The motto around here for the past five years has been some variation on "banner or bust" -- anything less than a championship, another banner being raised into the rafters, is a failure. Expectations were raised to that level when Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen were brought over in the summer of '07, changing the culture for team and fans alike pretty much overnight. With such lofty goals, disappointment is highly likely; after all, only one team can win it all each year. Yet Celtics fans received gratification a little less than a year after the "Big Three" came together, with a home blowout over the ancient-rival Lakers capping off a title run for the ages. The eighteenth banner has proven far more elusive than the seventeeth though; over the four years since that first, championship season, KG and the Celtics came close, terribly close, but each year fell short.
Since the Big Three came together, the league has seen an arms race of sorts take place, with a number of teams positioning themselves to compete for a title with their own collection of stars. That culminated in the assembly of the Miami Thrice in the summer of 2010, and then this summer in the Lakers' acquisitions of Nash and Howard. We now enter an NBA season where a number of fanbases may reasonably have a mentality that anything less than a championship at the end of the year will be a disappointment.
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In some ways Tuesday's season opener against the Heat felt like coming full circle, or perhaps just a role reversal. Much has been made of the increasingly bitter rivalry between the Celtics and the Heat, and a major part of that rivalry has been the dynamic of master and pupil, schoolyard bully and new-kid-on-the-block challenger, old school and new school. Two years ago, the Celtics played their opener against the much-hyped Heat, who had been practically coronated before the season had even begun ("Not one, not two, not three . . . ."). They entered as underdogs, despite having come within less than 12 minutes of a championship that summer. Relishing their role as party-crashers and playing with a major chip on their shoulder, the Celtics defeated the Heat, looking like a team that had played together for multiple seasons and knew exactly what it took to win. The Heat, for their part, showed flashes of the terrifying athletic dominance that would indeed eventually carry them to a title. But they were also start and stop, inconsistent. They evinced the lack of chemistry and synergy, the unfamiliar, self-conscious awkwardness, that would plague them, off and on, pretty much until they finally put everything together in the 2012 playoffs. The Celtics, the old, trash-talking bullies with battle-tested championship swagger, were still on top, and they played like they knew it even if nobody else did.
Last night, it was the Heat that played like they knew their game. Fresh out of their ring ceremony, they were the only team on the floor playing with championship swagger. Everybody, even new additions like Celtics defector Benedict Allen and Rashard "washed up since he got suspended for steroids" Lewis, seemed to know their place. The Celtics were the ones who looked unsure, trying too hard to play the Heat's game instead of playing with the confidence borne from a defined, proven winning identity. They looked like a bunch of individuals trying to beat the other team independent of one another, rather than a cohesive unit. Unsurprisingly, that was a pretty resounding failure against the Heat's Flying Death Machine, which for some time now has been operating at peak efficiency (thanks in large part to the Celtics, who many times served as the foil that forced the Heat to refine it).
The takeaway for Celtics fans should be that this team is not really close to elite right now, but that there is also absolutely no reason to panic. Just as the Heat eventually figured things out, so too may the Celtics. Despite last night's poor performance, like the Heat two years ago there were still flashes of brilliance, the promise of the kind of team they might be if they can get all of the new pieces in harmony with the old. The game also served as a notice that if and when the team does put it together, the product could be quite different than what has come before, despite the fact that the key components -- Rondo, Pierce, Garnett -- are still the same. In this respect, the blueprint for success for this Celtics team may be closer to what the Spurs have done to reinvent themselves these past couple of years.
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But what if, like the Spurs, the Celtics make the most out of their new run-and-gun friendly pieces and still come up empty against an opponent with more superstar talent? Will this season, too, be a disappointment? Should this revamped Team Green be held to the same standards of the squads we've seen take the floor over the past five years? After all, as has been said many times in the last few months, this is Rondo's team now, and the new makeup of the roster is clearly catered to his talents; there should be no question that despite the continued presence of KG and Pierce, this Celtics team is an entirely new animal. Or, instead, could the basic premise of the question be flawed in the first place? Is it wrong to measure seasons, even ones in which the Celtics are a contender, by whether or not the final game played is a win or a loss?
I didn't always think so. Full disclosure: until the playoff run in 2008, I wasn't much of a Celtics fan, or a fan of the NBA in general. Paul Pierce's epic duel with LeBron, the P.J. Brown shot, the Leon Powe game, the Ray Allen ankle-breaker layup past Sasha Vujacic, the Posey threes and the House threes, the blowout, and finally "Anything is possibleeeeeeeee!" -- those are the things that ignited my passion for Celtics basketball. Maybe that makes me a bit of a bandwagoner, but I like to think that I have developed a genuine love for the team and the sport that will carry me through even the lean and mean times that are surely to come for this team, as they do for every team, sooner or later (except for the Lakers, I guess). Like most Lakers fans, though, I have yet to really experience a true down season.
The run to banner seventeen was magical, and it cast a shadow on the years that followed it. I was angry and frustrated with the Celtics for much of the 2010 season because of how up and down they were, because to my eyes they were a lazy, underachieving bunch. The playoffs that year were an unexpected, incredible run of redemption that came up just short. In retrospect, though, I don't think I was angry at that bunch because they weren't trying hard enough, or living up to expectations; it's because they weren't winning, and I felt entitled to an elite, winning team. Anything less was an injustice, and a grave disappointment. During that season, and for a long while following it, I convinced myself that the team needed to rebuild, sooner rather than later -- again, because to aspire for anything less than dominance and a world title was unacceptable. It was difficult to see the value in playing for other, less tangible things.
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In the wake of Ray Allen's departure this summer, and the major turnover on the roster, it was clear we were seeing the end of an era. Assessments trying place the "New Big Three" in NBA history focused primarily on the fact that the run only resulted in a single championship. Maybe that's the only truly objective metric of success for the best teams. As a fan, though, I find it altogether too reductive. Over the last five years, this team left more on the floor than they'll ever get back, and they didn't regret it. They gave more to us than just a championship.
This past season is when I began to appreciate that. As I have written elsewhere, the lockout bunch may have struggled at the start of the season, but they came together and proved a lot of people wrong. More than that, though, they played with the kind of fight, intensity, chemistry, camraderie, and brotherhood to rival any great team there's ever been. LeBron James eventually took the C's down and proved to everybody the world over that he is the best there is, putting on the best performance of his life and defeating the Celtics pretty much single-handedly in what was basically a deciding Game 6 at the TD Garden in the Eastern Conference Finals. I sat and watched the Celtics lose, and it was gut-wrenching and hugely disappointing. But I found that it didn't change a thing about how I felt about that team. I was so, so proud of them. And proud to be their fan, to have followed them that season and be a part, however small, of their journey. It was all worth it -- a worthy end to a season that I'll never forget. In many ways, that feeling was better than the one I had in late June of 2008.
I could tell a similar story of 2009, when the Celtics lost Kevin Garnett halfway through what as up to that point a historically dominant season, and thus lost any hope of winning a title, but kept fighting their way to 62 wins and two really close, hard fought playoff series. The 2010 group won me over, eventually, too, and when they fell to the Lakers in that dreadful fourth quarter of game seven, it was obvious they had nothing left. They were spent. And really, if there's one defining characteristic of the Celtics over the past five years, it's that whether they won or lost, at the end of the season they never had any bullets left in the chamber.
Except in 2011, I suppose. That's the only season of this past era that I think I could honestly call a disappointment. Shaq was a tease, the Perk trade sent the team into a spiral of dejection (particularly Rondo), and then the team never really got a chance to "flip the switch" as they had the season before because Rondo was playing with one arm. For a number of reasons, the 2011 season for the Celtics just left a bad taste in my mouth. The Heat eventually lost, though, to a very likable Mavs bunch, so at least there was that.
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So I say to you -- watch this season for any number of reasons. Maybe it's because you want to see the Celtics stick it to Ray Allen (round one of that was a failure). Maybe you're excited about the potential of Jared Sullinger and Avery Bradley, or inspired by Jeff Green's comeback. Maybe you just want to enjoy seeing yet another season of crafty, gutsy, historically-great play from Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett -- after all, they won't be around much longer. Maybe you're eager to see if Rondo will finally take up the reins and consistently be the MVP-caliber player we first saw against the Bulls in 2009, and many times in the post-season, but not enough in the regular season, since then. Maybe you're a fan of Jason Terry, or Leandro Barbosa, and you're betting on one of them winning a second Sixth Man award. Maybe you really enjoy seeing the plays that Doc draws up after timeouts, or the swarming, relentless, schoolyard-bully defense that the Celtics play when they are at the top of their game. Maybe you just want to see how all these disparate parts will come together, once again, and play the beautiful game, that we love, at such a high level once April comes around.
Someday, I believe we will see the eighteenth Celtics championship banner rising into the rafters.
But there are so many more reasons than banners to follow this team. I can't even imagine yet how I'll feel when this team plays its last game of the 2012-2013 season. I am confident, though, that whether they walk off the court as the ultimate victors or just another also-ran, I will have reason to say that the season was a success.