On Feb. 12, the Celtics had just finished holding off the Bulls at TD Garden in a nationally-televised Sunday afternoon game. The day belonged to Rajon Rondo, who messed around to the beat of a 32-10-15 triple-double as an injured Derrick Rose glowered from the opposing bench.
Rose or no Rose, the Bulls’ fate had likely been sealed by the mere time slot and presence of ABC cameras, for that combination had proven countless times to be the tonic that morphs Rondo into an unstoppable force, a slicing and diming hardwood maestro that no foe can contain.
Shortly after the final buzzer, an animated Kevin Garnett – is there any other kind? – approached Rondo near the sideline, embraced him and bellowed out a few emphatic love-fueled words of encouragement. The camera then cut to midcourt, where Paul Pierce was observing the one-sided exchange. All Pierce could do was laugh and shake his head. A scene at once all-too-familiar and yet somehow novel.
Welcome to Year 5 of the well-documented “Three-Year Window” for the Garnett-Pierce-Allen-(Rondo) Celtics.
Aside from Year 1, when it all went according to plan – the 66 regular-season wins, the silencing of LeBron Part I, the evisceration of the Lakers and accompanying NBA championship – nothing has come easy for the Green. Garnett’s knee injury halted the title defense; Kendrick Perkins’ torn ACL cost Boston another ring at the expense of LA in 2010; the Perkins trade gutted “Ubuntu” last year, and Rondo’s hyperextended elbow put to rest any notion of challenging the Heat in the playoffs.
One line of thinking heading into the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season was that veteran-laden teams would have a distinct advantage. Be it flawed logic, untimely injuries or a general lack of player conditioning, that theory was debunked rather quickly when the defending-champion Mavericks, Celtics, and to a lesser degree, the Lakers, limped out of the gate.
In Boston’s case, the cause was a bit of it all. Pierce was both hurt and in less-than-stellar shape to begin the season. Garnett looked like he had swapped sneakers for cinder blocks. Jeff Green was found to have a potentially life-threatening heart condition. And for a team that prided itself on defense and situational execution, the lack of a proper training camp took an immediate toll.
The result was a 4-8 start, which in a 66-game season amounted to .333 ball for nearly 20 percent of the slate.
The Celtics, who had begun no worse than 20-4 in any of the previous four years and had never known life out of first place in the Atlantic Division, were six games behind the fast-starting 76ers and on the outside of the playoff picture looking in before wiping the crust out of their eyes.
Although the blows continued to come, first in the form of trade winds that swirled around each of the Big Three before centering on Rondo, then by way of further injuries to Jermaine O’Neal, Chris Wilcox and Mickael Pietrus – the latter two being particularly frightening – the Celtics nonetheless began to coalesce.
Proud, resolute and stubborn, the ex-champs climbed back to relevance, thumbing their noses at all those who wrote them off as too adversity-stricken and too old to make anything more than a whimper in this funky campaign. Through Wednesday’s loss to the Spurs, the Celtics were 26-15 since the 4-8 start, which is equivalent to a 52-win pace in a normal season.
Garnett has been sensational since assuming the 5, a position-shift he was forced to accept because, well, there was nobody else. Pierce is fresh off netting Eastern Conference Player of the Month honors for March. Second-year guard Avery Bradley has turned into Tony Allen 2.0, a ferocious perimeter defender who recently did this to Dwyane Wade.
And then there’s Rondo, who is playing at an otherworldly level these days, the end of the trade talks (and no visits from the commander-in-chief) having clearly helped him find a bit of mental equilibrium.
But as has been the case since Day 1 of Year 1, it’s Garnett who remains the beating heart of the team.
In late January, back when the 7-9 Celtics were gasping for air, they found themselves trailing the Magic by 27 points in Orlando. A third-quarter run got them within striking distance and a 27-8 onslaught in the fourth resulted in a rather breezy 91-83 victory, after which Garnett produced one of his more memorable postgame interviews with Craig Sager.
“It was a damned bar fight,” Garnett barked to no one in particular as Sager attempted to begin a question. “A bar fight. It was a bar fight, Craig. Tonight was a bar fight, man … You ever been in a bar fight?”
Despite returning to first place in late March after 50 games in unfamiliar territory, the C’s task only gets tougher. A brutal final stretch against a slew of contenders, along with a back-to-back-to-back on the road, loom. The playoffs, which Boston will undoubtedly enter with the label of also-rans, follow.
But hey, it’s Year 5 of a three-year window. This is borrowed time for the Celtics, which begs the question: Who else is ready for a bar fight?