So when do the playoffs start? When do we get to find out if there is anyone in the Eastern Conference who has even a sniff of preventing the Celtics from getting to the NBA Finals again?
Playing perhaps their best game of this young season in defense of their 17th world title, the Celtics dismantled Allen Iverson and the Detroit Pistons last night in a 98-80 landslide that was not nearly so close. Minus the first 3 minutes 45 seconds of this game and the last 5:30, the Celtics walloped the Pistons by a 90-50 count in the kind of decisive, one-sided beating that led to a simple conclusion.
There may be only one team in the Eastern Conference that can stop the Celtics this year.
The Celtics themselves.
"I think we’re starting to come together,’’ coach Doc Rivers said in the hallway outside his team’s locker room following his standard postgame briefing. ``I jokingly said not too long ago that we were the most miserable 8-2 team in the world. We were winning, but we weren’t playing well."
So what happens come May and June, when the Celtics begin to recognize that the games actually mean something again?
Before we go any further, let’s make it clear that we hold certain truths to be self-evident. First, a major injury could dramatically affect the landscape for any team. (Just ask the Patriots.) Second, we are operating with the assumption that puppeteer Danny Ainge will do something to fortify this club before March and that the Celtics will not lose sufficient ground to any of their closest competitors in or around the trading deadline. Neither of those conditions comes with any guarantee.
A year ago after 13 games, the Celtics held the same 11-2 record and already had made it quite clear that they were a more serious title threat than we possibly could have anticipated. Then they won 18 of 19 to extend their record to a preposterous 29-3. In regular-season play, the Celtics are a stunning 77-18 in 95 games since the Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen transfusion, and there are absolutely no signs that those results will change anytime soon.
Don’t you see? The Celtics all but sleepwalked through chunks of their first dozen or so games and went 10-2. Then the Pistons showed up for their inaugural Garden visit this year on the heels of recent victories over the Los Angeles Lakers and Cleveland Cavaliers – it should be noted that the latter required Detroit to play in Boston on the second night of a vicious back-to-back sequence – and the Celtics turned Detroit to floor wax after spotting the visitors a 13-2 advantage.
The point is that the Celtics are starting to look like they can turn it on and off at will, which means they understand just how good they are.
"This was a huge game for us," said Garnett, who had 15 points, 4 rebounds, 3 steals and 2 assists. "They’re probably one of the better teams not only in the Eastern Conference, but our league. We watched 'em play Cleveland (Wednesday) night and we knew we had to bring it."
So they did. And even though Rivers noted that it is "dangerous" for his club to coast along for long stretches of any game – this goes against the long-held philosophy of playing the full 48 minutes – rest assured that the coach and his team now have a much better understanding for when it's necessary to step on the gas.
Last night, when the Pistons started out with a worrisome 13-2 jolt, here’s what Rivers did: Nothing. Not a thing. Eschewing a timeout (as he generally does), Rivers just watched as his club righted itself and finished the first quarter with a 19-8 spurt that left the game tied at 21 after one.
After that, the Pistons were pretty much road pizza.
"If a play breaks down this year, they automatically go to the second or third option. Last year, they didn’t," Rivers said when asked how much more self-sufficient his players are on the floor this year compared to last. "And our bench is light years ahead of where it was."
Fine, so James Posey isn’t here anymore, and we’re all a little concerned about that. In the interim, Leon Powe is emerging as a consistent force, Tony Allen already has contributed more than he did in the entire 2007-08 season, and Paul Pierce has been validated as a legitimate MVP candidate who can rescue his teammates when they need rescuing.
The early complacency, if that’s what you want to call it, is not necessarily a bad thing. It is also entirely normal. Last year, after Ainge overhauled the roster, the Celtics recognized they had an opportunity they could not afford to waste. For Ray Allen, Garnett, and Pierce, in particular, the opportunity was impossible to take for granted. The most impressive thing about the Celtics' 66-16 record last year is that the club took no nights off, playing with the kind of relentless intensity and ferocity one would expect from a younger, inexperienced crew like, say, the Atlanta Hawks.
By the time the playoffs rolled around, some of us wondered just how much the Celtics had left, just how much more they could give us. Even they seemed to wonder at times. The Celtics were in the Eastern Conference Finals before they won a road playoff game, a symbolic Game 3 victory over the Pistons that gave the club the last bit of assurance it needed.
Now? The Celtics know they can win on the road in May or June because they have done it. They know where they can cheat a little during the regular season and where they cannot. And they know that as much as opponents are now gunning for them – wasn’t this true by the second half last year? – that the biggest danger for them is a complacency that could come back to haunt them in the spring.
So far, they have taken the necessary steps to avoid such a misstep.
And even if the Celtics are operating a slightly more controlled pace than they were a year ago, the rest of the conference is still chasing them.
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