A Daily Babble Production
Earlier today at CelticsBlog's NBA page, we briefly (seriously, this was about as brief as it gets) discussed the relative merits and concerns posed by the two teams left with realistic shots at the Eastern Conference's final playoff spot: Indiana and Atlanta. Part of the reason that discussion was such a clinic in brevity was thanks to the fact that I really haven't done much serious thinking about which match-up makes more sense for the Celtics. But when writing to Tom over at Indy Cornrows last night, I realized this much: Irrespective of the issue of match-ups, there is something (or perhaps more accurately, there are some things) about these Pacers that has caused me to have spent the last few weeks silently wishing them success in their chase for the playoffs.
That's a tad weird considering the Celts and Pacers met in the first round of three straight postseasons earlier this decade, and the C's came out on the short end of those conflicts on the final two occasions. Initially, it certainly appears that there isn't much to support pushing this team for the playoffs over an organization that hasn't sniffed the postseason since the shortened post-lockout '99 campaign.
Which means that it's time to figure out what it is that is so appealing about this Indiana group.
The surface answers are obvious enough: There are Celtic connections to this team. As has been made abundantly evident this season -- to the chagrin of certain readers, to the enjoyment of others and to the indifference of most -- I'm still a booster of Jim O'Brien's, perhaps more so than the average Celtic fan is. I don't purport to suggest that Obie is some sort of championship caliber coach, but I appreciate the facts that his teams routinely overachieve and that he coached the most competitive Celtics teams of the last two decades prior to this season. He has always been reputed to be a stand-up guy, and players generally love coming to work for him. So I've long wished Obie the best. Further, it's a lot easier to stomach his crazed run-and-chuck style when it isn't being employed on your team.
It also doesn't hurt that Obie certainly isn't the most high-profile former Celtic in the Indy organization. That title, of course, goes to Larry Legend in the front office. It's hard to imagine that there isn't some unwritten rule requiring our unwavering support for any endeavors this guy undertakes that don't involve a direct conflict with Celtic interests. Getting into the playoffs doesn't violate that. After that point, of course, all bets would be off. So propping Larry works, too.
But indeed, some of the intrigue that this team carries for me actually spills onto the court as well.All of Steve's daily posts can be found in the CelticsBlog: NBA blog. Check him out!
Particularly compelling is the Jermaine O'Neal situation. It's been a real shame to see what injuries have done to him over the past couple of seasons, especially when one considers the direction this guy was heading in just as he started to hit his prime. He hasn't played 70 games in a season since 2004, and over the past two seasons, he certainly hasn't been that impressive when he has been on the floor, largely because of residual effects from injuries.
It's stunning to think that this is a guy who was scoring more than 24 points per game just three seasons ago. Back in April 2003, Pops and I made the trek up to what was then called the Fleet to see the Celts take a 3-1 series lead over the Pacers in a series our boys would eventually win in six. While Paul Pierce's out-of-this-world third quarter (he outscored Indiana all by his own self, by a count of 21-14, and you have no idea how glad I am that I have this on tape) is certainly the defining memory of the trip, not forgotten either is the sense of awe that both Dad and I got from watching Jermaine O'Neal play in person. He went for 25 points, 19 boards and 5 blocks that day without really doing anything all that out of the ordinary for him at that point. He could knock down the mid-range J, post up hard inside and splash his foul shots on the offensive end, and he had already developed into an excellent interior defender and rebounder on the other end. I have strong recollections of The Guru saying after a charge call on O'Neal that it was very important to beat the Pacers that year, because once JO developed further at his then-current pace, and once the refs realized what a big deal this guy was, teams like ours were going to have little recourse to stop him. I couldn't have agreed more.
[Aside: Looking back, part of the reason this is so amazing to me is that Pops -- also known, of course, as The Guru -- has reached a point of cynicism at which he doesn't get excited about too many athletes. At last check, the two guys presently atop his list appeared to be Leon Powe -- more thanks to his abhorrence of Perk than anything else -- and the Dodgers' Chad Billingsley, who he insists on referring to as "Billingham," despite the fact that this guy is the key to the long-term future of our beloved baseball team's starting rotation. Seriously, I actually got him to sit down and watch Michael Beasley for a while a couple of weeks back, and he was completely unmoved. Long-winded narrative behind us, the point here is that it only makes it more striking to me to look back and remember how impressed The Guru was with JO even as a playoff opponent.]
Nearly five years have passed since that playoff game, and O'Neal is labeled these days as a major health risk and an enormous cap burden on his basketball team. This should be one of the league's ten most valuable players. He has long been known as a stand-up guy, and despite some weird waffling on pseudo-demands to be traded this summer, he still seems to be a likable enough dude for the most part. He seems to have rejuvenated the Pacers with his recent return to the floor, and it's worth remembering that at the still-tender age of 29, the man has plenty of time to reestablish himself as an interior force for the Pacers provided he can get his health in order. For a guy who has dealt with the physical struggles as well as the variety of personal disaster that O'Neal has over the last few years, it would be nice to see him ultimately find success -- with the lone exception of in the postseason itself this year.
O'Neal aside, Danny Granger has continued to develop as one of the league's most solid young players. He has steadily improved over his first three seasons in the league and is now averaging nearly 19 points and 6 boards per game at the small forward spot. He shoots the ball well, plays unselfishly and seems to not mind making the occasional effort defensively. Remember when the Celtics were thrilled that Indiana took this guy 17th in the 2005 draft so that they could, um, 'steal' Gerald Green with the next pick? Ay caramba.
Sooner or later, I'm going to end up writing a full-length column about Jeff Foster, who continues to labor in obscurity as one of the league's best and most overlooked lunch-pail guys. All this guy seems to do is deflect opposing passes and beat defenders to offensive rebounds at just about every turn. For his career, Foster averages 7.0 boards in just 20.7 minutes per game, a figure that is almost criminally absurd. Watching this guy bust his gut at both ends of the floor is a lot more fun that might appear at first glance.
If Mike Dunleavy had been all that good in the past, we would be calling his fine year a career resurgence. Instead, it's more like his original 'surgence.' Regardless of the terminology issue, the man has played at a much higher level this season than in years past, and it has been a pleasure to see a veteran take his game to a higher level.
Some other miscellaneous tidbits: Troy Murphy's ugly shot often inspires the mental image of fellow southpaw Andris Biedrins as a three-point shooter and slightly less able rebounder and defender. Marquis Daniels has cool hair. Kareem Rush proudly represents the boys from Mizzou.
So there we have it. Because of some confluence of scrambled factors, characters and subplots (and a player who attended the same postsecondary educational institution as me), I'm officially on the wagon quietly pulling for the Pacers to overcome a two-game deficit with four to play to claim a berth in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
But once they get there, all bets are off. Here's hoping they get sent packing before they even realize they made it.
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Who are you boosting for the final spot in the East? For sentimental reasons or match-up purposes? Who would be the more favorable match-up for the C's? Why? We welcome all comers and look forward to hearing your thoughts.