Thankfully, it appears as though the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals might just be a decent series after all. The Celtics are not, for the first time in the Big 3 era, going to be swept out of the playoffs in the Eastern Conference Finals. It is still very much a longshot, but you never know -- they could actually pull off a win in this series, especially if they keep pounding it into the paint and Bosh can't come back for Game 5, 6, or 7.
Nevertheless, even if the Celtics ultimately are eliminated by the Heat two or three games from now, there's a good chance that the Heat-Celtics rivalry is far from over. This is an important discussion because of the inevitable questions that will arise if and when this team is eliminated from the playoffs -- should the Big 3 be brought back, or is it time to move on? The point here is that regardless of what happens in this series, breaking up the gang could be a big mistake, because looking ahead, there appears to be a very real possibility that the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals will be a rematch.
Much depends on how the veterans on this team -- particularly the all-important trio of Garnett, Pierce, and Allen -- feel about returning once the Celtics' season is over (whether that's next week or at the end of this month). Still, it's probably a safe assumption that they'll be back in Boston next season. As I've discussed at length elsewhere, I think it's very probable that the Celtics will be able to reload the roster a bit and set the team up to be one of the best in the league yet again next season without any really major moves or roster shakeups.
Combine that with Derrick Rose's unfortunate knee injury, which reportedly will keep him out for the next 8-12 months, and the Celtics should be in line to nab a second or third seed next season. Of course, that will require that they avoid the run of fairly horrible luck they had with injuries this season (notwithstanding the fact that the Big 3 were relatively healthy throughout). But really, what are the odds the Celtics lose not one but two players to heart conditions again next season?
Neutral observers outside of Boston might think I'm showing myself to be a rabid homer to suggest that the Celtics could have a better regular season next year, when the Big 3 are even older than they are now. Though the East is not deep with contenders like the West, there are plenty of young-buck teams like the Pacers, Hawks, Sixers, and even the Knicks, who all showed the ability to have sustained success this regular season, shortened though it was. But I don't think it's so far fetched, again assuming a good off-season that improves the team's depth with a veritable bullpen of energetic young players.
Indeed, after going into the All-Star break at 15-17 this season, a record that said more about the conditioning of most of the team coming out of the lockout than the talent on the roster, the Celtics finished the rest of the season on a 24-10 run. That's a 70% winning percentage, good for 57 wins over the course of an 82 game regular season. Carry that over into the post-season, where the Celtics have gone 9-7 against some pretty talented opposition, and you have a sample size of 50 games in which the Celtics have won 66% of the time. Haven't the Spurs taught us not to count out a team from regular season success just because their core star players are on the wrong side of thirty?
This run of success coincided with a fundamental shift in the starting lineup, exchanging Jermaine O'Neal and Ray Allen for Brandon Bass and Avery Bradley, and switching KG to center. That fact gives good reason, I think, to believe that the Celtics can sustain this level of play over most or all of next season, if all goes according to plan. In short, the Celtics aren't just on a 50-game hot streak -- they are fundamentally different from the group that went 15-17 to start the season. With the Bulls missing Rose until at least next March, the Heat are most likely going to run away with the top seed in the East. Still, 55-60 wins in the Eastern conference ought to be enough for the Celtics to win the Atlantic comfortably and snag a second or third seed.
That would set them up for a rematch in the Eastern Conference Finals with the Heat. Yes, both teams would still have to defeat two playoff opponents to get there -- pick two out of the Knicks, Sixers, Hawks, Pacers, Bulls, and perhaps the Bucks (or Magic, if they don't trade Dwight this summer). Still, unless Rose makes a stunningly fast return to form by next April, I think the Heat and the Celtics are going to be the class of the East again. In which case, the current series playing out in front of us right now might just be the second act of a three (or four?) act play.