The old, decrepit Celtics continue their emergence from whatever grave they were prematurely buried in, and reached a climax in their 18-7 post All-Star game run with a win over the Miami Heat last night. Only two months after general manager Danny Ainge heroically declared the Celtics to not be contenders, the Celtics are the four seed in the Eastern Conference with a chance to move up and snatch home-court advantage. To pose a few questions to myself: How did this happen? How do the Celtics suddenly have the Heat's number? Why aren't limbs falling off the aging Celtics bodies like was promised?
The Celtics have defeated the Heat two times in ten days, a feat thought unpossible 19 games ago, when the Celtics lost by 32 points to the Philadelphia 76ers, moving their record to only two games above .500. The Celtics were showing their age, and the team seemed doomed for a first-round exit, then the subsequent departure of Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett. Everything looked bleek, but then a few personnel moves (Avery Bradley starting, Kevin Garnett to center, etc.) have thrown the Celtics into the middle of the Eastern Conference race, rather then on the inside looking out as they were just two months ago. The question still remains: What is the ceiling for this team?The Celtics are 2-1 versus the Heat this season. The loss came during Game 3 of the season, as the Celtics lost by 8 in a game that should have been far worse. It was a game they never deserved to be in, yet they hung around without Paul Pierce. They didn't play again until April 1st, where the Celtics absolutely ripped apart the Heat, winning by 19 points in arguably the Celtics best defensive effort of the season. It was around this time where I personally began to realize that the Celtics were not, in fact, going to spontaneously combust down the stretch as they had in the previous season. Last night's game -- one where the Celtics actually outrebounded the Heat (the +6 differential was the widest in over a month), something that rarely happens -- was pretty remarkable due to a few reasons.
The Celtics were able to get off to a first quarter double-digit lead against the Heat for the second time in a row. Miami likes to dictate how the game is going to be played, and for Boston to set the tempo repeatedly is impressive. Boston was able to play puppeteer, and control the rest of the game from there on out. The Celtics also beat the Heat at home, which in spite of the fact that almost no one shows up for Miami games, is important due to Miami's 23-3 record at home going into the game. As Sean Grande notes, the Celtics did not play a perfect basketball game by any means. They turned the ball over too much (which led to a decent percentage of Miami's points), the Heat shot the ball far more times -- both from the field and from the free throw line. This also was the Celtics best offensive game, both points and shooting percentage wise.
Garnett had 24 and 9, Rondo went 18-4-15 and Pierce had 27. The Celtics are finally utilizing Greg Stiemsma properly, as he had 8 and 7, and even Sasha Pavlovic (!) contributed 6 points. Everyone played well, and as there are only nine games left in the season, this is beyond important. The Celtics now have to play six games in eight days, and if they can come out of that stretch with all body parts still attached and a minimal loss of body fluids, then this team has a legitimate chance to do damage in the playoffs given the seeding.
To get home-field advantage could either be a blessing or the opposite of a blessing. If this stretch is successful, home-field could be bad, as the Celtics could potentially lose momentum in the playoffs, an event so determined by random impetuses. If the stretch leaves the Celtics tired (which I imagine it would, given the games to time period ratio), the home-field advantage will be crucial, and would avoid the 2nd round collapse that the Celtics encountered last season against the Heat. The Celtics have now proven that they will at least be able to compete with anyone in the East who isn't Chicago (a 1-3 regular season record, including that horrible loss a week ago when the Bulls were sans Derrick Rose).
The Heat absolutely dismantled the Celtics in the playoffs last season, which many saw coming after their 23 point win on the 3rd-to-last game of the 2010-11 regular season. Although the Celtics went 3-1 against the Heat that season, the season took a sharp downturn in the second half, and the Celtics looked like The Walking Dead except I wasn't able to laugh at the stupidity of it. Now, the Celtics have only gotten stronger, and seem prime to make some sort of run in the playoffs, which again was thought ridiculous just a month ago.
As far as "ceilings" go, it is still difficult to say. A lot depends on how the Celtics emerge from this upcoming stretch. But as of today, things are looking a lot better. I still don't know if the Celtics can survive to make a title run, but a deeper playoffs seems like more and more of a possibility after every game. If the Celtics were "dead", maybe they were just cryogenically frozen.
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