It's been a weird season of Boston basketball, fraught with aging stars, injuries, and apathy. Eleven days ago after a loss to Cleveland everyone was ready to eulogize a team some predicted to win 70 games at the outset of the season. Since losing to the LeBrons, the Green have recycled their form from a 23-5 start and now sit at 46-25, tied with the Atlanta Hawks for third place in the Eastern Conference, with a tie-breaker in hand.
Since the Celtics have maintained all year long that it's really all about the playoffs, let's skip ahead and take a three-point play approach to their playoff chances.
Eternal Sunshine of the Celtic-supporting Mind
No one expects the Celtics to lose a first-round playoff matchup against the JV of the Eastern Conference. But the Green-goggles-wearing crowd believes that a healthy Celtics team with a starting five of Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, Kendrick Perkins and Rajon Rondo is good enough to win an NBA championship, just as it was two years and may have been last year if Garnett's knee had cooperated.
That starting five is an impressive 36-13 this season.
The Celtics have just been engaging in energy conservation during the regular season, just like the 1968-69 Celtics, who finished fourth in the East and then won the NBA title.
Now, they're turning it on and tuning up for the games that count.
The two biggest missing ingredients for the Celtics have suddenly returned -- their defensive mojo and Pierce's sublime scoring touch. His ability to create his own shot is crucial for the Celtics in any championship run (see: 2008 playoff series against Cleveland and the Lakers).
Pierce, who has battled right knee, foot, and thumb ailments this season, said recently he is as healthy as he has been all year, and he looks it. In his last five games, he's gone for 29, 26, 29, 11, and 27 points. It's no coincidence that the only game the Celtics lost during that stretch was his 3-for-13 outing against the Jazz.
The path back to the promise land is clear. Maintain the No. 3 spot in the East, beat an Orlando squad that the Celtics had on the ropes last year without Garnett in Round 2 to get to the Eastern Conference Finals and make LeBron and the Cavaliers the 1986-87 Detroit Pistons. Do that and it's the NBA Finals for the second time in three seasons.
Pessimists of the Parquet
One and done, that's it for the Celtics and that's it for the Big Three. Thanks for the title guys, it's been real, but not only has the championship window closed, it now has steel bars surrounding it. The Celtics haven't won one game against the elite Eastern Conference teams -- Cleveland (one more shot on April 4), Orlando and Atlanta -- since Christmas. If that's the case, how can you expect them to beat one of them four times in a seven-game series?
The excuse for the Celtics' inconsistent and uninspired play has been that they're bored with the regular season. Well, how come the Lakers and the Magic, both of which played in the NBA Finals last season, haven't succumbed to regular season ennui? Other teams have dealt with injuries too; ask the Lakers about missing Pau Gasol.
The Truth isn't Paul Pierce. It's that the Celtics are now just another good NBA team, not an elite one. They're 16-19 against teams that were plus-.500 when the Celtics played them and 28-6 against sub-.500 competition.
A title run is asking too much of an aging team that relies too much on two players who are breaking down physically -- Garnett and Pierce, who is entering a David Ortiz-phase of his career.
Coach Doc Rivers hasn't established a consistent rotation for the inconsistent reserves, which are led by unreliable and unpredictable Rasheed Wallace .
Plus, the Celtics don't play well at home, where they're 22-12 this season. The homefront practically carried them to the '08 title; they didn't win a road game until the Eastern Conference Finals. Yes, the '68-'69 Celtics went 24-12 at home (they had six neutral site games), but Bill Russell isn't walking back through that door.
Gasper's Gut Feeling
The Celtics are playing their best basketball since the start of the season and some (yours truly included) may have been too quick to write them off as not having enough talent to compete for a title. They do and are a dangerous team. It's clear that injuries contributed to their lack of confidence and chemistry, but they've made far too many excuses all season long. It's tough to just turn it on in the final 17 games to win an 18th world title.
They'll play out the rest of the season and lock down the No. 3 spot in the East, because Atlanta has to play the Lakers and Cleveland twice down the stretch.
Then they'll win their first-round series against Miami before losing to defending Eastern-Conference champion Orlando in a hard-fought seven games, just like last season.
It becomes a season of transition for the Celtics, where they learn they need to rely less offensively on Garnett and Allen and more on Rondo, who is fast becoming their best player and best hope for another championship. Instead of Rondo playing a supporting role for the Big Three, the Big Three become bigger supporters for Rondo until he gets some new running mates.
...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.