Is it wrong to be just a little bit annoyed at these rampaging Boston Celtics for their casual cruise through the final two-thirds of the regular season?
I mean, after devastating the favored Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference semis before taking Game 1 from Orlando Sunday, you, me, LeBron, LeBron's mom and future stepdad Delonte, and the entire Van Gundy clan now possess enough evidence to make a case that they were capable of considerably greater things than 50 victories and the fourth seed.
(Re-reads previous paragraphs, slaps extra-thick forehead.)
Ah, who am I kidding? While it's insulting to a basketball fan's senses that Rasheed Wallace glided hazily through the regular season while making enough coin to purchase Flyers hats for everyone he's ever met, he and his teammates brought their Sunday best versus the Magic, continuing their postseason trend of playing at their peak when the stakes are highest.
It goes without saying that it has been an absolute treat to watch. But we like to say it anyway.
These Celtics told us they'd turn it on when they had to, and damned if they haven't done just that. Maybe you wish they'd stepped a bit harder on the accelerator during some of the miles along the way during this "Drive to 18," if only to save you 2 1/2-hours of aggravation during one of those nights when they're barely engaged and allow the likes of the New Jersey Nets to believe they're an actual NBA team.
But there's no way around it -- the way the Celtics are playing right now entirely justifies the means, and while we're not counting their Eastern Conference titles before they've hatched, their destination and destiny could very well be another showdown with the Lakers in the NBA Finals. No one around here is going to complain should another chapter in that rivalry soon be written.
Besides -- and I suppose this point is so relevant to their current supreme state that I should have acknowledged it sooner -- who's to say that they'd be in this position had they exerted maximum effort and resources to win Games 1-82 (or 28-82, we should say, given their stellar 23-5 start).
Doc Rivers, whose numerous attributes as a coach include an uncommon knack for ignoring the temptation of short-term fixes during tumultuous times and maintaining focus on the big picture, wisely parsed the minutes of his crucial veterans even if it cost them a W or two along the way. It's hard to imagine Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett would be playing so well -- and playing so much younger than their years -- had Doc not been so relatively prudent with their court time.
Of course, the fun isn't only in the results. It's in watching the players who have made them happen. So before we go, here, in no particular order, are
some quick some longer than expected comments on a few of the crucial figures in this resurgence.
'Sheed: It's not the greatest reflection of his character that he could be so apathetic during the regular season, heaving 3s from downtown 'Toineville and undoubtedly driving Tom Thibodeau to the fringe of felonious assault with this lethargic what-you-expect-me-to-move? defensive rotations. As my man Chris Gasper pointed out, at least he was honest. He came here for the playoffs, he's showed up for the playoffs . . . and on Sunday, he was extremely fun to watch, whether he was launching a picturesque rainbow 3-ball from the corner or messing with Dwight Howard when Kendrick Perkins caught a breather.
Kevin Garnett: You realize what's happening with him right now is pretty much a basketball miracle, right? A soon-to-be-34-year-old veteran of 15 NBA seasons -- a player who has logged nearly 45,000 minutes in his career -- struggles through the season a year after suffering an unusual and complicated knee injury. His leaping ability and lateral quickness seem gone for good. Oh, he's still a quality player, but his days of changing games on both ends of the floor seem to be past. And then, all of a sudden, he's KG again. The knee feels better -- he actually got better while playing during the season, and think about that for a moment -- and he uncommon quickness for such a tall man somehow returns. I still don't know how this happened, especially since reports of a sore foot and ankle against Cleveland struck my cynical self as code for "his knee is acting up again." But I'm not going wonder why or how, and instead enjoy the now, because this much I know: I was pretty sure we'd never see this version of Kevin Garnett again.
Kendrick Perkins: He does the dirty work while the Big Four (yeah, it's official) gets the glory, and, unusually for a player so young, he actually seems to prefer it that way. Watching him irritate, frustrate, and expose Dwight Howard in Game 1, I can't help but admire him the way my old man did Paul Silas.
Paul Pierce: I suspect once the season comes to an end we're going to hear about a Web MD's worth of injuries that Pierce fought through this season. So it was encouraging to see him look like his usual self, playing his signature shrewd offensive game of balance, fakes, and angles, during Game 1 against Orlando. And he should be somewhat rejuvenated in this series now that he doesn't have to deal with the LeBron Experience. Beware, Vince Carter.
Ray Allen: No, as the song goes, he's not as good as he once was, and there's a long history of shooting guards in Allen's losing their skills rapidly when they were in Sugar Ray's current age bracket. (Mitch Richmond famously went from averaging roughly 16 points per game to the side of a milk carton in the matter of a year.) While Allen may not be a Reggie Miller-type exception to this rule, there are logical reasons to think he can continue to play at his current high level for a few more years. He's in tremendous shape. He's methodical-to-the-point-of-obsession about preparation and routine. He's still one of the most efficient scorers in NBA history if you look at his 3-point and free-throw percentages, and two of his three best shooting percentages have come the past two seasons. And in a totally in-the-moment sense, is there anyone else in Celtics history -- save for No. 33 -- who you'd want on the line with the outcome in the balance, as it was in the final seconds Sunday? It's probably too early for such chatter, but I hope they re-sign him.
Rajon Rondo: We heard about chemistry issues from time to time with this team this season, and it seemed the general consensus was that they were related to Sheed and his antics. But my suspicion -- one which Garnett came close to confirming the other day -- is that some of the issues stemmed from the fact that Rondo emerged as the team's best (or at least most indispensable) player this season, and some of the veterans weren't quite prepared for that transition, particularly since Rondo has hardly been the deferential or humble sort when it comes to expressing faith in his own skills. Fortunately, the egos were sorted out and checked at the postseason's door, with everyone sharing the common goal. And it certainly does not hurt that Rondo has as much substance as flash -- not only does he make the spectacular plays, but much more often than not, he makes the right plays. He is a true point guard, a floor general in full, and those who might have resented his cockiness are wise enough to realize that their team's fortunes couldn't be in better hands.
Tony Allen: He's become what Marquis Daniels was supposed to be, and yes, that is a lot. He's their best perimeter defender (especially now that he's learned to resist upfakes that have too often resulted in three free throws for a smirking opponent). He's developed a rapport with Rondo on the break. He's proving that the athletic force who was blossoming offensively in 2006-07 before a foolish knee injury is not gone for good and was not the product of a wretched team. He's playing within himself and resisting the temptation to overdribble, yet generating more breathtaking feats than any player other than Rondo. I did not believe he had this in him. Then again, I'd have said the same about his team just a couple of weeks ago.
About Touching All The Bases
Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.