What's better this year is the opponent
It was never going to be the same. Everyone knew that.
There would be no James Posey. There would be no P.J. Brown. It would have to be a different victory formula.
Wire to wire, 2007-08 was a Boston Celtics year. There was a glorious 66-16 regular season, third best in the team's storied history. There was a determined march to the championship in which the Celtics may have become the first team in NBA history to play four playoff series with diminishing degrees of difficulty. They were able to answer every question, solve every puzzle, meet every challenge.
The team that arrived at the 2-2 juncture for last night's Game 5 with these rambunctious Chicago Bulls is nowhere as good as its immediate predecessor. Its heart and soul, its conscience, its best defensive player, its most ferocious competitor, and its true leader has to watch from the bench, a prisoner of a bum knee. Its most significant energy player and its most accomplished post presence is likewise incapacitated with a torn ACL. That's two of the team's top eight players, so, by definition, the team cannot possibly be as good.
But that's the way of the world in sports. Injuries happen. Sometimes a team can absorb a significant injury and go on to do great things with people rearranging roles or with certain individuals playing better than anyone ever imagined they could at this stage of their careers (say hello to both Mr. Rajon Rondo and Mr. Glen "Big Baby" Davis). But, almost invariably, it catches up with you and your season ends sooner than you'd planned.
Again, injuries happen. Give credit to the Chicago Bulls. They have put up with our laments concerning Kevin Garnett and Leon Powe, but they have come here with a lesser team, too. Luol Deng's season ended after 49 games, and he is an important part of what they do. Two years ago, the 6-foot-9-inch forward averaged 26 points and 7 rebounds a game during a first-round sweep of the Miami Heat, and followed that by averaging 19 ppg and 6 rpg in a six-game loss to the Pistons, who were en route to a fifth consecutive berth in the Eastern Conference finals. And that's without mentioning his long-limbed defensive presence.
You think Vinny Del Negro wouldn't like that useful weapon to help combat the Celtics?
The Celtics were 2-2 coming back home in the first round last year as well, but Doc Rivers does not believe the circumstance is the same, and not solely because he does not have as good a team. He's resigned to the reality of his team. What concerns him far more is the identity of the opponent. These Bulls are better than those Atlanta Hawks; it's just that simple.
"Atlanta had two guys who could get their own shot: [Mike] Bibby and [Joe] Johnson," Rivers points out. "On this team, [Derrick] Rose can get his own shot, [John] Salmons can get his own shot, [Kirk] Hinrich can get his own shot, and, obviously, [Ben] Gordon can get his own shot. Their bigs are athletic, and they are long."
After spending all this time up close and personal with the Bulls, Rivers is particularly taken with Joakim Noah.
"I don't know if it's because of the hair or the image, but he doesn't get all the credit he deserves," Rivers maintains. "He has a very high basketball IQ. He's a valuable player for any team."
Rivers agrees that Noah may be Chicago's answer to Cleveland's Anderson Varejao, another long-armed, wildly coifed menace who often seems to be in six places at once on the floor.
"Neither is going to be in the All-Star Game, but they're great role players," Rivers says. "If there were an All-Star Game for role players, they'd be in it."
Doc knew things would be different this season. He just didn't know they'd be this different.
"Losing Posey was huge," he acknowledges. "But both sides did the right thing. But, sure, he's missed."
The Celtics picked up Stephon Marbury in the hopes he would provide a different kind of postseason spark, and the situation was all upbeat when Marbury scored 13 points (the first 7 meaningful) in the Game 3 victory. But Doc could find only five minutes for Marbury in the double-overtime Game 4, and that was one fewer than he allotted to Mikki Moore, the 7-foot veteran who is being asked to impersonate stately P.J. Brown, without whom the Celtics would not have won the championship last year.
It's a different formula, all right.
Meanwhile, the Celtics might not even be this far without the play of Glen Davis, the Big Baby from Baton Rouge. The self-proclaimed "Ticket Stub" to Garnett's "Big Ticket" has become a very useful player on a nightly basis. Now, from the beginning of his Celtics career, he has been a force on the boards and inside and in the team defense, but in the last six weeks, the most interesting aspect of his play has been his expanded shooting range.
"The best decision we made about him came after last summer," Rivers reveals. "We told him to go home and work on one thing and one thing only, his jump shot. Forget everything else, just shoot medium-range jumpers. And without him stretching the defense the way he has, we might not even be this far."
With last night's win, the Celtics are now 22-6 in Game 5's when coming back home tied at 2-2. That includes a run of 15 straight wins from 1963-87 and a mini-run of four straight losses from 1988-2005.
Only twice has a Celtics team lost Game 5 of a 2-2 coming-home situation and come back to win Games 6 and 7. The first was in 1962, and it took 30 points and 40 rebounds by Bill Russell in a Game 7 overtime to finish off the Lakers.
The second time was in 1988, when they lost to the Hawks by a 112-104 score at home in Game 5, but won Game 6 in Atlanta to set up the Larry-Dominique Sunday afternoon shootout.
Doc will not have to do that in this round. But with this team, which is most definitely not last year's team, the mentor will gladly take it any way he can get it.
Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist and host of the Globe's 10.0 on Boston.com.