Doc knew it all along.
Yes, the Boston Celtics are your Eastern Conference Champions after defeating the Magic, 96-84. Whether you kept believing in this team during the regular season or not, they believed in each other- and that made all the difference.
"The first thing we said when we got in the locker room is this is where we thought we would be," said Doc Rivers. "So, don't be surprised. This is what we talked about before the season started."
There was much talk before the season started, and high expectations (72-10 anyone?) for this Celtics team. With injuries, and quite possibly a loss of Ubuntu at points throughout the season, the Celtics were looking like a team that simply didn't want it enough. As the losses piled up, some of which were quite embarrassing, it was apparent that as constructed, this was not a championship caliber team as once thought.
"That stretch the last month," said Doc Rivers, "we formed a game plan, and I thought it was the right plan. Obviously it didn't look right because we were losing games, but guys were resting and conditioning, and I thought that was the only chance we had. Because the one thing I did learn through the injuries, we were not good enough injured, and we had a chance healthy. There were no guarantees, but we had a chance healthy. So my gamble was let's take health, so we lost some games, but we got healthy."
You've got to give credit where credit is due. Perhaps the best play Rivers called was one that didn't require a marker and a white board. One constant that remained throughout the season was that, win or lose, Rivers "liked this team". He knew that when healthy, the Celtics could be the best team in the league. Already wrapping up a playoff spot, Rivers chose to rest guys and prepare for the playoffs, even if it meant losing home court advantage- which doesn't mean much when your team plays better on the road anyways.
"All of us at some point were up‑and‑down, so we thought about rest more than anything; like let's get ready for the Playoffs," said Ray Allen who finished with 20 points on the night. "As much as we wanted to win during the regular season, you could see everybody's focus like taking care of their bodies. Even if we dropped a game, you knew the next day in the practice facility, if you needed treatment, guys were in there getting treatment. If you had to hit the weight room to get your body strong, guys were in there doing that. If we had days off, guys were staying home getting their rest."
And when the postseason came around, they were healthy- just what the Doc ordered. Not only were they healthy, but their experience playing together over the years had given them an advantage over other contenders.
"... You look at Orlando, they changed their starting five," said Paul Pierce. "You look at Cleveland, they've got a different starting five. But the one constant Boston had as a contender, we have the same starting five that won a championship. So at the end of the day when the Playoffs start, we know we have that kind of experience and know how going into the Playoffs and know how to win games because of the team that's been together over the last few years."
This togetherness was no doubt one of the main reasons that Rivers had so much faith in this team. Through it all, Doc had faith in what the team was doing, and knew what they were capable of. Sometimes it took a little convincing on his part, but the message got through to the team.
Said Ray Allen, "Whether it was offense or whether it was defense, the one thing (Doc) always used to say, when things went bad, we lost things, somebody scored on us ... Doc would come into the locker room and say, ‘We're not changing anything. What we're going to do is do what we're doing harder. We are not getting ready to change things. We have the same thing that we won a championship with and we've got better players in here now with Rasheed and Marquis.' And later on, Nate."
Pierce led the way for the Celtics tonight, finishing with 31 points, 13 rebounds, and five assists. Twelve of those points came by way of the 3-pointer as Pierce went 4-for-5 from deep. Offensively, Pierce was quiet in the Cleveland series, having to guard LeBron James for the majority of the time he was in there. In this series against Orlando, Rivers knew Pierce would be able to score the ball more.
"The first round we told our guys the formula was a certain couple of offensive players we thought would be effective," Rivers said. "In the second round we told guys, this would be a Ray‑Kevin Series. Rondo always has the ball in his hands. In this round we thought it would be a Ray‑Paul Series, and we thought Kevin would be the third guy. And Rondo always is involved."
Game 1 of the Finals will start on Thursday, June 3rd, and you can bet the Celtics will be ready- whether it's in Los Angeles or Phoenix.
"Man, it's a great feeling," said Pierce. "You never take these moments for granted. This is an opportunity that I have for my second trip to the Finals, knowing that a lot of guys never made it. So we're real excited about this. Going to soak it all up, going to enjoy it. There's nothing like it ... All 28 NBA teams got to watch us now."
Hopefully 29 NBA teams will be watching them raise the trophy.