Celtics Mid-Season Checkup: The Shawshank Redemption Edition

I've been called a lot of things in my life. Overweight. Ugly. Slow. A jerk. God-awful at basketball. Dumb. Inconsiderate. The list goes on and on.

One thing I've never been called, though: creative. And so I bring you the Shawshank Redemption Mid-season Checkup, brought to you courtesy of the Bill Simmons School of Journalism.

"We sat and drank with the sun on our shoulders and felt like free men. [Heck], we could have been tarring the roof of one of our own houses. We were the lords of all creation. As for Andy - he spent that break hunkered in the shade, a strange little smile on his face, watching us drink his beer." - Red

There has been some grumbling about the Celtics' recent play, after they barely beat the Detroit Pistons and lost to the Washington Wizards. As Shaq told ESPN Boston after the Pistons game:

"[We] can't keep playing with people," O'Neal said. "Great teams stay dominant at home, really beat the teams they're supposed to beat, and stay above .500 on the road. We're supposed to beat [the Pistons] every time, but not by three, not by five, but [by double digits]. We can't keep playing with people."

Let me remind you, folks. This team wasn't built for the regular season. Kendrick Perkins has missed the entire season, Jermaine O'Neal might as well have, and Delonte West has played only five games. That sounds like a bunch of excuses, but, well, what do I have to excuse?

Most people predicted an 82-game struggle, much like last year's epic war against complacency. But here we are, two games more than halfway through the season, and the Celtics lead the Eastern Conference. They are second in the NBA in point differential, 11 games ahead in their division (granted, that doesn't count for much -- it's the Atlantic Division), and behind only San Antonio for the NBA's best record. People feared the annual January swoon, but it's January 24 and -- as my buddy emailed to tell me -- the Celtics sit at 9-3 for the month. For reference, the Celtics finished last January with a 6-8 record.

So you can be upset about the loss to the Wizards, or a few wins that were closer than they should have been. But me? I'm going to sit there, with a strange smile on my face, as the Celtics sit and drink with the sun on their shoulders and feel like free men -- err, I mean, while the Celtics play as well as we could have hoped for them to play.

"Get busy living, or get busy dying." - Red

Did anyone expect Shaq to impact the Celtics so positively? (No hands raise into the air.) That's what I thought.

If you did expect him to help so much, you're one of two things: 1) A far more intelligent basketball analyst than myself, or 2) even dumber than you look. When Shaq signed, some people wondered if he was even worth the veteran's minimum salary. After all, he made Cleveland worse just by being on the court last season. The Cavs were better off with almost any lineup that didn't include Shaq, and The Big Diesel's presence was generally -- and rightfully -- considered harmful to everything the Cavs were trying to accomplish. 

Fast forward to the present, and Shaq's a part of three of Boston's top five lineups. He also has the fourth-best on-court/off-court numbers of any Celtics, behind only Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Rajon Rondo (and ahead of Ray Allen).

It's actually easy to see why Shaq's been so helpful this season. Instead of featuring Shaq as a post-up player, the Celtics use him mostly as a finisher. He works well within the offense, finding open spots behind the defense quite easily. It doesn't hurt Shaq that Rondo feeds him layups and dunks that are wrapped and bow-tied, if not stuck underneath a Christmas Tree.  

More than anything Shaq does on the hardwood, his attitude has been refreshing. Shaq has two years left, he says, and he no longer cares about being what he calls "the CEO." He doesn't care about stats, or his role, or minutes, or very much else. He wants to win and he wants to have fun, and I'm not even sure his two priorities are in that order. 

The other night against Detroit, Shaq sensed the Celtics were going to lose a winnable game. So what did he do? He dove on the floor. He ripped rebounds from opponents. He scored an and-one, did a little dance, and then sprinted backcourt a la Sammy Sosa sprinting into right field. Long story short, the Celtics won the game. Shaq injected them with the energy they needed. 

He won't provide the same energy every night -- after all, he's 38 years old with a body that doesn't always respond to his wishes. But with a limited time left in his career, Shaq knows it's either get busy living or get busy dying. And he's too busy living to do anything else.

"I wish I could tell you that Andy fought the good fight, and the Sisters let him be. I wish I could tell you that - but prison is no fairy-tale world. He never said who did it, but we all knew. Things went on like that for awhile - prison life consists of routine, and then more routine. Every so often, Andy would show up with fresh bruises. The Sisters kept at him - sometimes he was able to fight 'em off, sometimes not. And that's how it went for Andy - that was his routine. I do believe those first two years were the worst for him, and I also believe that if things had gone on that way, this place would have got the best of him." - Red

To the other O'Neal brother. Every so often (a.k.a. every day), Jermaine O'Neal shows up with fresh bruises. I do believe these first three months have been the worst for him, and I also believe that if things go on this way, injuries will get the best of him. 

At this point, it's easy to think O'Neal's time in Boston will never amount to anything important. A lot of injuries, a lot of missed games, and a lot of fans thinking, "Man, wasn't I actually excited when the C's signed this guy?" 

They say hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies. Then why does it feel like I no longer have any hope? And why does it feel like O'Neal's career, a good thing by almost any measure, is dying?

"Sometimes it makes me sad, though... Andy being gone. I have to remind myself that some birds aren't meant to be caged. Their feathers are just too bright. And when they fly away, the part of you that knows it was a sin to lock them up DOES rejoice. But still, the place you live in is that much more drab and empty that they're gone. I guess I just miss my friend." - Red

To Patrick O'Bryant. Some birds just aren't meant to be caged.

"It's like something out of a Robert Frost poem. It's where I asked my wife to marry me. We went there for a picnic and made love under that oak and I asked and she said yes." - Andy

To this day, I wonder how in the world Danny Ainge enticed Rajon Rondo to sign a five-year, $55 million contract. That's Brendan Haywood money. Rudy Gay got $82 million. Joe Johnson got $120 million. And Rajon Rondo, who's having one of the best assist seasons in NBA history, got less than half of Johnson's contract.

Rondo's agent should be shot, Ainge should be given a raise, and I continue to wonder how much better Rondo can get. Back to the contract: Maybe somebody made love to Rondo under an oak tree, and Ainge asked and Rondo said yes.

"I have no idea to this day what those two Italian ladies were singing about. Truth is, I don't want to know. Some things are best left unsaid. I'd like to think they were singing about something so beautiful, it can't be expressed in words, and makes your heart ache because of it. I tell you, those voices soared higher and farther than anybody in a gray place dares to dream. It was like some beautiful bird flapped into our drab little cage and made those walls dissolve away, and for the briefest of moments, every last man in Shawshank felt free." - Red

I can't remember exactly when I realized it. Maybe it was early on, during the preseason. Maybe it took a little while longer, a few games into the regular season. At some point, though, I realized that Kevin Garnett -- THE Kevin Garnett, not last year's Kevin Garnett -- was back. At that point, Garnett wasn't exactly an Italian lady. But the music his body was singing was something so beautiful, it couldn't be expressed in words, and made my heart ache because of it.

I never thought we'd see Garnett operating near full strength again. I never thought we'd see the man who can dominate games on both ends of the court, who can completely own the defensive end of the court even when he doesn't block shots or steal passes. It takes a full year for people to fully recover from Garnett's 2009 knee injury, so I guess there was a little hope. But Garnett's 34 years old, and he's played more than 1,000 games and more than 40,000 minutes during his career. People that old, with that many miles on them, don't return all the way back from injury. They just don't.

Yet here Garnett is, 34 years young, like some beautiful bird who flapped into our drab little cage and made those walls dissolve away. And I'll tell you, he makes me feel free.

"I must admit I didn't think much of Andy first time I laid eyes on him; looked like a stiff breeze would blow him over. That was my first impression of the man." - Red

To Semih Erden, who looks a lot more like Shaggy from Scooby Doo than the average NBA player. Erden's still learning the NBA game, but obviously has some talent.

"I look back on the way I was then: a young, stupid kid who committed that terrible crime. I want to talk to him. I want to try and talk some sense to him, tell him the way things are. But I can't. That kid's long gone and this old man is all that's left. I got to live with that. Rehabilitated? It's just a [expletive] word. So you go on and stamp your form, sonny, and stop wasting my time. Because to tell you the truth, I don't give a [expletive]." - Red

Every time Paul Pierce scores 20 points on eight shots, I remember the young kid he used to be. The kid who thought he had to do it all himself. The kid who forced offense, took bad shots and clashed with Doc Rivers. The kid who wore head bandages to press conferences. That kid's long gone and this old man is all that's left. 

After last year's playoffs, when Pierce struggled to score like never before in his career, I wondered if his career was on the way down. I wondered if he'd ever be the same. Maybe my thoughts were premature, but facts were facts. Pierce did little against the Lakers, and had done even less against Cleveland earlier in the playoffs. He couldn't find his own shot with any consistency, and -- it stinks to say this -- let the Celtics down when they needed him the most. Let the Celtics down when he normally came through.

Rehabilitated? Maybe it's just a [expletive] word. But it's also the story of Paul Pierce's season. He needed to bounce back, and he has. That kid's long gone and this old man is all that's left. Except this old man no longer looks so old.

"I could see why some of the boys took him for snobby. He had a quiet way about him, a walk and a talk that just wasn't normal around here. He strolled, like a man in a park without a care or a worry in the world, like he had on an invisible coat that would shield him from this place. Yeah, I think it would be fair to say... I liked Andy from the start." - Red

This one goes out to Marquis Daniels. He doesn't always seem like he's trying. You'll never see an expression on his face, other than the "I'm watching a fourth-grade school play and wish I wasn't here" look that's permanently pasted to Daniels' face. In a locker room filled with loud, obtrusive personalities, Daniels just, well, chills. That's about all he seems to do.

But where would the Celtics be without him? He's Paul Pierce's only trusted backup. He's played in every game, for a second unit that's been battered by injuries. He often defends the other team's best scorer, shoots almost 50% from the field himself, and doesn't want (or need) the ball in his hands. Yet when Nate Robinson struggles at point guard, Daniels takes over the ball handling duties for the second unit. 

There are, and will continue to be, nights when Daniels doesn't seem like he contributes much. But don't sleep on what he's provided for the Celtics this season. Even if he has a quiet way about him, a walk and a talk that just isn't normal around here.

"Well, if it was a toothbrush I wouldn't ask questions, I'd just quote a price, but then a toothbrush is a non-lethal object, isn't it?" - Red

I know of no way to make this quote apply to the Boston Celtics. But I had to bring up Ray Allen's youthful season somehow, didn't I?

While I'm at it, I might as well discuss Glen Davis. All spans of poor shooting considered, Davis has been crucial off the bench.

"These walls are funny. First you hate 'em, then you get used to 'em. Enough time passes, you get so you depend on them. That's institutionalized." - Red

Von Wafer, you hear that? Wafer's time in Boston started off on the wrong foot, with rumors of insubordination and a Delonte West fist to the face. That's a rocky start before I even mention Wafer's play, which left a lot to be desired. Defense wasn't exactly in his vocabulary, and his highly-touted offensive game often looked like Tony Allen with a decent jump shot. In other words, Wafer permanently looked one step away from a turnover.

Just when I thought Wafer was halfway out the door, destined to last no more than half the season, enough time passed. He got used to Boston's funny walls, and then became dependent on them. He became institutionalized. And now I'll admit something I never thought I would -- I really enjoy Von Wafer as a Boston Celtic, even if his production still hasn't blown anyone away. Wafer now gets the proverbial it, and I wasn't sure he ever would. 

"I find I'm so excited, I can barely sit still or hold a thought in my head. I think it's the excitement only a free man can feel, a free man at the start of a long journey whose conclusion is uncertain. I hope I can make it across the border. I hope to see my friend and shake his hand. I hope the Pacific is as blue as it has been in my dreams. I hope." - Red

I hope the Celtics can make it to the Finals. I hope to see them accept the Larry O'Brien Trophy. I hope Banner 18 is as pretty as it has been in my dreams.

I hope.

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