It's a word that is more than likely uttered by Doc Rivers on a daily basis - particularly in his most recent days, which have so far included 13 playoff games for his Boston Celtics. When his players have attempted to quench their thirsts for victory by veering off on solo tracks, Rivers has routinely steered them back into the huddle and reminded them of his new favorite eight-letter word: together. We've heard it during his televised pre-game speeches, during a slew of timeouts, and in his postgame press conferences. It's a word he just keeps coming back to - appropriately of course - most notably in a timeout late in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals, when his team was in the midst of ousting the Cleveland Cavaliers from the playoffs.
"I know you all want to win, but you've got to do it together!"
It's a simple word that often translates to team success, because, while the Celtics do boast some spectacular individual talents, they often seem at their best when they are playing in harmony with one another, using one's skills to benefit the others. Or, at the very least, continuing to contribute over the course of a game, even when one player might assume the role of alpha dog for that particular game. Because of the team dynamic that is present in these Boston Celtics, the burden of securing a victory never falls squarely on the shoulders of one player. Not when the roster includes Rajon Rondo, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett, Rasheed Wallace, and even Glen Davis.
So while Miami Heat fans might cringe when Dwyane Wade does not have the ball in his hands in the final two minutes, and while Cavalier fans might be most comfortable when LeBron James decides to exhort his will down the stretch (as opposed to Mo Williams or Antawn Jamison), Celtics fans can take comfort in knowing their team has several viable options, who, the majority of the time, are impervious to the pressures of a playoff game, from the first minute, all the way to the 48th - something the Orlando Magic learned through the first two games of the Eastern Conference Finals.
Is it a coincidence that the Celtics, Magic, Suns, and Lakers are still competing in the NBA playoffs, given the fact that they are legitimate teams, in the sense that they have quality talent at almost every position and don't rely solely on one player to fuel the team, especially on the offensive end? Similar to the Celtics, the Magic have a cast of characters who are capable of contributing, yet so far the Celtics have simply done a better job of it.
Undoubtedly, the Celtics' most consistent offensive player through the first two games of this series has been Paul Pierce, who appears to be making up for lost time, after being hindered by LeBron James during the last round. His 22 points in Game 1 and 28 points in Game 2 helped to spearhead Boston's offensive attack, but in each game, another teammate also contributed a 20-point evening, while at least three others scored eight points or more.
Ray Allen added 25 points in Game 1, with the majority of his baskets coming on aggressive drives to the rim, and fast break layups, along with free throws. Despite being a long range gunner, only six of Ray's 25 came from three-point nation. Rondo, on the other hand, limited at times by Orlando's help defense, was held to just eight points on 4-10 shooting in Game 1.
Fast forward to Game 2, which saw Allen manage a mere four points on 1-6 shooting, yet saw Rondo explode for 25 points of his own, taking advantage of the time Dwight Howard sat out with foul trouble, as well as the fast break opportunities in which he beat Howard down the floor.
Orlando was certainly occupied with Pierce in the first half of Game 2, when he scored 22 of his 28 points. Yet when the third quarter commenced, Pierce took a backseat to Rondo and Kevin Garnett, who combined for 12 of Boston's 25 third quarter points.
And after the Magic made yet another desperate fourth quarter run, the trio of Garnett, Rondo, and Pierce all played a role in slamming the door shut. Garnett hit arguably his most important mid-range jump shot of the playoffs along the left baseline with 2:45 to play, which gave the Celtics the lead back at 91-90. On the Celtics' next possession, a Pierce miss was rebounded by Garnett, procuring another possession, which culminated in Rondo burying a fading jump shot on the left wing, putting Boston ahead, 93-90. And after Jameer Nelson drove to the basket for a layup, Pierce was fouled on a shot attempt with 34 ticks to play and calmly buried two at the free throw line, which ended up being Boston's final two points of the game.
Realistically, the Celtics' defense will ultimately be the key to their success, but opposing defenses will have such a difficult time containing all of the notable options the Celtics present offensively. People have mentioned the supposed "alpha dog crisis" on this team, but isn't it more of a case of the alpha dog potentially changing series by series based on matchups with the opposition? And the alpha dog changing on this team isn't like the alpha dog changing on a team like the Heat. Taking the keys to the car away from a guy like Paul Pierce and giving them to Rajon Rondo, Ray Allen, or Kevin Garnett is far different from the Heat stripping Wade of his duties and placing the fate of the team in the hands of a guy like Quentin Richardson. This is one of the key areas where the Celtics reign supreme.
Against the Cavaliers, it was clearly Rondo's show, all because of the matchups. Neither Mo Williams or Anthony Parker could do anything against him, and Cleveland's front line didn't consist of any legitimate shot blockers. On top of that, both Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett had matchups that favored them as well, and they exploited them, as the numbers will show. Pierce, meanwhile, was obviously at a disadvantage going up against LeBron James. If one of those games came down to the Celtics having one possession to win it, the majority of us would have liked to see either Rondo, Allen, or Garnett with the final shot, over Pierce's standard isolation play, like we saw in Game 3 against the Heat. Why? Because the matchup didn't favor that shot, and Pierce wasn't in any type of consistent offensive groove.
Think about the Eastern Conference Finals, though, where the matchups clearly favor Pierce above anybody else. Let's say Pierce didn't foul out with 31 ticks left in Game 2, and the Celtics had the ball with 10 seconds left in a tie game. Wouldn't the majority of us have been comfortable with Pierce taking the last shot in an isolation situation, given the fact that Vince Carter, Matt Barnes, and Mickael Pietrus haven't shown any considerable ability to stop Pierce's moves by themselves? Just like we would have been comfortable with Rondo, Allen, or Garnett taking the last shot against the Cavaliers?
Because this team boasts four players who could assume the role of alpha dog based on matchups, and because the alpha dog could change series by series, opposing teams can't play the "We'll Focus On Stopping (Rondo, Pierce, Allen, or Garnett) And Make the Other Guys Beat Us" card, all because "the other guys" are all capable of being the alpha dog, and they will beat you. The Celtics could employ such a strategy against one-man teams like the Heat and Cavaliers, but are immune to such treatment themselves. Boasting arguably the best defense remaining in the playoffs will certainly go a long way, and while their legitimate options on offense might not make the Celtics invincible, it sure makes them difficult to defeat, especially when they're doing it together.