. . . and what can we expect against the Cavs?
(Promoted to the front page from one of our Fanposts. It's always nice to see well-written and thoughtful articles. -RH)
All season long I’ve been weighing in on where I think the Celtics are as a team, and my opinion hasn’t always been consistent with the generally accepted view of the team. But I think my story has been internally consistent, and my observations/thoughts over the long haul shape my perception of what I expect from the team this round against the Cavs.
To start the year I thought the Cs could win 70 if they stayed healthy and have a historic season. Obviously I was wrong. I underestimated how injured Garnett still was to start the season and then Pierce went down too, but more importantly in hindsight I think I was wrong in my initial focus: Yes, the team was affected by last year’s injury-induced disappointment. But as the year played out, it seemed that this effect was to de-value the regular season when compared to the importance of their health and to keep their eyes on a championship prize. I made this claim in a blog post, but here I want to develop it further.
In January of this season, when people were down because the Celtics started losing more when KG and Pierce were injured, I urged us to"Remember who we are!". I pointed out that in ’08 when KG played the Celtics won more than 80% of their games with a point margin of +10.5. In ’09 when KG played the Celtics won more than 80% of their games with a point margin of +9.7. And through the first two months of this season, before KG’s "thigh bruise", the Celtics were winning more than 80% of their games with a point margin of +9.5. In other words, to start the season, this Celtics team looked EXACTLY like their championship-caliber predecessors as far as success went. There are those that point out that the competition wasn’t the greatest to start the year, and I grant that, but it was about a third of a season and the win margin really tells the story about where the team was. Plus, Garnett was obviously still working up to speed despite the team’s success.
Fast-forward to the end of February, where I looked at the different phases of Garnett’s injury recovery and some implications for #18. The moral to the story was that when everyone was healthy and KG was at the higher end of his recovery arc the team was almost unbeatable, but when injuries/less-than-full-speed players were on the court the team wasn’t nearly as successful.
Then, in March when morale was really getting low around here, I pointed out that even if you completely ignore how healthy they were, that when Pierce and Garnett both played to that point the Cs were 31 – 11 with a scoring margin of +7.1 (and 9 – 10 with a scoring margin of -0.8 when either of them sat).
After that, the season ended with a mixed bag. There were stretches when the team reached highs, like winning most of a tough road swing including a win at then on-fire Dallas or beating the Cavs. There were also lows, like losing to the Nets and the Knicks. On the whole many people believed that the Celtics that started the season like gangbusters were gone, and that the Cs that went roughly .500 for the last four months were the real team. Oh yeah, and as a side note the Celtics were entering the playoffs with their roster at the absolute healthiest that they have been during this entire season.
Now, here’s my logic: the primary reasoning for why the Celtics would be a .500 team is that either a) they got old or b) they lost the desire. But age doesn’t just erode a skill set in a few months. Age can make your body more brittle in the short-term and it can erode your energy/skill-set in the long term, but it can’t erode a healthy player in the short term. So if the Cs really are as healthy entering the playoffs as they look, then reasoning (a) for why they’d be ordinary is off the table. That leaves reason (b), that they don’t want it as much…picture Kevin Garnett. And Paul Pierce. And Ray Allen. Does it really vibe with you that they got fat and complacent after their title? Because it doesn’t for me.
So what’s left to me is option (c), that the team learned the lesson last season that going balls out in the regular season at their advanced age and limping into the playoffs was ultimately a losing proposition, and that the best way to possibly compete for #18 was to do everything in their powers to come into the playoffs healthy. You may not agree with the philosophy, or may see it as excuse-making, but I absolutely believe that’s what happened and moreover, that it was the right way to play it. At the end of the day, nobody here would have really been happy with another 60-win/2nd round out playoff performance. Maybe it would make some feel good that they played the right way, but I really think that if most fans were given a choice between a 60-win team that played hard every night and physically flamed out (here age really is a viable concern) or a 50-win team that made sure that they got to the playoffs healthy and because of that were physically able to win a title…I could be wrong, but I think at least in the privacy of their own minds many would choose the route that could lead t a title, but ONLY if they knew for sure that was really what was happening.
Which leads to today. The Celtics proved in the first round that they were not a .500 team. They were not only better, but SIGNIFICANTLY better than the Heat. The narrative since that series played out is that the Heat just weren’t that good so it doesn’t matter, but IMO this is a case of the story changing after the fact. Yeah, the Heat aren’t that great outside of Wade, but they have been the #5 seed with mid-40s wins in each of the last two seasons with essentially the same cast (that features one of the best players in the NBA) so it’s not like we were playing the Nets. The Celtics MADE them look that bad, which suggests that the Celtics are once more playing a lot more like the 80% winning team of the first 2.3 seasons of the GPA era than the .500 team of the last four months of the regular season. More evidence, in my eyes, that this next series with the Cavs will be two heavyweight contenders going toe-to-toe.
But all of that said…even at their best, are these Celtics as good as the Cavs?
That’s a harder question. Because these Cavs are really, really, REALLY good. LeBron is unfair. But unlike last year, where there were notable shortcomings in the squad make-up that could be exploited by a team built like the Magic, this year the Cavs have a versatile, talented supporting cast around their King. When they added Antawn Jamison my heart fell through the floor, because his ability to score/shoot from the PF position gives them a dimension that really hurts the way that the Cs play defense. I think that the winner of this series, if they stay healthy, win the title. Because the Cavs are that good.
But, I also believe that the Celtics are that good. Pierce, Allen, Rondo and Perk are all playing at a higher level now than they were 2 seasons ago when the Cavs took us to 7 games. More importantly, the line-up is championship tested and knows how to play together in the playoff crucible in a way they didn’t to start the ’08 playoffs.
The biggest question mark for me is the same question mark that has surrounded the team all year: what will we get from Kevin Garnett? Because as good as all of the other Celtics are, I honestly believe that if Garnett isn’t the best player on the team against the Cavs we can’t win. I think in general the talent level on both teams is similar, but LeBron is enough better than Pierce that if there isn’t someone else to take the lead for the Cs I don’t think we can win. And I think that player has to be Garnett.
So, here is where I take my analyst hat off and become a fan again. I think either the Cavs or the Cs could legitimately win what should be a toss-up series. But I think that our vets have been working and planning and conserving all year to be their best for this series. I think that we see the best playoff performance from the Cs since they demolished the Lakers in the Finals. And I think the Cs take this one in 6 games. My inner analyst and my inner fan are both comfortable with that prediction. And I can’t wait until tomorrow night, when the big show finally gets started.