As any who follow my posts know, I've believed that the Celtics were contenders long before now. But I've noticed a few new dynamics recently that make the team much stronger this year than they were a season ago. And after watching Sunday's game, one of those dynamics has become obvious:
The Celtics are suddenly athletic.
There have been signs. Moving KG to center and replacing Ray with Avery Bradley means that suddenly the Celtics are quicker and faster than just about everyone else at every position. Rondo is a blur. Bradley is Wade-like in his athleticism (we'll revisit this soon). Garnett is quite possibly the quickest center in the NBA. Bass and Pierce are both sneakily quick as well, and ironically they are now the two positions with the least amount of quickness advantage vs. their opponents.
There are multiple benefits to this new-found quickness. For one thing, the team is able to play faster. The defense is a bit sharper, and we are starting to win more of the hustle plays. Offensively the team can get out on more fast breaks, and even in the half-court the team can do more cutting and diving that leads to easier buckets.
But an unlooked for advantage is that the team is now built to beat the Heat.
There have been too many "woulda shouldas" with this team over the last few seasons, most of them injury related. However, it really is the case that the playoff matchup with the Heat last year was a lot closer than the final result indicated. The main differences between the teams were that Rondo go hurt, Ray couldn't keep up with Wade, LeBron turned on a video game cheat code from downtown, and the vets ran out of gas trying to operate at the speed required to sustain the pace.
But this season, with Rondo and Bradley the Celtics are actually the MORE athletic team on the far perimeter. Wade, who killed us even more than LeBron last year, can't just move into a higher gear and completely leave AB the way that he could Ray. You never want to read too much into one play, but Bradley's block on Wade's cut yesterday sent a clear signal to me that we are no longer quite as outgunned at what was previously our biggest anti mismatch.
If (and sadly, this is a big if) Mickael Pietrus is able to return to the squad by the playoffs, the Celtics suddenly find themselves four deep with extremely quality options on the wing. In addition to the known strengths of Pierce and Ray, we'd also have two other wings with the size/athleticism/defensive chops/offensive abilities to continue to bring it to Wade and LeBron even when our main two wings are on the bench. Garnett has always been able to handle Chris Bosh. And lacking size in the middle, the Heat have no real answer for Rondo.
A lot can happen between now and the end of the season. But what I saw yesterday was a very positive sign for what this team can do if we manage to stay healthy in the postseason. And no, I don't at all need for you to point out just how big that last "if" is. Instead, I'd rather take a moment to bask in the "what could be".