The truth is that the real 2008-09 Boston Celtics rank somewhere between the roaring juggernaut that ripped off 19 straight victories and had some of us daydreaming of eclipsing the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls’ single-season record of 72 wins, and the scattershot crew that at times recently has appeared to be paying bizarre homage to the 1995-96 Vancouver Grizzlies. Say, is that Brian Scalabrine or Big Country Reeves?
The afflictions that have ailed the Celtics in recent weeks are nothing that the All-Star break and a savvy acquisition or two by Danny Ainge can’t cure. Joe Smith would be ideal, and I suspect that Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen are taking turns whispering in the allegedly retired P.J. Brown’s ear about reboarding the ship for the stretch run. With good health and the appropriate personnel tweaks, this is still a 60-something-victory team with legitimate championship aspirations. But right now, some concerns are very real, particularly regarding the state of the bench.
I didn’t want to do this, but I can’t stop myself — I must lament the departure of James Posey. It’s clear that a reasonable facsimile of the tough, versatile swingman isn’t going to come walking through that door, and his absence is making the Celtics’ quest for banner No. 18 considerably more challenging than it might have been had he remained a Celtic. We’ve been reluctant to fault Ainge for sticking to his offer of three years when the New Orleans Hornets gave Posey four in their winning bid, but it’s entirely possible that the general manager’s long-term vision and fiscal prudence may end up costing the Celtics a championship in the short run — like, say, this season. Perhaps no one will be able to prevent a certain 6-foot-8-inch, 270-pound runaway train in Cleveland from achieving his goal of NBA domination this season, but a Posey-Pierce tandem would have had as good a chance as anyone.
As for the holdovers on the bench, only Leon Powe passes for dependable at the moment, and he seems to find his way into Doc Rivers’s doghouse for the slightest of infractions. Powe’s fellow big man Glen Davis remains an affable enigma in his second season; he might carve out a rewarding 12-year niche as a rugged inside scorer off the bench, or he could be the next John “Hot Plate” Williams and find himself out of the league in three years. Five seasons into his career, Tony Allen still plays like a puppy in relentless pursuit of his tail. Eddie House is, to be blunt, useless if his shot isn’t failing ... and too often lately, his shot isn’t falling, though to his credit, he keeps firing them up with the confidence that the next one will mark the beginning of a hot streak. Scalabrine is a fan favorite and a Rivers favorite, but it’s a stretch to expect him to accomplish much more than putting up a good fight on defense and knocking down an occasional wide-open jumper.
Rivers could solve some current issues by giving his veteran starters more minutes. To his credit, in moments of frustration, he manages to keep the big picture in sharp focus, with much the same reassuring manner his friend Terry Francona deftly utilizes during the frenzied summer months at Fenway Park. Rivers refuses to put a few more miles on his superstars’ legs simply to humble the Charlotte Bobcats in a random January game. Patience is among his most important — and unheralded — attributes as a coach.
In retrospect, it’s a tribute to the uncommon competitiveness of these players — particularly twin engines Pierce and Garnett — that they could play with such unyielding intensity for as long as they did. Last season ended with that delirious rout of the Lakers on June 17 in the 108th game of the season. As of Wednesday, the Celtics have played the most games in the league (42), including five in the past seven days. The past season and a half has been a rewarding but relentless grind. You’re damned right they have a right to be weary.
And because they wear the championship belt, they get hit with their opponent’s best shot every single night, with the consequences sometimes being that they have to endure yapping from the likes of D.J. Augustin after they are felled by a lucky punch. A rookie, talking smack about a champion. Imagine the hubris. The Celtics meet Charlotte again April 1. I had to look up that date. I suspect Pierce and his vengeful teammates already have it circled.
No, their recent struggles — which have manifested themselves most noticeably with step-slow defensive rotations and midrange jumpers that clang a few inches shy of their target — are not due to any loss of “swagger,” which has replaced “intangibles” as the ridiculous sports buzzword of choice for those who depend on such vagaries in lieu of knowledge. They are struggling because several key players — most recently Kendrick Perkins and his apparent trick shoulder — are nagged by more minor injuries than J.D. Drew. And have I mentioned the thin bench yet?
Which brings us to Starbury. When the concept of Stephon Marbury as a Celtic was first floated, I was somewhere between resistant and appalled. For all of his vast ability — or at least the vast ability of his youth, for it’s hard to determine what he has left since he hasn’t suited up for an NBA game this season — he’s the ultimate me-first player, and I don’t think anything is going to change him at this point, including a chance to salvage his career with a championship-contending team. I’m skeptical that he even believes his career needs salvaging.
But then I considered something that I imagine is one of Ainge’s guiding principles: What Would Red Do? And Red Auerbach’s philosophy was that if you add a talented malcontent to a winning team with a strong and established group of leaders, he will have no choice but to get in line or get lost. It always was fun when Red brought in perceived problem children — Robert Parish and Dennis Johnson among them — only to watch them grow into vital contributors for the Celtics. And so my tune has changed: If Marbury becomes available, Ainge wants him, and Garnett and the rest are cool with it, well, we should be, too.
Even as the Posey departure hovers over Ainge’s head, we trust him to do the right thing. The same goes for the accomplished core of players who remain. After all, we’re 150 games into what Sean Grande likes to calls the New Big Three Era, and when the stakes have been highest, these guys haven’t let us down yet.
OT columnist Chad Finn is a sports reporter for Boston.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org