Remember the embarrassing, extended stretch of .500 basketball with which the Celtics finished last season? Of course you do. It was a painful time to be a Celtics fan. The biggest victims of said stretch (other than fans who paid $100+ just to see a disinterested team) were my television remote controls -- I tend to throw them (and break them) in fits of rage.
This year feels different. It does. Even if the C's patched together a similar start last season (they were 23-5 after a Christmas Day win against Orlando), there's a different vibe this season, a vibe that shouts, "The regular season actually means something this year."
Jeff talked about it a few days ago in a post. He described it as "the sniff test." There's just something going on that wasn't last season. If you watched The Association, you saw Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce talk about how this year feels a lot like '07-'08. The excitement, the exuberance, the passion; it's all back.
Why? Well, losing to the Lakers (and the resulting motivation) certainly has a lot do to with it. Part of it has to do with a rejuvenated Kevin Garnett. But I've got a theory, which I originally floated around in preseason, and which I will introduce here now.
The Shaq Theory.
(Ahh, cheers to my great timing. Unveiling the Shaq Theory on a day Shaq will miss his second straight game.)
Last season, the Celtics were admittedly bored. Enter Shaq.
The Big Diesel brings with him a certain energy. Not exactly a "work harder than anybody else" energy, but a "have a better time than anybody else" energy. He doesn't always hedge pick-and-rolls, and he doesn't keep himself in tip-top shape, but Shaq always has fun. He's always cracking jokes, and one gets the feeling he never stops smiling. If Shaq's not loaning his size 22 sneakers to Nate Robinson, he's singing the Cheers theme song with a bunch of fans. If he's not dressing in Halloween costumes and dancing, he's dressing up as a woman and singing. If he's not getting popcorn thrown on his face at the movie theater, he's getting drop-kicked in a hallway by two teammates. Always, he's smiling.
Does that fun translate to the whole team? Absolutely. (Boston Herald)
"We’re definitely having fun," Pierce said. "I think a lot of that has to do with Shaq, Nate, Baby. We’ve got some fun people here."
That's not the first time Pierce has praised Shaq's attitude, either. He also spoke highly of Shaq's fun-loving nature in an interview earlier this season. (WEEI)
"I love Shaquille in the locker room," Pierce said. "The one guy he’s making better on and off the court is Kevin. You can just tell with Kevin’s attitude, he’s a lot more loose than he’s ever been. Kevin really listens to a lot of things Shaq has to say because they’ve been through their wars together and I know Kevin has a lot of respect for Shaq and what he’s done in this league, as do all of us. His presence has really helped us out as a ballclub, in the locker room and on the court."
So Shaq keeps everything light-hearted. Great. But there's one more aspect of the Shaq Theory: he's not Rasheed Wallace. Okay, that helps, but it's not really the other aspect of my Shaq Theory. That would be this: he's old.
How does that help, you ask? How does being 38 years old help the oldest player in the NBA (yes, he's even older than Juwan Howard) inject enthusiasm into an entire franchise? He knows his time in the NBA is almost done. At this stage in Shaq's (and KG's, and Paul Pierce's, and Ray Allen's) careers, nothing can be taken for granted. Their time is almost over.
I direct you now to a story of my own.
There was a time in high school when I hated basketball practice. We would have long, grueling, three-hour practices, and then we would follow that with an hour of watching film. Sometimes, we were in the gym so late I thought we were going to sleep there. As you can imagine, practice got old really quickly. About a month into my senior season, I stopped caring in practice. I was bored of it. I'd done three years of it, and practice no longer excited me. All of a sudden, I started missing box outs, finishing last in suicides, and generally giving off the attitude, "GET ME OUT OF HERE!!!" And keep in mind: I was a captain. I was normally the hardest-working kid on the team.
But with a couple weeks left in my senior year, something clicked. I realized practices weren't always going to be around. Rather than being continually bored by running the same drills every day, I started to cherish them. These practices that I had taken for granted? They wouldn't be there forever. I only had two weeks left. Playing basketball was fun, and playing with teammates who were like my brothers was even more fun. I had always hated practice, but as my career wound down and I knew practice time was limited, I grew to appreciate them. I didn't want to dog it in my final practices; I wanted to make the best of them.
The Celtics, I suspect, are the same way. The regular season used to bore them, but the Celtics are beginning to realize, "Hey, this isn't always going to be here. We'd better enjoy it while we can." The Big Three and Shaq are close to the end of their careers, and they know that. Rondo and the rest of the young guys don't know if this will be their final contender. Hopefully it won't, but you never know. Things aren't always promised to be this good, this enjoyable.
Last year, the Celtics were so singularly focused on winning a championship that they forgot getting there was half the joy. You don't win a championship and enjoy it just because you won. You enjoy it because you remember the December game against Philadelphia, when you started off poorly and could have folded, but decided to stick by your teammates and claw out a gritty win instead. You enjoy it because you ran all those wind sprints, because you practiced your execution every day, because you worked so hard to get there. You enjoy it because you suffered a three-game losing streak, figured out what was wrong, and persevered through it. You enjoy it because nothing came easy.
The Celtics understand this won't last forever. But with Shaq in the fold, they're enjoying it while it does.