After what has seemed like months of scattered play, with many a fan questioning whether this Celtics team still "wants it", the C's finally looked hungry against the Portland Trailblazers last night. Check that. They looked starved, like a platoon of soldiers who just escaped the desert and busted into a hearty Las Vegas buffet line.
Indeed, last night's win against the Blazers was an encouraging one. I'll go as far as to say it was the most complete game this Celtics squad has played this entire season, on the second night of a back-to-back, no less. There was defense, and hustle, and effort, and most important of all, the C's stuck their foot on the gas pedal from the opening tip and refused to ease back. By the time the second quarter came to an end, capped off by Rajon Rondo's buzzer beating jumper, the Celtics were cruising in fifth gear with the top down. And even when Jerryd Bayless initiated a game of catch-up towards the end of the third quarter, the C's responded at the commencement of the fourth, with Glen Davis taking charges on two consecutive plays, and Ray Allen scoring eight straight points to put the game out of reach.
Last night's game was a free trip back in time, reminding us what it was like when we had a pre-surgery Kevin Garnett (I'm getting to that), a lights-out Ray Allen, and a legitimate killer instinct. It would be wishful thinking to say the Celtics have that killer instinct back, for one game alone is not enough to make such a proclamation. But seeing it for 48 straight minutes was enough for us to believe that it might actually be buried somewhere in the basement, lying dormant, waiting to be free once again.
Sure, Brandon Roy was hurt, Martell Webster might as well have been M.I.A. and Greg Oden and Joel Przybilla are both injured, which means the Celtics should have won by 20 points last night. Oh wait, they did. The Celtics have bowed to subpar teams in recent weeks (remember that Hornets game right before the All-Star break?), so a 20-point win over a banged up Blazers squad is actually a benchmark for where Boston should be right now.
Is it a coincidence that the Celtics were playing their best half of the season while Garnett was playing his best half of the season? Probably not. His 13-point, 7-rebound first half was highlighted by an array of jump shots, a fall-away three-pointer, and an alley-oop finger roll from Rondo. For the second straight game he looked fluid and athletic. He looked like the Garnett this team needs to win a championship. Once again, it all came on the second night of a back-to-back, which is perhaps the most encouraging sign of it all. There appeared to be no setback after his spry performance against the Lakers on Thursday. Last night was bona fide proof that as KG goes, so do the Celtics.
And then of course, Ray Allen took care of things in the second half. With the trade rumors behind him and the unavoidable anxiety of it all off his shoulders, he was able to square them up to the basket and score 13 crucial points in the second half.
While I'm handing out praise, I can't forget the bench, who took advantage of Portland's miscues, and maintained the leads the starters built up. With the exception of Brian Scalabrine's errant pass to end the third quarter, the pine guys played intelligent basketball last night. And whether or not you like the Nate Robinson move, it clearly brings more talent to an already versatile bench, and if they blend together well, and the starters can continue to get their act together, watch out.
Bringing it all together, and keeping it there, consistently, is now the Celtics' greatest challenge moving forward. One game is certainly a sign of hope, but it's not nearly enough to erase the memories we still have of the third quarter collapses that plagued this team prior to the All-Star break. Are those things of the past? Only the Celtics can prove that, with their play on the court. They're 3-0 post All-Star break, and wrap up this latest west coast swing tomorrow in Denver. Some would say 3-1 on this trip is a success. I say it's not enough. 4-0 is the goal, for beating the second best team in the Western Conference tomorrow will take another complete 48-minute game. And that's what this team needs to do right now. Put together a string of complete, 48-minute games. So no, 3-1 will not be a success, if it means falling off of the level the Celtics played at against Portland last night, which was undeniably a step in the right direction.