Time for Celtics to Put Up or Tap Out
Seven months on the hardwood, an uninspired 50 wins, fistfuls of maddening losses and countless wait-til-the-playoffs sound bytes – that about sums up the 2010 Celtics, no?
The team that began the season by bustin’ ass and takin’ names en route to a 23-5 start only to lose its drive, swagger, passion – who really knows? – somewhere along the way is at last where it wants to be: armed and intact for the postseason.
If it’s indeed possible to flip the proverbial switch, the time is now for the Celtics.
We are, after all, talking about a squad that has been the definition of pedestrian since its torrid start – 27 up, 27 down, garnished with a recurring touch of indifference. The way Boston played since Christmas, it’s a surprise David Stern didn’t change the marketing slogan of his league to, “With the exception of its most storied franchise, NBA Cares”, lest he be forced to answer a question with a lie.
But all that matters not now, for the season is new and the one and only thing the Celtics have said they needed for a run at No. 18 – good health – they actually have. The road is surely daunting, and that’s meant to be interpreted in a quite literal sense, as the Celtics will have to go into and through Cleveland then Atlanta or Orlando – against whom they were a combined 3-9 in the regular season – before again hitting the road for the NBA Finals.
Then again, only Dallas (27-14) had a better record away from home than the Celtics (26-15) – who were pretty blah in their own digs to begin with – so you can be sure they’re not fazed by the prospect of do-or-die games in an opponent’s building.
Maybe that’s what they’ve wanted all along. When they won the title in ’08 they owned a suffocating home-court advantage (combined 48-7 between the regular season and playoffs), and followed that up with a cumulative 40-9 mark last year, the bulk of that damage being done sans KG.
Even without its leader, that team was a force, spilled its guts on a nightly basis in defense of the crown it had worked so doggedly to capture. By the time the playoffs rolled around and an utterly decimated Green contingent was trotting out a starting five that included Glen Davis and a bench that featured Brian Scalabrine, the fact they actually led their second-round series with the Magic 3-2 before running out of gas was in itself a minor miracle.
But the recurring caveat – beginning with Garnett and culminating with Leon Powe – was they had a rallying cry, a chip on their shoulder, a unifying cause to keep them fighting even though the end game was predetermined. Cut off an arm? We still got another! Hit us in the mouth? That all ya got!
If the events of the ’10 season are to make any sense, follow something resembling an understandable narrative, it’s this: the team – and the Big Three in particular – was crushed that it didn’t have a realistic shot at becoming the first repeat champs since Shaq and Kobe’s Lakers. So they came out like gangbusters this year and mopped the floor with pretty much everyone they encountered, displaying the same tenacity and verve that had defined them for the past two seasons.
Then, in a span of two weeks smack in the middle of the holidays, Paul Pierce suffered a small tear of the meniscus in his knee that required minor surgery and Garnett hyperextended his super-delicate right knee. From that point on, the Celtics were no longer the Celtics. They lacked their typical defensive intensity, lost games to lowly teams, gave away more than a few fourth-quarter leads, and all of it was cloaked in that facade of indifference. It was then that the wait-til-the-playoffs talk started.
It was almost as if the Pierce and Garnett injuries were a wake-up call to hit the snooze button. The Big Three only needed to turn on ESPN to hear about their aging legs and excessive mileage on their NBA odometers. They realized that if they continued to wage the battle on a nightly basis, the war would once again be lost before it had even begun.
I come to this conclusion because – apart from Rasheed Wallace, who has been conspicuously absent from this column for what are probably obvious reasons – the indifference and spottiness that has characterized this Celtics team is simply too out of character to accept at face value. Because they do care, they are repulsed by failure. We have seen too much for too long to believe otherwise.
But after dealing with some minor adversity they came to the conclusion – consciously or otherwise – that in order to reach the promised land again, maintaining their edge or gaining home-court advantage was not the bridge there this time around, so they powered down to neutral and coasted through the last two-thirds of the season.
They might have taken their licks – from the fans, media and even each other – but as opposed to last year, they’re not licking any serious wounds heading into the playoffs, which is crucial.
The question now becomes can they flip that switch back on. Time shall tell.