This team owns October, November, and December. January, not so much. It is almost as if they leave their A game home during the holidays. Lets review:
- In 2007-8, the Celtics started 29-3 through Jan. 5, had a few bumps in the road with 5 losses in January, righted the ship and went on to win the title.
- In 2008-9 the Celtics started 27-2 through Dec. 24, lost 7 of their next 9, lost Kevin Garnett essentially for the rest of the year, managed to turn things around for a good stretch run, and eventually fizzled out against the Magic in the playoffs.
- In 2009-10 the Celtics started out 23-5 through Dec. 25, lost three straight and basically finished the season playing .500 ball before putting things together in the playoffs and eventually falling just 6 minutes short of a Championship.
- So far this year the Celtics are 16-4 and despite an older lineup and a growing list of bumps, bruises, and significant injuries, the team isn't showing any signs of slowing down... yet.
So the question begs to be asked. Will this team have another January slide?
Granted, 2007-8 and last year taught us that a bad January doesn't necessarily doom our long-term chances. You can roll out the "it's a marathon, not a sprint" cliche and you'd of course be right. Also, just about every team goes through bumps in the road at some point in their season. Still, it is a concerning trend and one that bares watching.
This is looking ahead, but the Celtics have some good competition on the schedule in January. San Antonio, Chicago, Utah, Orlando, and the Lakers are all on the playlist. Also, we won't have Kendrick Perkins back yet (probably out till Feb.) and we might not even have Delonte West back (who knows?). So we'll be right in that not-so-sweet spot where the regulars are getting tired and the calvary is still a few miles away from arriving to help.
With all that said, here are some reasons why this year might be different.
Bitter taste: They paid for their bad record by having no home court advantage for most of the playoffs and of course the Finals. They were rightly embarrassed by that regular season effort and had all offseason to stew about the Finals and every little thing that could have made a difference.
Sheed vs. Shaq: I can't put everything at the feet of Rasheed (especially when he wasn't there in past years) - but he's an example of the kind of attitude that says "that's ok, we'll punt till the playoffs." In his earlier years that attitude sometimes plagued Shaquille O'Neal as well - especially in relation to conditioning. But the older, wiser Shaq knows his time is short and he's focused on finishing on a high note. So far so good.
Rajon Rondo: In the past Rondo has been hot and cold. Always very talented and even an All Star last year, but not always dominant. This year he's been consistently one of the best players in the league. He stands out on a team of standouts. In the past he got flack for looking better because of the Big Three. Now he's carrying them and prolonging their careers.
KG's Knee: You could plot this teams peaks and valleys and overlay them on a chart of KG's health status and you'd probably find them to line up very closely. It is hard to call anyone on this team the MVP (though Rondo's making more of a case by each game). Let's just say that like Voltron, having all the pieces together makes the team greater than the sum of its parts. Losing one or limiting one due to injury leaves the team vulnerable.
The Sniff Test: I don't really know how to define this, but this year's team just sort of feels different. Seeing Nate run around in Shaq's shoes in camp reminded me of the Rome bonding trip in 2007. Daniels looks better in number 8 than he did in 7. Pierce is having a fantastic year and yet seems happy to let Rondo take the center stage. There's no more talk of trading Ray. There's no looming free agency for half the team (though the lockout is there for everyone to worry about).
There are still let-down games, but this year they seem to be determined to make up for it the next time out. It isn't any one thing, but the sum of all these things is just ...different. I think. I hope.
At the end of the day, January means much less than June, but to get to June and finish well we might need a better January than in years past. Oh yeah, and we should probably keep focusing on December while we're here.