Don’t Forget About The Boston Celtics
Despite the injuries and the flip-flopping between extended winning and losing streaks, the Boston Celtics clinched yet another postseason berth this past week. This veteran-laden group didn’t implode as expected when All-Star point guard Rajon Rondo was lost for the season at the end of January and all that remains to be determined is which lucky top-two team gets the unenviable task of facing the Celtics in the first round of the NBA playoffs.
Three games below .500 when Rondo was injured, the Celtics rallied for a seven-game winning streak that put them back in the playoff picture to stay. That rally was kicked off with a double-overtime victory at home against their newest rival, the Miami HEAT. The Celtics have every reason to step up their game when the boys from South Beach arrive in Boston and the mere possibility of facing the HEAT in this year’s playoffs is all the motivation that should be required to keep this group going.
However, beyond rallying behind a fallen comrade and the afterglow of defeating a rival while shorthanded, the loss of Rondo provided others an opportunity to showcase their value. The Celtics were deep in guards this season. There simply weren’t enough minutes for veterans Jason Terry, Courtney Lee and Leandro Barbosa to show what they could do and the return of defensive specialist Avery Bradley in January only deepened the logjam. That logjam was blown up after Rondo was injured and Barbosa was lost for the season soon after. Maybe it shouldn’t have been a surprise that Terry, Lee and Bradley rose to the occasion in February; the Celtics had no lack of depth or talent at guard.
Boston has also benefited from the rise of Jeff Green. After missing all of last season to heart surgery, Green finally broke out in February, playing over 30 minutes per game, scoring in the mid-teens and swatting about a block and a half per game. Green has become the impact combo-forward the Celtics thought they were getting in 2011 when they traded Kendrick Perkins for him.
The revitalized Celtics were seven games above .500 by mid-March and serious contenders for the fifth spot in the Eastern Conference, however, a strained abductor, the flu and left ankle inflammation have sidelined Kevin Garnett for all but two games since March 13. Without their vocal leader and defensive anchor, the Celtics were simply not the same team and Boston has won just three of their past 10 games and is sliding inexorably toward eighth-place.
Garnett was feeling good heading into this weekend’s games, but Celtics head coach Doc Rivers apparently isn’t in any rush to bring him back. After clinching a playoff berth, the Celtics have nothing more to play for during the regular season. Even Paul Pierce may finally get a little time off to rest his sore right ankle. The cynic in all of us might suggest Boston wants eighth place and a first-round matchup with the HEAT, if only the Milwaukee Bucks could find the wherewithal to actually win a few games.
Rivalries are born in the playoffs, especially when one side believes they had victory unfairly taken from them. In 2011, the Celtics lost in five games to the HEAT after Dwyane Wade took down Rondo in Game 3 and dislocated the point guard’s left elbow. Wade was assessed a foul and Rondo finished the game with a triple-double of 15 points, 11 rebounds and 20 assists, but that was the only game the Celtics won in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. Last year, the Celtics took the HEAT to seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals and won the middle three games in a row, but they felt they should have won Game 2 as well. During that overtime game in Miami, the referees handed the HEAT 18 more trips to the free throw line and three Celtics fouled out, including Pierce, while no player on the HEAT was in any foul trouble. Those are not memories one can easily set aside.
Don’t underestimate the Celtics heading into this season’s playoffs. Bradley, Terry and Lee will provide solid guard play at both ends of the court and recent pickup Jordan Crawford is a legitimate scoring threat. Pierce is still playing at an All-Star level and Garnett will return rested and ready to impose his will on opposing big men. Since February, Green has broken out as the combo-forward this team needs to fill the one obvious hole in the rotation. If their remaining players can stay healthy, Boston has enough talent to be a threat again this postseason.
In what is likely the last hurrah of Pierce and Garnett, motivation is the wild card that could make this veteran team even more dangerous. The chance to exact some revenge or at least put a scare into the preordained NBA champion team from Miami should be enough to draw out the best from both of them. Rivers resting his veterans at the risk of sliding into eighth place is the best way of ensuring we don’t forget about the Celtics after April 20. Who doesn’t want a HEAT versus Celtics rematch in round one?