Who are the 2012-13 Boston Celtics?
Their record says that they are an average team, with almost as many losses (40) as wins (41). They are a team led by a soon-to-be-37 year old legend that missed most of the last month due to injury, and a 35-year old Captain who is perpetually rumored to be traded off for younger players. The experts at ESPN, unanimously outside of Celtics writer Chris Forsberg, say that they are a team that is preparing to lose in the first round to a New York Knicks team that has won 16 of their last 18 games. The Celtics, on the other hand, stumbled down the stretch with losses in 13 of its last 20 games.
None of that screams "NBA champion".
None of that even quietly says "advance past first round".
So why, then, am I utterly convinced that this team is about to win their match-up with the Knicks? Convincingly.
Let's take a look at this logically.
In two of the last three seasons the Celtics have drastically outperformed their record and expectations in the postseason, both times coming down to a hard-fought game 7 loss on the road against the eventual champion. Both the 2010 and 2012 Celtics squads were left for dead after long stretches of .500 play or worse left them with pedestrian records and middling playoff seeds. While those squads also featured the departed Ray Allen and the injured Rajon Rondo, the foundation of those teams are still around in the persons of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Doc Rivers.
And let's take a closer look at the stumbling that the team did down the stretch. Yes, they lost 13 of their last 20 games, but a funny thing...over those 20 games, Garnett and Pierce missed a combined 16 of them. But in the 18 games BEFORE that, when Garnett and Pierce were both in the line-up almost every night, the Celtics were 14 - 4.
Garnett and Pierce are both expected to be playing in the postseason. If one of them can't go, then that changes everything. But if they really do play, as expected, then we already have compelling evidence that the Celtics with them together are much better than the squad that finished the season.
But let's go further, because let's face it...a hot streak that ended more than a month ago is hardly proof positive that the team will perform well in the playoffs. The playoffs, after all, are a different animal than the regular season. The regular season is often about effort, motivation level, and pure talent difference. The postseason, on the other hand, is about match-ups, execution in the face of pressure, and grit. We know that this team has the "grit and balls", to quote their starting center, but what about the other two elements?
First, execution. Execution is tied tightly with team identity. In the postseason crucible, teams rally around what they know themselves to be. That is a big reason why championship caliber teams are almost always built around superstars...as Mike Gorman once pointed out, the "best player's personality dominates the team" and sets the tone that the rest follow. In this era of Celtics basketball the team identity is all about defense and, like Gorman said, it comes from the top. And that has held true this season as well, even though not many realize it.
The Celtics as a team finished 7th in the NBA in defensive rating by allowing 103.3 points/100 possessions, according to basketball-reference.com, but when Garnett was on the court the team had a defensive rating of 99.3 points allowed/100 possessions (which would be #1 in the NBA, better than the 99.8 points/100 posessions allowed by the Pacers). This is unsurprising, as once again the adjusted plus minus studies (such as this new Individual Player Value measure) for this season have Garnett still on top of the NBA in defensive impact. And even with all of the new faces this season, the team still makes their hey on defense. Everyone knows their rotations by now, and in the postseason having that defensive identity as a backbone is a solid rock to build from. And if Garnett continues his habit of playing 37 minutes per game in the playoffs (after averaging only about 30 mpg in the regular season), then suddenly the Celtics have the #1 defense in the NBA for the vast majority of the game.
The second element of playoff basketball is match-ups, and based in strong part on the defense, the Celtics match up great with the Knicks. The Knicks are a small-ball team that relies upon Carmelo Anthony as a unipolar offensive threat in the mid-post surrounded by great 3-point shooters. The entire philosophy of the Celtics' defense is to blunt unipolar offensive attacks, and the Cs are #2 in the NBA in defending the 3-ball. Anthony's size (6-8, 240) and quickness make him a mismatch against most forwards, but the Cs have two big small forwards in Pierce and Jeff Green and an undersized 4 in Brandon Bass that all match up very well with Anthony. And when the Knicks try to run their big/small pick and roll with Raymond Felton and Tyson Chandler, they will be defended by the best big/small defensive duo in the NBA in Garnett and Avery Bradley. All in all, the Celtics are probably the team that is best built to defend this Knicks squad.
And the same holds true on the other side of the ball. Because the Knicks play small-ball with Anthony at the power forward, they are heavily reliant on Tyson Chandler to anchor their defense in the middle. But the Celtics just happen to have a center that is one of the best jump-shooting big men from 18 - 20 feet that the game has seen. Garnett is completely comfortable in the high-post, while Chandler needs to be near the rim for the Knicks' defense to work. Secondly, both Pierce and Green have an offensive skill-set to make Anthony work harder on that end of the court than he would prefer. Plus, Pierce's ability to run the offense as a point-forward negates the ball-pressure that Felton and Jason Kidd might be able to apply to most backcourts.
Add it all up and the Celtics are a match-up problem for the Knicks, with a strong team identity that is built for post-season play, led by three very strong-willed champions who thrive in high-pressure situations. The Knicks are a very talented team that can get hot and scare anyone on a given night, but their style is not conducive to beating the Celtics four times in seven games in the playoffs.
Prediction: The Celtics win one of the first two games in New York, both games in Boston, and then mop things up before the series ever has a chance to get back to NY for a game 7.
Celtics in 5 or 6.