Old friend James Posey returns to the Garden Friday night for the first time since those wonderfully delirious hours after Banner No. 17 was secured and all heaven broke loose, and when his former employers present him with his championship ring during a pregame ceremony, the ovation is sure to be raucous, prolonged, and heartfelt. Posey is a Hornet today, but his remarkably dependable performance during his lone season in Boston ensured that in legacy, he will forever be a Celtic.
It was natural for a fan to lament when Posey said goodbye and joined the Hornets as a free agent not too long after the Duck Boats’ engines had cooled, but he is one modern athlete we could not fault for chasing the dollar signs. As a 30-year-old who had already worn the jersey of five different teams, he took his last open shot at NBA riches, and he prudently accepted the best offer once it was obvious that Danny Ainge, keeping the long-term interests of the franchise in mind, wasn’t going to give him the fourth year New Orleans did. Given the circumstances, his departure made sense for both sides — business-wise, anyway.
Entering the new season, however, it was difficult to imagine how — or if — the team would replace him on the basketball court. To put it in the context of recent Boston athletes, Posey’s uncommon aptitude in deliver-or-lose situations was reminiscent of Troy Brown with the ’01 Patriots, or perhaps of Dave Roberts during a certain Red Sox postseason moment in ’04. When something absolutely, positively needed to get done — say, drilling a 3-pointer from the corner, taking a charge on Kobe Bryant or LeBron James, poking away a steal in the backcourt, zapping Kevin Garnett with the tranquilizer gun, anything — he inevitably did it, no questions asked. He was the ultimate role player, and his departure was commonly and logically perceived as a blow to the franchise’s chances of a second straight championship.
But a strange thing has happened since his departure: The Celtics, 20-2 and soaring as high as the rafters, seem to have improved. We never would have suspected it the day he departed, but the team James Posey will encounter Friday night might just be superior to the one he left behind.
One reason for this is apparent every time the Celtics take the court, and frankly, we should have seen this one coming: They now carry themselves with the supreme confidence of champions, and it begins with their superstars and leaders. Paul Pierce no longer has to deal with the great-talent-on-a-lousy-team label, as if the flaws and failures of his lesser teammates should have somehow reflected poorly on him as a player. No one whispers anymore that Kevin Garnett shrivels on the big stage. And Ray Allen’s superstar credentials were confirmed the moment he so memorably juked helpless Sasha Vujacic into the Pacific Ocean in Game 4 of the Finals.
The Celtics own the winners’ cachet now, and although it manifests itself in different ways — their collective confidence and calmness is something to behold in the late moments of a close game — it’s more a state of mind than anything else: “We’ve done this once, and you sure as hell aren’t going to stop us from doing it again.” Posey, who won his first ring with the 2005-06 Miami Heat, possessed such an attitude when he arrived in Boston, which enhanced his value even beyond his ability to play the game intelligently. But the Celtics replaced some of Posey’s intangible value with the experience they gained last postseason, and the improved performance and productivity of certain individual players has, so far, filled the void he left on the court.
Shooting guards rarely play better at age 33 than they did at 32, which makes Allen’s accomplishments this season all the more impressive. It may be because he’s more comfortable in the Celtics’ offense — of the Big Three, he made the most individual sacrifices last season — or because, as he suggests, his ankles finally feel right more than a year after surgery. The reality is that he’s looked every bit like the player who averaged 26.4 points per game for the Sonics two seasons ago, and less like the third option/occasional afterthought he was during his first year in Boston. And save an occasional hiccup, his partner and protégé in the backcourt, the rubber-limbed Rajon Rondo, has emerged as the fourth Beatle, a genuine star who is a threat to collect a triple double no matter who opposes him. Somewhere, Allen Iverson nods in agreement and mutters something about practice.
The Celtics have also made upgrades on the bench. Leon Powe was still something of an afterthought at this point a season ago, struggling to win coach Doc Rivers’ faith on both ends of the court. Now he’s a crucial component, a relentless hustler with a deft touch around the hoop and an uncommon knack for drawing charges. And Tony Allen, who comes closest to Posey physically, plays with more daring now that he’s more than a season removed from knee surgery. Barring any more post-whistle, cement-skulled excursions to the hoop, he should continue to develop.
Their personnel improvements are beyond encouraging, but I’m not saying these Celtics as a whole are superior to last year’s cast. You know the cliché: There’s a lot of basketball to be played between now and June. One cruel and awkward twist of a vital player’s limb could turn the Celtics from favorite to mere contender — or worse — very quickly.
And we know the time will come, a time most likely in the postseason, when a critical defensive stop won’t be made, or a meaningful 3-pointer will rattle off the rim, and we’ll catch ourselves saying, “Ah, dang, ol’ Posey would have made that play.”
But we haven’t said it yet during this enthralling sequel. In fact, we haven’t thought about him much at all, at least until Friday night comes around.
If that’s not a tribute to the players he left behind, you tell me what is.
OT columnist Chad Finn is a sports reporter for Boston.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org