I want to believe this Celtics team has one last run in it. I want to believe that -- in spite of injuries and ugly, ugly losses to the likes of Minnesota, Cleveland and Charlotte in the last two weeks -- the C's can make things interesting for their fans.
I want to believe that -- in spite of looking totally overmatched by Brooklyn on Wednesday night -- they can repeat their run from last year when they came within 12 minutes of stunning the Heat and eliminating the team that would go on to win the NBA title. I want to believe this is 2010 all over again.
I want to believe there is hope. After all, it would make for one heck of a story.
This was going to be a column about how the Celtics will defy all odds and win their 18th NBA title. But that's asking way too much at this point. Let's start smaller and consider why this team has one last entertaining, compelling and stirring run left.
I present the “Lucky 7”:
JEFF GREEN IS THE DIFFERENCE-MAKER
Much has been written and said about Green finally coming of age in the last three weeks. He was brought in to eventually be the go-to guy when Paul Pierce and/or Kevin Garnett leave. He’s been more aggressive. He’s looking for his shot. He’s more physical on defense. He’s looks comfortable with his role. All of which are true. When the Celtics were without Garnett against the Heat on March 18, no one gave the Celtics much of a chance. Green went out against the NBA’s best and lit them up for 25 in the first half and finished with 43. He’s been the Celtics' MVP of the second half. Then he has a night like he did on Wednesday, going 4-for-17 against the Nets. "I think he just settled," Rivers said, almost with a message and a plea to Green not to revert to his early-season ways. There’s no questioning this: Green has earned his spot in the starting lineup with Pierce and Garnett. Along with Bradley and Brandon Bass, the Celtics appear to have the lineup that will take them into the postseason. If the Green of the Miami game shows up more often than not, the Celtics will make a deep run in these playoffs.
PIERCE AND GARNETT KNOW THIS IS IT
Pierce is 35, with a sore foot and a pinched nerve in his neck. Garnett is 36 with bone spurs in his left ankle and a body that he says he “has to put back together” after every game. One or both could be traded after the season, and there’s even the outside chance that Garnett decides after the season to forego the final two years left on his contract and call it a career. If that were to happen, no one would be shocked. Surprised, maybe, but Garnett has to look around at the NBA right now and realize that it takes just too much to get through 82 games to be in tip-top shape for the playoffs. The urgency has never been higher for these two players, who both can still take over games when needed. Pierce still can defend and rebound. Garnett still is the leader of the defense, calling out assignments.
“They came in with a better sense of urgency like the playoffs are around the corner, and we sort of eased into it, and you can't do that with a week and a half left,” Pierce said after Wednesday’s ugly, albeit meaningless, loss to Brooklyn. “They came out with more purpose than us, and you saw that from the beginning to the end. You’ve got to understand. We’ve got to raise our intensity at this point of the season. We’ve got to start prepping out mind, our mindset, our game plan and everything we do for the playoffs.”
THE RIGHT MATCHUPS AT THE RIGHT TIME
Last year, the Celtics had the Hawks in the first round. And not much has changed from last year this to this year. The Hawks are still one huge question mark, led by the biggest question mark of them all -- Josh Smith. The big swingman can change a game but too often is too soft. The Celtics showed this in the first round last year and dismissed Atlanta in six games. At the same time, Derrick Rose tore his ACL against the Sixers. He still hasn’t returned. The Bulls lost to the Sixers and the Celtics beat the Sixers (barely) in seven games. Then the Celtics got the Heat. They lost the first two games before storming back for the next three. They couldn’t finish the deal, but the stars were almost aligned perfectly for the Celtics. They need that to repeat. And with the Celtics drawing the Knicks in the opening round, the opportunity will be there. If they can get past the Knicks, they will have either the Pacers or Hawks in the second round -- both very winnable series. Then it would almost certainly be the Heat again. More to the point, if the Celtics can take care of the Knicks, they will avoid Brooklyn, Chicago and Miami in the second round.
"The playoffs are just different,” Rivers said this week. “They're more intense. It's a single opponent seven times. That's the mindset you have. After Game 1, they know exactly what you're doing and you know exactly what they're doing and it ups the intensity even more. Playoffs expose your weakness, where in the regular season you can pretty much hide a lot of them.”
DOC RIVERS HAS BEEN HERE BEFORE
If there’s anyone in the NBA who knows how to press the right buttons come playoff time, it’s Boston’s coach. Outside of San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich, there’s no coach better suited for making adjustments at this time of year. When I asked Rivers this week about not showing game plans for the playoffs, he playfully answered that everyone knows everyone’s “stuff.” But deep down, Rivers knows what friend Bill Belichick knows, and that is there’s always something new you can pull out in the playoffs. Whether it’s showing a trap defense -- which the Celtics almost never show -- or switching up rotations, Rivers will have something up his sleeve that the opponent hasn’t seen before. In the last five seasons, Rivers has been to the NBA finals twice and the Eastern Conference finals once and the Eastern semis two other times. Rivers hasn’t lost in the first round since 2005.
"Our key as a staff, we know what our weaknesses are and we're going to have to mask them as best as we can in the playoffs because they'll show and that'll be a concern,” Rivers said. “I've got a feeling the playoffs will be different, no matter what we do in these [final regular-season] games. We just want to keep building and playing better. We have our troops for the most part, in what we have. So, that's the only important part for us. Other than that, as far as gauging where you're at, I don't think you do gauge during the regular season. You just prepare your team to get ready for the playoffs.
2010: A BASKETBALL ODYSSEY
Remember 2010? Doc Rivers certainly does. That was the season the Celtics started out 23-5, including a Christmas Day defensive throttling of the Magic that left everyone in the NBA calling them the best team in basketball. They played exactly .500 ball the rest of the season, including losing seven of their final 10 regular-season games. But a funny thing happened in the playoffs. They found their groove. They beat the Heat in five games. They stunned the heavily favored Cavaliers and LeBron James in six and disposed of the Magic in six games. They had the Lakers down 3-2 heading back to Los Angeles, needing just one win for an 18th title. They were 12 minutes away with the lead before it finally all caved in during the fourth quarter. Can the same thing happen again, only with a happier ending?
"I wish I actually had a theme or could see something,” Rivers said. “That would be terrific for me. But you don't. In 2010, we were not playing well and all of sudden it just came. So, I just don't know. I think our guys know it's coming, they know the playoffs are coming. You can see they're more focused, they're getting more excited about it. But then you also look at some of them, and they start playing safe because they want to get to the playoffs, and that means bad basketball as well. So, you just don't know."
AVERY BRADLEY IS HEALTHIER THAN LAST YEAR
If the Celtics had a healthy Avery Bradley against the Heat, so the theory goes, they would have taken care of business and beaten the Heat in the Eastern finals and advanced to the NBA finals against the Thunder. That’s not that far off. Consider that Keyon Dooling was the ONLY guard Doc Rivers had off the bench to sub for both Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo. The Heat exploited this in Games 6 and 7. Bradley was a huge defensive factor in the opening-round win against the Hawks. He was big again in the first two games against the Sixers before his shoulders gave out.
COURTNEY LEE REAPPEARS
Why were the Celtics able to go 14-4 in the first 18 games after Rajon Rondo tore his right ACL? Courtney Lee drove the offense efficiently. He got the ball to Pierce and took some of the burden off Pierce bringing the ball up the court all the time. He was able to space the floor and, most importantly, he was the perfect defensive complement to Bradley in the backcourt. With Lee and Bradley on the court at the same time, the Celtics had a terrific 1-2 defensive punch. But in the last three weeks, Lee’s production has dropped off drastically, forcing Rivers to substitute Jeff Green for him in the lineup. It’s worked out well for Green and the Celtics. But the bigger issue is whether Lee rediscovers his game off the bench in time for the playoffs. Since scoring 13 in the heartbreaking loss to the Heat on March 18, Lee has reached double digits just once in the next nine games. With him, the Celtics have a weapon off the bench. Without him, Bradley and the starters could run out of gas fast.
The Celtics have a week to fine tune everything and, most importantly, get Pierce and Garnett ready for one last, long playoff run. Here’s hoping.
Now to the Trags Bag for a sample of preferences for the Celtics’ opponents in the playoffs.
@Mmb728 #Knicks we can and will beat them. #Pacers are tough and play good D.
@Lets_Go_Celtics Despite [Knicks'] win streak I still want to see Knicks. Not a great team on D & they live by the three. X-factor is Felton. #ILLTakeMyChances