Playoff Thoughts: The Celtics

Everyone knows that the Cavs are flying high, the Lakers are the champs, the Magic are dying to get back to the big stage and earn their respect, and you could throw a dart at teams 2 - 8 in the West and have as good a chance of picking who makes the conference finals as you would be doing analysis.  Instead of re-covering that ground, today I'm going to take a look at a team that could either lose in the first round or win the title, and neither would shock me.

Last week our own Ben Zani, a life-long Celtic fan, threw in the towel and led a funeral march for his favorite team this year:
"The admission that my beloved C's are done, cooked, kaput...well, let's just be glad I pay a therapist to help me deal with these issues."

Over on ESPN Bill Simmons, another life-long Celtics fan, has been down on the team all season and offered  this angry dismissal of his team's chances today:
"I know the Celtics are going to lose in Round 1. 
On Tuesday, I thought Dwyane Wade could beat by himself what I described in a recent e-mail as a "decrepit, non-rebounding, poorly coached, dispirited, excuse-making, washed-up sham of a contender""

Another ESPN writer, J.A. Adande, said that the Celtics should be euthanized and eulagized

If you go to any message board, including (maybe especially) a Celtics one, you'll see these same sentiments thrown around liberally.  Dismissing the team as too old, too disinterested, and just not good enough seems to be the vogue thing to do right now among pundits, analysts and fans alike. 

And yet..I don't see it.  I think that the only teams in the playoffs that could legitimately beat the Celtics in these playoffs are the Cavs, the Lakers, and the Spurs. 

Whoa, Professor, but the Celtics have been a .500 team for the last four months.  The Hawks swept them, the Magic almost swept them, they even lost to the NETS.  Do you want to take a second and reconsider that last sentence?

I'll admit that the way that they finished the year gives me pause, and makes me have to at least consider that maybe I'm just reading this wrong.  But that, I think I'll stick by my statement.  Because here is what I saw when I watched the Celtics over the course of the season:

They came out the first couple of months looking a lot like they did the past two years, with the main difference being that everyone was trying to get Kevin Garnett up to speed after his knee injury.  Other than that, though, their 23 - 5 record with an excellent win margin through the first two months looked very familiar.  Then, three key things happened at the end of December:

1) KG reinjured the knee that ended his season last year and missed the first of what would be a 10+ game absence
2) Paul Pierce went down with the first of several injuries that would keep him out for 10+ games
3) The Cavs and Lakers kept winning, putting HCA against either team out of reach

The rest of this is purely my conjecture.  But I believe that the Celtics looked up, after going 9 - 10 in the 19 games where Garnett and/or Pierce sat out, and realized that they couldn't catch the Lakers or Cavs.  I think they also were feeling their mortality after losing out on a chance to contend last year due to an injury.  And I think the whole focus of the team became: let's make it to the playoffs healthy, and if so we've got a shot.  I think they revved it up a bit in March to see if they still had it during a stretch when they went 6 - 1 with a win in Dallas, and I think they revved it up again in their last game against the Cavs as a bit of a measuring stick.  Once they proved to themselves they could still do it, they essentially started the end-of-season shut-down that you saw from a lot of the teams who couldn't really change their postseason position...but I think they started it a bit earlier.

Now, I have no proof of any of that.  And even if I'm right, there is no guarantee that a team that has been playing not-to-get-hurt can all of a sudden turn it on again in the playoffs.  Nevertheless, when I look at the available theories for this season, to me this is the one that makes the most sense.  Age is a bear for pro athletes, but mainly due to injury or long-term skill erosion.  If they're healthy (which they seem to be), you can't convince me that the Celtics suddenly aged so much between December and April that they forgot how to play.  Likewise, you can't convince me that all of a sudden some of the most passionate players in this generation suddenly got content and decided they didn't care anymore if they won or not.  Neither of those make sense to me.

So, as we prepare for the start of the real season tomorrow, I am eagerly looking forward to finding out whether I'm right or not.  If I'm right the playoffs should be a lot more interesting, because suddenly there would be another super-team out there to make this postseason more of the clash-of-the-titans that I expected last off-season.  And if I'm wrong...I guess that means everyone else is right, and at the very least maybe we'll get the Kobe/LeBron Final that many are jazzed up for.

But I don't think I'm wrong.


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