Go right down the roster, and what you will find is a succession of ages that look like waist measurements: 35, 34, 32, 38, 33. And so, as the Celtics embark on a new season, there is cause to wonder who they are, what they could be and, perhaps most importantly, if they can hold up.
Oh, the Celtics will be entertaining to be sure, unless Shaquille O’Neal is as much of a statue on the parquet as he was in Harvard Square last week. (Or was that a Shaq-ue?) Instead of blowing it all up last summer in the wake of a Game 7 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers, Celtics vice president of basketball operations Danny Ainge went out and actually may have made the Celtics older. Ainge himself admitted this last week, playfully referring to Shaquille and Jermaine O’Neal as "dinosaurs" during a media luncheon held in the Seaport district.
Now here’s the good news:
The Celtics look deep.
How the Celtics look in April is the far greater question, of course, but, for now, let’s focus on the positives. Doc Rivers shouldn’t have much difficulty managing minutes during the regular season this year, which should aid the Celtics during the spring. Even without the rehabilitating Kendrick Perkins, the Celtics look 10 players deep. From the ice to the hardwood, the home locker room at the TD Garden will remain jammed with centers this winter – the O'Neals, Perkins and Turkish import Semih Erden – and that group does not include Kevin Garnett, who already appears healthier, quicker and more spry that any point last season.
Ray Allen seems ageless. Paul Pierce looks lean. Rajon Rondo is continuing to improve. Add in Delonte West, Glen Davis, Marquis Daniels and Nate Robinson, among others, and … you get the idea.
Rivers will have options.
Now the issues: if you’re looking for early-season barometers, the Celtics will have some early. For starters, the Garden tomorrow might as well still be home to the circus with the increasingly self-absorbed LeBron James coming to town as a member of the revamped Heat. (What, no LeBron season preview on ESPN?) Once that nonsense is over, the Celtics will be at Cleveland on Wednesday – back-to-backers out of the gate – before a third game in four days on Friday against the Knicks at the TD Garden.
At the very least, by the weekend, we should get some sense as to whether the old guys can breathe.
As this season progresses, of course, the durability of this club will come into greater question. If the Celtics think they can go through the motions as they did last year, they are mistaken. Let’s hope they learned their lesson. Nearly a year ago at this time, en route to a sparkling 23-5 start, the Celtics started out the year 6-0 and looked like absolute world-beaters. Some actually started to wonder whether the Celtics might win 70 games. Then they finished the regular season by going 27-27 over their final 54 games, a period of time that became so frustrating that Rivers seriously considered calling it quits.
So why didn’t he?
Because the Celtics woke up in time and kicked tail during the playoffs, right up until they lost Games 6 and 7 in Los Angeles.
As frustrating as that may have been to the Celtics and their followers, let’s make something clear here: the Celtics have no one but themselves to blame for the way last year ended. The Celtics sacrificed home court advantage in the final three rounds of the playoffs last season as a result of their regular season apathy, and they won’t have the same chance if they sleepwalk through the regular season again this year. Orlando might beat them this time. Miami almost certainly will. Or the Lakers will knock them off again. When or why doesn’t matter because, with this franchise and especially this nucleus, a championship is all that matters.
Can these Celtics win it all? Of course. But everything needs to go right. Ainge raised some eyebrows when he kept this nucleus intact for at least another two seasons, and the clock has been ticking for three years to begin with. The roster undoubtedly will change some between now and year’s end. None of us are likely to get any real answers about this club until springtime, but there are some obvious truths as the Celtics prepare to take the floor tomorrow night against a Miami team that has invested in becoming a superpower.
More than ever, these Celtics need to start fast.
With this group, after all, they may never again be as healthy as they are right now.
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