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Fan As In 'Fanatic'

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In a season featuring more emotional swings than ever seemed possible for a 62-win team, Thursday offered the greatest blow to green fan psyches yet with the news that the Celtics will be without Kevin Garnett's on-court services until further notice.

That fell to second priority by late afternoon when word came that Danny Ainge had suffered a (fortunately mild) heart attack.  He's expected to make a full recovery.  Get well soon, DA.

As it turned out, I didn't get that second bit of news until well after it had hit the airwaves, thanks to a call from my pal Acks to inquire about Ainge's status awakening me from a slumber on, of all things, a park bench.

After waking up to the news of Garnett's status in the morning, I zombie-moped through my work for the day and then decided to take advantage of a gorgeous 65-degree day in the Midwest with the type of long solo walk that so often helps me sort out a jumble of thoughts.  After covering several miles in 90 minutes, I took a rare bit of respite on a bench overlooking a lake, and let a gentle breeze ease me into a light, joint-debilitating sleep.

[Aside: It appears I wasn't alone in my zombie state yesterday.  CB member Kiorrik has a great narrative posted in the forums about the surprising magnitude of injury's effect on him.  Thoughtful stuff that's worth your time.]

Lucky for me, Acks came through in the clutch from several hundred miles away to wake me up just in time to make it back for dinner.  But before I left the realm of consciousness or received the far more sobering news yesterday afternoon, I got the chance to sort out my thoughts about all this health-and-the-playoffs business.

I'm not angry.  Learning of the on-court loss of KG led to a whole range of emotions, but anger wasn't one of them.  I'm not angry about the injury itself because injuries are simply a part of sports, and Garnett's didn't appear to result from any sort of dirty play.  I'm not angry at the team because I still don't know enough about the medical issues in play to even begin to form an opinion about what the best way to handle this situation would have been from both a medical and public relations standpoint.  I'm smart about the human body only to the point of admitting that I'm clueless about it.  Don't know enough about knee strains in general, can't possibly know enough about the specifics of KG's injury without being there, so getting worked up about the medical staff isn't for me (though I understand those fans who have chosen that path). 

As for the public relations part of it, I'm not cynical enough to think that the team intentionally misled fans to boost playoff ticket sales (you're telling me the Celts wouldn't have sold out without KG?), and frankly, part of me is glad we got this far thinking Garnett would be back.  I liked having that extra bit of hope, that special glimmer that the Celtics would be morphing into something bigger and better with KG's return come playoff time.  Even though the KG-being-present part of that hope proved to be false, I like that we've only got 48 hours to deal with the doom-and-gloom that many inside and outside the fan base are currently spreading rather than multiple months of it prior to the start of the postseason. 

Of course, part of me is frustrated.  While I'm still upbeat overall (we'll get to that shortly), the rational and semi-objective being within me came to a stark realization when the news about Garnett hit.  There is being in the playoffs, and there is being in it to win it.  For all my mega-optimism over the years, I think a part of me has always subconsciously understood that most of the playoff teams I have rooted for in my lifetime were in the tournament, sure, but really just treading water until their time ran out.  This was especially true with regard to my beloved pre-lockout St. Louis Blues over the 1990s and early 2000s.  They were there to play and maybe even go a few rounds, but they would not realistically challenge for the ultimate glory.  While it's no doubt easy to say this in hindsight, there was a different feel with last year's Celtics team, that no matter the obstacles this team faced in the first couple of rounds, that team was destined to be there or darn close at the end.

For the past six months, we watched our team face all manner of adversity in defending its title, and as of Wednesday night, we were rooting once more for an in it to win it team, one of three prohibitive favorites for the 2009 NBA title.  Thursday morning, I felt that whoosh of air popping out of a ripped balloon as the world - SportsCenter, writers around the Interwebs, many downtrodden Celtics fans - declared our boys just another playoff team in one fell swoop.  On a rational level, it's hard to blame them.  As admirably as this Celtics team has fought, it is clearly not the same defensively without Kevin Garnett (and let's not short-sell what KG brings to the table at the other end either).  Less than 36 hours ago, the objective part of me considered the first two rounds series that the Celtics likely would win with relative ease and the final two rounds something akin to a toss-up against excellent teams.  Now, the first round will take more work than expected, the second will require more consistent focus than we've seen over the last month and the final two rounds will be monumental tasks.

Understanding that the talent levels in Cleveland and Los Angeles and the gravity of the loss of KG offer the many doubters a viable case for moving the Celtics back to mere "in the playoffs" status is a sobering thought.  It's a lame way to start a day.

But that's the great thing about sports: For all my blathering about being in the playoffs or in it to win it, these games don't always play out the way they are 'supposed' to go.  So now comes the homer rub (and if you don't want the homer rub, which is understandable, please feel free to jump from here to John Hollinger's well-written and likely more realistic take at ESPN): If anyone has given us reason to believe that pleasant surprises await, it's this group of Celtics.

These fellas have won 62 games with a target on their backs from day one and with three rotation players missing significant time due to injury and two more not arriving until late February.  They have gone 18-7 without Garnett in the lineup, winning 72 percent of their games over nearly a third of the season without their defensive and vocal leader.  Rajon Rondo and Kendrick Perkins came off a championship season by improving in leaps and bounds.  The Infuriated Infant has made it clear that he is a legitimate NBA rotation player at both ends of the court, capable of exploding on any given night.  Eddie House came off the bench to post the most accurate three-point shooting campaign in Celtics history.  In addition to being the smoothest human being alive, Ray Allen provided us a season of otherworldly consistency.

While the results have been limited so far, Stephon Marbury is playing defense harder than he has at any point in his career.  That's one of many credits to Doc Rivers in a year full of them.  While I've been critical of Doc in particular situations this season, my hat goes off to the man for the marvelous job he has done for this year on the whole.  The chemistry has never once wavered, in spite of the injuries, a couple of prolonged slumps and the addition of a noted former locker room killer in Marbury.  The intensity has remained at an impressive level, especially in what for many other teams would be a post-championship energy letdown regular season.  These Celtics have rarely if ever gone through the motions.  Doc and his fine staff have them playing their rear ends off for each other and for him and the coaches every night. 

And then there remains the one the fallen Garnett has called Superman all along, the one Eddie Palladino calls The Captain aaaaaaaaaand The Truth.  So many times this season, Paul Pierce has lifted this team on his ample shoulders en route to yet another inspiring victory.  The individual numbers don't tell the story of just how much of a pleasure this guy has become.  His willingness to trust his teammates and to share the ball at the right times as well as his greater-than-ever-before commitment to the defensive end have proven fine complements to the game-breaking offensive abilities that still make our jaws drop every time he decides a game is his in the fourth quarter.  In addition to playing as complete a game as we've seen, he has indicated more than ever over these past two seasons that he really gets it now.

He has said and done all the right things and done all the sacrificing when that was the necessary course of action.  Now, the stage is his (and his team's) for the stealing.

At the end of the day, I don't need all of these reasons to be a believer.  I've always said that I wish I had thought of part of Matt Watson's mission statement at Detroit Bad Boys: "completely fair and unbiased opinions of 29 of the Association's 30 teams."

I can play objective all I want in this space, but only up to a point.  Until the fellows in the green jerseys are shown the door, I won't believe that they are headed for anything other than an 18th championship this spring.  If that doesn't happen, well,  we'll cross that bridge when we get to it.

Fan is short for 'fanatic' anyway, and that's what keeps me obsessing over this team at all hours of the night in the first place.

But it sure doesn't hurt that this squad has given us more than its share of reasons to keep the faith.

The 2009 NBA playoffs kick off tomorrow.  They feature our beloved green gang, and I couldn't be more excited.

The best of the 2008-09 Boston Celtics is still yet to come.  Believe.


One more piece of recommended reading: CoachBo's forum thread on the super-duper importance of the Celtics' defensive play going forward.  Typical great stuff from him, even coming as it does from an Oklahoma Sooners fan.

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