The Dream Year and the Expectations Leap

A Daily Babble Production

In evaluating the 2008-09 version of the Boston Celtics, it's worth remembering that this team didn't just have to defend a championship.  It had to follow up a season that came straight out of a storybook.

During the few times that the 2007-08 Celtics ran into adversity - mostly during those first two playoff rounds when they couldn't win a road game and had to go the distance to advance - I wondered a lot about how important it was for that team to win a championship.  Not a team during this star trio era but that particular group that season.  The thought came about because of the realization of just how hard it would be to follow up the sort of season that Celtics had enjoyed.

Last year's team wasn't merely great.  It was a great team that had just about everything go right, both inside and outside of its control.  From day one straight through the final romp of the Lakers on June 17, the stars, the role players and the coaching staff jelled as though they had played together for years.  There was not a single extensive chemistry or attitude problem that became publicly known over the course of the season.  No questions arose about effort levels because this team literally played harder than everybody else close to every single time out.

The 2007-08 Celtics won 66 regular season games and for the most part dominated those games.  They won 21 contests by margins of at least 20 points.  They posted an average point differential of plus-10.3 points per game.  Exactly zero other teams posted positive double-digit differentials over the decade prior.  All six games against the three Texas teams resulted in wins.  These are not normal occurrences. 

It didn't hurt that the Celtics enjoyed nearly impeccable health last season.  While Kevin Garnett went down for a couple of weeks, it happened at the perfect time (during the 'dead air' lull of mid-January into February), and he still played more than 70 games.  In fact, each of the Celtics' top eight players in average minutes played at least 70 games last season.  With the exception of the couple-week run without Garnett, this team was never without a single key rotation player for an extended period of time.

The goal here isn't to romanticize last year's team to bash this year's.  In fact, it's quite the opposite: The experience last year went beyond great and into otherworldly, and that shouldn't take away from this year's bunch.

Let-ups are part of human nature.   Improvements made by others are out of one's control.  A good portion of health is out of our control. 

No matter how much this team wanted to keep up the every-game-is-life-or-death intensity that it brought last year, that's an incredibly difficult thing to do - and this one came darn close in trying.  It also had to deal with being the bulls-eye on everyone else's schedule this season even more than last.  The health simply wasn't been what it was last year, which was to be expected because the team experienced great fortune in dealing with injuries a season ago.  Only five of the team's top eight average minutes earners made it through 70 games this season, and Garnett played exactly 81 minutes after the All-Star break.

Compared to 66 wins, 62 wins looks a little short.  Compared to plus-10.3 and 21 wins of 20 points or more, plus-7.5 and nine aren't quite the same. 

But in every other sphere of realistic expectations, especially considering the circumstances, those figures constitute yet another dream come true.  We saw a string of Superman-like performances from our beloved Captain, a more consistent season from Ray Allen and immense growth from several young players, including big-time leaps from the starting point guard and center.  Add on to all that another season of little to no chemistry issues despite the fact that the team watched two of its best glue guys walk last summer and picked up one of the basketball world's foremost malcontents and one of its worst defenders at the trade deadline.

***

Time for a brief intermission.  In my initial planning for this piece, I exepcted to run something along the lines of what you've read so far on Friday, April 17, the day before the playoff opener.  When that was the plan, I had in mind an ending that read something like the following:  

As we begin the playoffs and watching our team pursue its second straight championship, the Celtics have won 60-plus games for the second time in more than two decades and encsonced themselves as one of three teams with a legitimate inside track to the championship if at full health.

So just as was the case this time a year ago, no matter what happens over these next two months, I can't say that I've had anything but a heckuva ride so far, and I'm proud as ever to root for the green.

Regardless of how the eight weeks of money basketball shake down, thanks for treating us to another fantastic six months, fellas.

When I rolled out of bed after oversleeping on Thursday, April 16, I found myself unceremoniously greeted by a rather unfortunate piece of news.  You may know what went on after that: I spent most of the late afternoon and early evening walking for hours to clear my still-swirling head and wound up passing out on a park bench miles from my residence

Given the pressing need for an emergency column regarding my continuing belief in the Celts, this particular Babble idea went on the back-burner for a while, and we did see the book close on this year's Celtics team.  Which means there is more to this story, though my sentiments haven't changed a bit.

***

We then saw the playoffs come and with them the news that Kevin Garnett would not participate.  Despite my willingness to maintain faith in an 18th banner to the bitter end, the toughest part early on was that immediate understanding on the day the news broke that in reality, the Celtics' season would soon be running on borrowed time.  Here's how I phrased it in that "Fan As In 'Fanatic'" piece that ran instead of this one back on April 17:

Of course, part of me is frustrated.  While I'm still upbeat overall...the rational and semi-objective being within me came to a stark realization when the news about Garnett hit.  There is being in the playoffs, and there is being in it to win it.  For all my mega-optimism over the years, I think a part of me has always subconsciously understood that most of the playoff teams I have rooted for in my lifetime were in the tournament, sure, but really just treading water until their time ran out.  This was especially true with regard to my beloved pre-lockout St. Louis Blues over the 1990s and early 2000s.  They were there to play and maybe even go a few rounds, but they would not realistically challenge for the ultimate glory.  While it's no doubt easy to say this in hindsight, there was a different feel with last year's Celtics team, that no matter the obstacles this team faced in the first couple of rounds, that team was destined to be there or darn close at the end.

For the past six months, we watched our team face all manner of adversity in defending its title, and as of Wednesday night, we were rooting once more for an in it to win it team, one of three prohibitive favorites for the 2009 NBA title.  Thursday morning, I felt that whoosh of air popping out of a ripped balloon as the world - SportsCenter, writers around the Interwebs, many downtrodden Celtics fans - declared our boys just another playoff team in one fell swoop.  On a rational level, it's hard to blame them.  As admirably as this Celtics team has fought, it is clearly not the same defensively without Kevin Garnett (and let's not short-sell what KG brings to the table at the other end either).  Less than 36 hours ago, the objective part of me considered the first two rounds series that the Celtics likely would win with relative ease and the final two rounds something akin to a toss-up against excellent teams.  Now, the first round will take more work than expected, the second will require more consistent focus than we've seen over the last month and the final two rounds will be monumental tasks.

Understanding that the talent levels in Cleveland and Los Angeles and the gravity of the loss of KG offer the many doubters a viable case for moving the Celtics back to mere "in the playoffs" status is a sobering thought...

But that's the great thing about sports: For all my blathering about being in the playoffs or in it to win it, these games don't always play out the way they are 'supposed' to go.  So now comes the homer rub (and if you don't want the homer rub, which is understandable, please feel free to jump from here to John Hollinger's well-written and likely more realistic take at ESPN): If anyone has given us reason to believe that pleasant surprises await, it's this group of Celtics.

...

I've always said that I wish I had thought of part of Matt Watson's mission statement at Detroit Bad Boys: "completely fair and unbiased opinions of 29 of the Association's 30 teams."

I can play objective all I want in this space, but only up to a point.  Until the fellows in the green jerseys are shown the door, I won't believe that they are headed for anything other than an 18th championship this spring.  If that doesn't happen, well,  we'll cross that bridge when we get to it.

The time to cross that bridge has come.  I believed this team had a miracle run to a title left in it until the final buzzer sounded, and I was devastated when the Celtics' season expired on Sunday night.  I had hoped to spend Monday thinking of creative ways to justify my insane Celtics-in-seven pick for the Eastern Conference Finals preview I would write later in the week and instead saw Celts-in-seven move from insane to impossible.  Sure, it bums me out to hear Mike Breen mention that we're down to the NBA's final four in 2008-09 while knowing that the Celtics aren't a part of that four this time around.

But not for a second does any of that invalidate or lighten the meaning to me of what we got to experience this year and even this postseason.  The Celtics gave us a month of heart-stopping excitement, from winning the consensus greatest first-round series ever against a Bulls team better than its .500 record to locking up two particularly improbable wins and taking the Magic seven games despite being largely outplayed in six of those seven contests.  They did that in spite of a spate of injuries and the necessary vast over-working of their star swingmen thanks to depth issues created a summer ago.  Meanwhile, we witnessed playoff breakouts from the young point guard and center as well as replacement starter Glen Davis.

There is a lot of room for criticism, and there are plenty of questions going forward.  Rajon Rondo's defensive inconsistency and shooting issues, the team's post-KG struggles at the defensive end, Ray Allen's second-round shooting slump, Paul Pierce's inopportune turnovers, Tony Allen's distractions on and off the court and Mikki Moore's general uselessness all offered cause for frustration down the stretch.  The futures of the Infuriated Infant, Eddie House, Gabe Pruitt, Stephon Marbury and Moore are all uncertainties.  There will be rumblings all summer that Ray Allen has played his last game as a Celtic.  Unfortunately, perhaps the injuries will obscure in the eyes of many the fact that the front office had a poor offseason in the aftermath of the championship.

There will be time to discuss all those issues and many more over the course of the months to come.

But for now, it seems only right to take a moment to pay homage to the 2008-09 Boston Celtics not for what they weren't but what they were: a team and coaching staff that left everything they had on the floor and gave us several months of great basketball, a few months of very good basketball and nary a day without effort and excitement.

I loved every day that the 2008-09 Celtics were alive.  I loved writing about this team all season, scouting its competition via League Pass on off nights, reading everything in sight and interacting with everyone in this Interweb community on a day-to-day basis.  Most of all, I loved getting a legitimately strenuous workout just watching every game and then calling to chat with The Guru after each and every one. 

And while the offseason will be interesting in its own right, I can't wait until the games that count start all over again in the fall.

No matter its early end, no matter how it stacks up to last year, thank you to our beloved Boston Celtics for another season full of beautiful fun.

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