1) The Answer
Up until now there have been lingering doubts. Around the country people were skeptical. They kept questioning different aspects of the new Celtics: The defense, the bench, Perkins and Rondo, chemistry, willingness to share the ball, the coaching, and lastly the schedule. One by one those questions have been dispensed with as resoundingly as the hapless Lakers.
Even within the great green nation people doubted, and why not? No one had seen this team before. No one was prepared for what would happen. No one, not even the most optimistic voices could have foreseen just how quickly and powerfully this team would come together.
This west coast sweep has done it. For the first time since the legendary squad of 1986, the Celtics returned from a west coast swing undefeated. Four games in five nights. They were pounded on, scratched, worn down, even tackled; but they passed every test.
The question is: "Is this a bonafide championship contender?"
The answer is yes.
Doc Rivers deserves enormous credit for these four wins. Going into the trip he decided not to uptempo, knowing that it would sap the team's energy and they wouldn't have enough juice to win the latter games. Instead they played deliberately on the offensive end, suffocated everyone but Utah and Delonte West with their defense, and just looked awesome. Kudos to Doc. (How come kudos always come in bunches? You never hear of someone getting only one kudo.)
Furthermore, in the final game the Los Angeles coach made what I thought was an obvious error. When Rondo went down I guessed Boston would lose (the first time I've thought that all year). It seemed so obvious that the Lakers would press the hell out Tony Allen and Eddie House to keep the Celtics from maintaining any offensive flow. The Lakers never did it. They never used the press.
With San Antonio banged up, right now the two best teams in basketball play in the East. That's correct.
The Pistons are very impressive. They are #1 in the league in scoring and #2 in limiting opponent's scoring- an amazing combination. (The Celtics are #6 and #1.) As of this moment, the Pistons point differential is 10.6, second only to the Celtics incredible 13.8. 12.3 is the all time record!
I can't help but look past Houston and Memphis to Saturday's rematch in Detroit. Regardless of the outcome of that game, these two teams will be angling for position all season. They appear to be relentlessly heading toward a collision in late May and only one thing can stop that from happening...
There is a third team that could challenge in the East. The Cavaliers have finally gotten their roster together and are just starting to search under the couch cushions for their mojo. After what they did last season Cleveland cannot be overlooked. A hot streak from LeBron can sink anyone.
Here's the important thing: The Celtics have a lead on Detroit right now but it's by no means insurmountable. Boston must maintain their #1 seeding. That could force the Cavs and Pistons to wear each other down in the Eastern semis. It's a huge advantage for any of these three teams to face only one of the other contenders instead of both. (I do expect the Cavs will finish with the third best record.)
A side note: I respect Orlando but think they're not ready yet.
5) Ray Allen
A beautiful thing has happened since Ray Allen rested. He's getting his stroke back. Oh my. Do people around the league realize that the Celtics are starting to play BETTER? With Ray Allen shooting like Ray Allen it's not even fair.
6) Paul Pierce
The contest in LA was one of the better two way games Pierce has ever played. He hit a bunch of big shots and channeled Walt Frazier on defense at the end of the third quarter. He's been amazing on defense all season. The great thing is that even after numerous all star appearances, you can see how much he's learning playing on this team. Kevin Garnett has been a gift from heaven (or Minnesota, I forget which) but Paul Pierce is the guy who has made big strides in his game.
Between now and the playoffs I expect to see further improvement. Since the team's chemistry was so great out of the box, you might figure that was it. Nuh uh. The Celtics are continually improving. Roles are becoming more defined, Rondo is on a rapid learning curve (via Mark Murphy in the Herald: ZERO turnovers on the west coast for Rajon!) and the team is just maintaining a remarkable level of dedication. They NEVER take a game off.
I'm biased, but feel that in springtime if both the Celtics and Pistons are playing their best, the Celtics take them.
Tommy Heinsohn also said on the postgame after the win in LA, that this Celtic team is still learning: They still have not seen all the critical situations that must be mastered to win a title. (Yes I love this team so much I stayed up to 1:30 AM to hear every word of the postgame show.) Tommy's right. There are obstacles along the way. But every time you hear any member of the Celtics speak, whether it be KG, Pierce, or Doc, they always have exactly the right attitude: "We haven't done anything yet." "We're taking one game at a time." "We're just working on getting better."
It's so beautiful, I think I've passed on to some other-worldly realm...
9) New Era
...I mean here it is New Year's Day- Happy New Year everyone! -and the Celtics have two more wins than they had all of last season. I still cannot completely figure out how this was pulled off. Do you notice Danny Ainge is hardly ever seen or heard from this year? No one's talking much about him. I guess GMs are like refs: you know they're doing a great job when they're not the topic of conversation.
10) That Record
According to my calculations, 35-18 the rest of the way breaks that all time year to year win improvement mark.