Jul 23, 2012, 10:20 AM EDT
Welcome to The Inbounds, touching on a big idea of the day. It could be news, it could be history, it could be a tangent, it could be love. OK, it’s probably not love. Enjoy.
As Boston entered last year’s playoffs, they were favored against the Hawks. The biggest reason for that, despite what anyone would tell you, is that they are the Celtics. That’s it. You know how in the College Football Top 25 the same teams are placed at the top and given the benefit of the doubt, traditional powers whose weaknesses are overlooked because of their historical significance? Yeah, that happens in the NBA as well, it just happens when playoff prediction time comes knocking. It’s inconceivable that the Celtics could be toppled by the Hawks, unless the Hawks had a transcendent superstar. The Hawks do not (with apologies to Nets fans who likely believe otherwise). And so the Celtics were heavily favored, based mostly on the fact that they’re the Celtics. In truth, the Hawks matched up exceptionally well at full strength. They had more depth, they had fewer weaknesses in the starting construct, and they could run, which the Celtics tend to act like they love for about a quarter, just enough to convince you not to do it anymore so their legs don’t have to sustain a full game of it.
But of course, as was the pattern for most of the playoffs, everything went wrong for the Hawks, and everything that the Celtics needed to make go right for themselves, they did.
Do not be confused. The Celtics did not beat the Hawks because they were lucky, but they were granted some things which helped, like any team that succeeds in the playoffs does. Much was made of Al Horford‘s injury, but the Hawks missing Zaza Pachulia was as much of a factor. They had legitimate centers to throw at the Celtics to hurt them where they were weak: at true center. But injuries rendered that incapable. The Celtics had their own injuries. Ray Allen, Jeff Green, Paul Pierce was playing through a sprained MCL. But the specific absences for the Hawks gave Boston the strategic edges it needed, and they took full advantage of it. They advanced.
Philadelphia actually managed to push Boston to seven games. They, of course, should never have been there in the first place, but Derrick Rose tore his ACL and like the Celtics throughout the playoffs, the Sixers made the plays to take advantage of Rose’s absence and win the series. But in a Game 7, the Sixers needed a hot shooting night from a terrible offense. It just didn’t break for them. You can’t say the Sixers outplayed Boston, because when Boston was engaged like in Game 5, it wasn’t close. The Sixers played well for spurts but not nearly enough.
And then they pushed Miami. I bought it hook line and sinker after Game 5. I thought Miami had once again folded up shop, that they were through, and that Boston was going to the Finals, proving everyone wrong. That they’re not too old, they are too good, and they are a championship-worthy team, despite all evidence to the contrary from Christmas Day through Game 7 of the Sixers series.
And then LeBron James destroyed the building and took a souvenir with him.
But in that there were definitely signs that the Celtics were running out of gas. Allen’s cuts weren’t fast enough. Pierce mostly limped through that series, outside of his burst of swag in Game 5. And in Game 6 and 7, even the mighty Garnett, the playoffs MVP for two rounds, was slow to rotate, unable to get up the floor, winded, and you could tell, beaten.
So this would be the end, right? The Celtics would slide quietly into the grave, and perhaps make the playoffs next year and fade into irrelevance like Detroit did, eventually being ousted in blowouts in an empty building in the first round. Or they’d save their dignity and commit to a rebuilding project. That’s how it would end. That’s how these things end.
And then Danny Ainge donned a white lab coat, stuck an antenna to the ceiling of TD Garden, whipped out Wyc Grousbeck’s checkbook and made himself the FrankenCeltics monster. Brought back from the dead, half alive, half dead, stitched together with loose parts and molting tissue, a beast capable of destroying the countryside or stumbling off a cliff. Make no mistake, Ainge has created a monster, and there’s little way to tell how the Celtics will fit into the NBA landscape next season.
There’s a growing sentiment of “these Celtics aren’t old anymore” from their fanbase, which is, of course, nonsense. Kevin Garnett will still be their primary weapon at both ends of the floor. Paul Pierce could recover from the MCL sprain and be fine, but that won’t change the fact that age has started to tilt his game toward the breaking point. Their biggest offseason addition, Jason Terry, will be 35 at the start of next season. This team is still old.
It’s just also young.
Well, OK. Young-er.
Rajon Rondo is 26, no longer a pup. Jeff Green is 26, and we’re still hoping to discover a moment of maturation where he becomes whatever it is that he’s supposed to be. Courtney Lee, 26, Brandon Bass, 27, Jason Collins, 33. But there are young guys. The rooks, obviously, Jared Sullinger and Fab Melo, and Avery Bardley at just 22 at the start of next season. Ainge has tacked together a veteran team of pro’s pros with a young and versatile team, mixed with big shot makers and athletic perimeter players. It’s mixing, maybe not the best of both worlds, but on nights it will seem like it.
And it’s allowed a high level of optimism to roam Beantown about next season. The problems with last year’s team (depth, versatility, and size) have been addressed through the draft and free agency. Ray Allen was “replaced” with Jason Terry. (Note: It’s an odd thing to say they replaced Allen with Terry. Terry is capable of scoring more with the ball, but is also not as efficient of a shooter, even last season when Allen had bone spurs in his ankles and suffered with his age, Terry also seemed to head off the cliff a bit with the Mavericks. It’s maybe an upgrade, but not at the same role.) They got the guys who were out who supposedly were missing from last year’s playoff run that would have been key contributors (Green, Wilcox).
But if we look past shamrock-colored glasses, what do we actually see of this monster Ainge has brought to life?
It’s going to be scary good at times, and an abject mess at others.
More of the former than the latter.
Experience matters in the NBA, and those teams tend to win. The Heat were the first team in a while whose core isn’t necessarily “old” to win the title. Those teams can usually topple others because their execution is sharper, their will stronger, their focus more resolute. And the Celtics have that. They won’t be missing guys who know how to close out a playoff series or hit the big shot. They won’t be missing defenders who understand system and don’t have to just rely on their bodies. But they also have those other players, the ones who can get out and run. For the first time, Rajon Rondo has the wheel and an engine to motor with. Green, Lee, Bradley, even the older Wilcox all can create mayhem in transition with Rondo whipping passes. The Celtics can produce offense in different ways than just throwing their opponent into the alley puddles and hoping they land a body blow, which was their offense last season.
They have the components to absolutely wreck teams. They can rest the starters when they need to and let the kids run, they can bring back the vets if things seem to be getting out of hand. Pierce and Garnett are still going to have throwback nights. But Boston’s not dependent on them every single night.
They can win without the old guys.
But they’ll win a lot of games because of the old guys.
When Garnett gets upset at people talking about him being old, he’s confused. He is old, in NBA terms, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t a top-five player in the league last season. Factoring both ends, it’s hard to say he wasn’t. But he no longer has to be that great, every single game, for Boston to win.
This team may not be better than Indiana or Chicago next season. It is not better than the Heat. Its title chances are slim. But then, they were slimmer last season, and they were one quarter away from the Finals. The run is not over for the Big th….. oops. The Big Two Plus Rondo. This monster that Ainge has put together may not be invincible. But it’s not a bit character, either, a side plot. This thing’s going to have to be dealt with.
And if you want to kill it, you better bring more than pitchforks and fire.