hand in hand with those kind of relationships.
The Celtics have one of the most enduring chemical bonds in pro sports. On the court they know each other’s strengths and weaknesses inside and out. Rivers cited the latter as part of the problem last season, noting that it became too easy to point to reoccurring mistakes instead of trying to cover for them.
Off the floor, the key to the Celtics togetherness isn’t that they do funny things that sometimes wind up on Twitter. It’s not even whether they like each or not. It’s more basic than that and it goes to the heart of their success. Simply put, they respect each other and trust that when there’s work to be done everything else is secondary.
The Heat are not only learning how to play together, they are trying to figure out how to co-exist in a hothouse atmosphere that they created. They get no sympathy from the Celtics, or anyone else for that matter, but they would do well to learn from their example.
The inescapable truth is, however, that it’s a lot harder than it looks.