Let’s get something straight: these are not your father’s Celtics.They are not led by the “Big Three”. They don’t play in the musty heat box colloquially known as “The Gaahden”. And until they hang banner #17 over the famed parquet floor and collect the requisite hardware, they will only be another on a lengthy list of exceptional Celtic teams to fall short of greatness. Call me a hater, call me a cynic (I am neither), but like it or not that’s the basketball standard in Beantown; the standard set by the Russells and Havliceks and Birds and McHales. It’s a standard that, in light of tragedy and incompetence, was almost wiped clean from our memories.
Now it’s back and as relevant as ever. Celtic Pride, it would seem, is the ultimate double-edged sword, though I sense few complaints these days. The TD Banknorth Garden is being mentioned in the same breath as “The Garden”. Pierce, Allen and Garnett are drawing comparisons to Bird, McHale and Parish. The Celtics as a whole are being compared to the Patriots. The crazy thing? All are legitimate utterances, albeit totally premature. However, I didn’t decide to write this column now for no reason.
Two days after Christmas, the Green beat the Sonics in Seattle for their twenty-fourth win. They won 24 games last year too. With 55 more losses. Symmetry, and its eye-opening implications, that’s the first reason for the timing of this piece. Second is the fact that with 27 games now in the books and the C’s standing at 24-3, they have played exactly one-third of the season and are squarely on pace to tie the ’96 Bulls single-season NBA-record of 72 wins. Last, and most jaw-dropping, is this: no team in Celtics history, not a single one of 16 world champions, has ever begun a season better than 23-3.
Two obvious questions have emerged: 1) Can the Celtics win 72 games? and 2) Can the Celtics win the NBA title? After the Celtics-Sonics game, which aired on TNT, Charles Barkley and his sidekick Kenny Smith debated basically that. Actually, Smith started it by saying that Boston is officially “flirting with the Bulls.” That innuendo set off Barkley, who vehemently objected to such a proclamation, retorting that, “If they win 72 games I’ll walk from here to Phoenix…in a speedo.” Let the record show that TNT headquarters are in Atlanta (and who’s to say Barkley doesn’t walk from his hotel to the studio in a speedo everyday?). But I digress.
The fact is that this discussion has reached the highest echelons of the NBA media–for the uninitiated, Sir Charles sits alone on his throne at the top while Smith is his most esteemed dignitary–which is a good thing not only for the Celtics, but for basketball. Back to the original questions. Yes, the Celtics could win 72 games. Yes, the Celtics could win the NBA title. No, there’s not a shot in hell they could do both.
First, let’s show why they are capable of attaining greatness in some form. For the sake of argument, we’ll agree that 72 wins and a loss to the Spurs in the Finals is still a type of greatness, even if it’s an obvious notch below 60 wins and a championship (I believe this idea has been exhausted by the whole what-if-the-Patriots-are-18-0-and-lose-the-Super Bowl brouhaha).
You often hear coaches and analysts saying, it’s not just that they’re winning games, it’s the way in which they’re winning them. This couldn’t be more applicable. The Celtics are tops in the NBA in arguably the most important category, opponents field goal percentage. Teams are converting only 41 percent of their shots against Boston, while the C’s overall field goal percentage is 47 percent (3rd in the NBA). They are also shooting the ball exceptionally well from beyond the three-point arc, a vital aspect of championship teams since the shot was invented about 25 years ago. At 39 percent, the Celtics’ long range shooting is bested by only Toronto. They are also sharing the ball with the fluidity and unselfishness of a throwback team. As a squad they are averaging almost six assists more than their opponents, good for second in the league.
That all adds up to 24 victories in 27 tries by an average of 13.9 points per game, far and away the best in the league (Detroit is second at 9.4). Let’s also not forget that their three losses came 1) at Orlando, a game in which they were down 20 and came back only to have Paul Pierce miss a potential game-winning shot, 2) at Cleveland, when they succumbed in overtime after Lebron dropped 11 in the extra session, and 3) in Boston against Detroit by two points earned at the charity stripe by Chauncey Billups, an NBA Finals MVP. In other words, this team is either going to beat you into submission or make you work 48 grueling minutes (or more) for a single win. That’s the mark of a dominant team, a history-making team. And that’s the reason the 2007-08 Celtics could win 72 games.
Unlike football, where the Patriots will have the benefit of a bye-week in the postseason to justify playing their starters in a ‘meaningless’ regular season finale, the Celtics will be granted no such luxury come April. The NBA playoffs are long. Very, very long. Fittingly for the Green, it will take 16 wins to pave the way to and make official that elusive championship number-17. The “16 to 17” mantra will assuredly be collectively tougher to harness than the “three games to glory” blueprint the Patriots have established and replicated this decade. Don’t get me wrong; winning even a single game in the NFL Playoffs, let alone three, is supremely difficult (but the Patriots are the Patriots).
In the case of the Celtics, beating four different teams four times is harder. Age is absolutely the deciding factor. If Paul, KG and Ray were 27, 28 and 29, and surrounded by a couple of crafty veterans, I’d say the Bulls’ 72 and 16 was matchable. But Pierce is 30, Garnett is 31 and Allen is 32. That makes a huge difference when talking about a minimum-100 game season. So the easy answer will be to get the three stars some time to collect their breath before the real games commence.
Then there’s the point guard factor. Rajon Rondo has already made strides through the first third of this season, but don’t be fooled; he still must make half of a quantum leap if he wants to entertain any notions of piloting a championship team, head to head against Billups, Steve Nash and Tony Parker (two of whom he’ll inevitably have to clash with).
I’ve said from the beginning that the Celtics would be back in the NBA Finals this year, and obviously have no reason to waver from that assertion. But 72 preceding 17? Well that’s still a whole other thing. Those pertinent questions won’t even hint at being answered until March, and ultimately, June.
Kenny Smith, even if he was justifiably shot down by Sir Charles, probably summed it up best: the Celtics are flirting with the Bulls. As the final hours tick down on 2007, that much is undeniable. While flirtation is usually fleeting, let’s be real: these days, even cynics would find it difficult to contend that the Celtics’ run is destined to be short-lived.