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Being the Circled Date

A Daily Babble Production

Being NBA champions means more than receiving some jewelery and a cool banner ceremony.  It also means being referred to as the defending champion Boston Celtics (really, I love that part), receiving endless media attention and playing in front of capacity crowds at home and on the road.  It also means facing the best shot of each of the league's other 29 teams on a more regular basis than ever before.

The Celtics play in Boston, a city known for both its rabid fans and scrutinizing media no matter the team's record, and they were accustomed to plenty of full houses last season.  But while there was plenty of hype around the team a season ago, there were also a few Quentin Richardson types out there, maintaining that the C's hadn't won anything of consequence yet (during last season, this was true).  Now, Richardson seems to be the only one left believing that the Celtics haven't "done anything."  This team isn't just an intriguing mix of superb individual talents who haven't won rings anymore.  These are the champions, which makes them by definition the reigning standard-bearers for top-tier basketball in this league.  As a recent discussion with TrueHoop's Henry Abbott reminded me, that means something very different from "lots of media hype" on the calendars of the teams around this league.

It's become my understanding from watching enough interviews over the years (and using intuition), that with the possible exception of the aforementioned swingman from the Sizable Apple, it is going out and getting that ring that is the surest ways for players to earn respect from their peers in this league.  Makes fairly obvious sense.  But with that respect comes an understanding that this is the level the other teams need to be at, that these are the guys who everyone else needs to knock off. 

And that's what makes the bull's-eye on this team's back larger than the one it had last season.  There is no questioning the Celtics' credibility as the reigning champs, which means that beating them is as high a validation as other teams can gain on a nightly basis during the regular season.  In a league in which the season is a marathon rather than a sprint and teams and players regularly appear to not be all that interested on certain nights, this makes all the difference in the world.  There is a special high to taking down the champs, to beating the best. 

Even more so than the other top-tier teams in the league that the Celts are likely to see come springtime, during the regular season it is the mediocre and bottom-feeding squads whose intensity really seems to rise against the champs.  I write these next couple of sentences with the necessary awareness of someone likely coming off as an arrogant fan of a championship team, but that's sincerely not my intention:  The truth is that for teams like the Warriors, the Bobcats and the Knicks, there isn't a greater end coming this season than winning a game against the Celtics.  These are teams that most likely aren't making it to the playoffs, and if by some odd confluence of circumstances they do, they aren't likely to be there too long.  There is a reasonable chance that this will be the highlight of those teams' 2008-09 campaign.  Again, that's no potshot: For example, I fortunately do not have too many clear memories of the 36-win 1997-98 Celtics.  But I can tell you all about siting home on Halloween night and watching the Celtics open the season by storming back from somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 points down to top the reigning champion Bulls in a nationally televised season opener, 92-85.  It was a downhill from there that season, but I'll never forget our boys upsetting MJ and the two-time defending trophy winners.

Everywhere the Celtics go right now, they are heading into buildings full of fans who want this game to make their season, and they are visiting hosts ready to throw everything they have in the tank at them.  There is something to be said for being pushed to play at the level of one's competition, and the Celtics have seen that from many of their supposedly lower-tier opponents.  Stephen Jackson, Ray Felton, Adam Morrison and the entire non-Roy portion of the Blazers come to mind, to name just a few.  The Knicks, a team not known for their defensive effort, came out with perhaps their most concerted performance of the year at that end against the Celtics. 

Teams are geared up to play the champs, and that makes a particularly large difference considering when one considers a big part of what made this such a dominant regular season team last year: intensity.

A brief flashback:  Back on the second day of November 2007, the Celtics opened a new era at home against the Washington Wizards.  Watching this game on ESPN from more than 1,100 miles away, I became a fireball of energy wound up from years of bad basketball and a six-month off season.  I literally spent the night jumping off my walls, pounding on doors and tables and screaming after every basket.  My close friend Mays stopped by during the second quarter and made it through all of ten minutes before he couldn't take it anymore.  He left with this parting warning: "Neither you nor your team can keep this kind of energy up through 82 games."

But much to Mays' surprise (and he has admitted as much since), the team and its fans did exactly that.  There is no doubt that the Celtics were one of the league's supremely talented teams last season.  But what made them that extra notch above everybody else in the regular season was that they simply seemed to be trying harder every night out.  Every game was life and death, every loss an affront to KG and Paul and Ray and everyone else's very being.  The 2007-08 Celts likely went from being a team that could have had a better-than-very-good record to a team that had a great one simply because they wanted it more, and their intensity was rarely matched. 

It was my contention last year that part of the early trouble in the playoffs resulted from the fact that everyone picks up the intensity when the postseason starts.  The Celtics might not have been prepared for that jolt initially, particularly from the Hawks.  This season, it seems that the Celtics are getting nearly every opponent's A-effort each time out.  That makes it tougher to win on a night-to-night basis, and even the wins come at more draining costs, which increase the team's fatigue for the games ahead onthe schedule.  It also makes it more likely that the team will win a few less of the types of games it won last year, when it didn't play particularly well but carried itself to the 'W' simply by outworking opponents.  Part of that intensity edge has diminished, not because the team's intensity has fallen off that much but because everyone else's is up when the Celts come to town.  That the Celts' level may have declined a bit as well is reasonable, too.  It's difficult enough to do what this team did through 82 games a season ago over the course of one year.  Coming off of the ultimate glory and doing that again for another full year is almost impossible.  A letdown is natural, and to some extent, the energy level this team has maintained on the year as a whole (not just the recent slump) has been impressive.

This is all, it should be noted, observation and not excuse.  The Celtics are still as talented as just about any team in the league, and they still have the capacity to maintain the insane intensity level that they did a season ago.  Further, and this can't be stressed enough, none of this is to say that the Celtics are slumping suddenly solely because other teams are trying harder.  As of right now, this Celtics team isn't as good as the one from last year.  That makes sense given that the team lost two major pieces from the title run (including one who was around and involved throughout the regular season), and the bench has been a disappointment.  This is still one of the best teams in the league, and it's a team with the potential to be the one standing at the end once more.  Being a couple of games off the pace of a group that won 66 games and had better personnel a season ago is nothing to be ashamed of.  There are clear flaws on this team that need to be fixed (perhaps by the players and coaching staff, perhaps by the front office), and this team doesn't have its eight losses just because the other 29 teams are coming at the Celts harder than they were last year.

But being the circled date on everyone else's calendar doesn't make it any easier.

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