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Celtics’ Eyes on the Prize

When you think about it, the Celtics have been engaged in an interminable period of adjustment since Danny Ainge began wheeling and dealing the day after the draft last summer.

Once Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett were introduced in green, the Celtics had to adjust from life as a bottom feeder to an existence as a veritable contender. Then, after starting 29-3, they had to make the delicate transition from contender to early front-runner. Most recently, when KG had to sit out nine games prior to the All-Star break with an abdominal strain, they were forced to preserve an identity without their centerpiece.

Now, with Sam Cassell and P.J. Brown on board, fortifying one of the deepest and most talented rosters in the league, the Celtics have one last phase of adjustment to tackle: bringing it all together for a run at title number 17.

With 21 regular season games remaining, Doc Rivers has about six weeks to integrate Cassell and Brown (and consequently reduce the roles of other players). If their current track record of adjustment holds up, odds are the Celtics will keep moving forward.

That seems to have become the M.O. of this team.

As obstacles–some real, others media contrived–have presented themselves, Danny and Doc’s boys have continued to work, continued to evolve. They haven’t allowed the many highs to be too high; the few lows to be too low. They have kept things on an even keel, which is what championship teams do.

The general manager and the coach deserve their fair share of the credit.

That Ainge and Rivers showed no haste in getting Garnett back on the court was both a reflection of the faith they had in the chemistry of the team as well as a recognition of the bigger picture. Ainge has made it no secret that there will be no talk of a possible restoration of the league’s most storied franchise or even of “The Big Three” until that seventeenth banner gets hung over the parquet. He said as much when he stood between Ray and KG at their unveiling, and has reiterated it over the course of the season.

The players wholeheartedly endorse the words of the man who assembled them, particularly the title-starved trio of stars who have led the team. Take, for instance, Allen’s comments prior to unquestionably the biggest game of the season against Detroit on March 5. “What is this game 59 for us? It’s business as usual.”

Maybe a bit trite, but given that he said it before a game in which the Celtics locked down the Pistons in the fourth quarter with a decisive 21-9 run, gained the head-to-head tiebreaker with their only close competitor, and reaffirmed their place at the top of the East, at the very least he was being candid. Allen only shot 1-for-9 that night, but he put in a blue-collar days work in defense of Richard Hamilton, which only served to validate his pregame assertion.

It’s business.

These days, skeptics argue that the Celtics won’t have the necessary gears to win a championship, won’t be able to turn it up when hardware is on the line against teams that have already been to the promised land. Time was, skeptics contended the Celtics couldn’t improve on their amazing start, couldn’t deal with the ramifications of tumbling back to the stark reality of a loaded-NBA.

21-9 since 29-3 has silenced that line of thinking. So too has the Green’s ability to stay tops in the league in opponents field goal percentage (42 percent) and opponents points per game (90.3). No passing lane is safe against this team either, as the Celtics continue to rank among the best at creating steals (8.7 per game, fourth overall).

It’s due to a cumulative commitment and relentless effort on the defensive end that have Boston positioned where not a whole lot thought it would be: locked and loaded for the stretch run having not yet peaked.

And here comes Cassell.

It’s hard to fathom a 38-year old point guard making or breaking a championship team, but this one will. He won rings his first two years in the NBA, which furnished him with a set of stones that have been the topic of many a water cooler. His ego is accordingly robust. He could conceivably be a problem for the incumbent and up-and-comer at his position, Rajon Rondo. Just don’t count on it.

Cassell spent considerable time with Allen in Milwaukee and Garnett in Minnesota. He knows he’s coming onto this team to take a backseat to Rondo, mentor the young man, and when called upon, assume control of the rock in crunch time. Just as KG, Ray and Paul assured everyone they would spread the wealth for the good of the team, so too has Cassell expressed his readiness to do what’s necessary to win.

“I don’t have to take 15-20 shots to make the Boston Celtics a championship team,” he said. As for Rondo? “I don’t want his job. I’m just here to make the team better.”

Cassell has talked the talk throughout his entire career. He’s done the walkin’ too. Now he becomes the final piece on a team that has been under reconstruction for the last nine months. One last adjustment before the real games begin.

“From what I’ve heard, there’s nothing like getting a championship in Boston,” said Cassell.

You heard right, Sam.

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