Posted Dec 18 2010 11:28AM
It started with those post-practice cell phone videos in training camp. Nate Robinson running around in Shaquille O'Neal's shoes. The whole team dancing in the locker room in masks. Nate dunking on an unknowing Shaq.
Then there were the pictures from the Halloween party at Ray Allen's house, with Paul Pierce dressed as a frog, Allen as early 80s Michael Jackson, and Kevin Garnett as D.J. Lance Rock.
The videos and pictures immediately made their way around the Twitterverse, and every NBA fan, no matter what team they rooted for, couldn't help but enjoy the comedy. And at that point, the question had to be asked: Have the Boston Celtics become a likeable team?
Boston has certainly been well respected since Allen and Garnett joined forces with Pierce three years ago. No one can deny that Doc Rivers' squad has made the most of its talent. It's a group that plays hard, plays together and doesn't back down from anyone.
But there haven't been many people outside of Boston actually rooting for these guys.
That seems to have changed this season. Part of it is the presence of O'Neal. The Big Shamrock has been the league's top off-court entertainer for most of his career.
This season, he's posed as a statue in Harvard Square. He's tried to ride The T dressed as a woman. And on Monday, he'll be conducting the Boston Pops. There's no doubt that Shaq adds to the entertainment value of the Celtics' roster, but he's actually only part of the show.
"This is the funniest team I've been on all my life," he said this week. "I even told KG, 'I had no idea you guys were this funny.'"
Maybe Shaq and Robinson have brought out the inner-goofball in the rest of the Celtics, but the idea of Garnett being a character is a little hard to accept. This is the guy who talks to the basket stanchion before every game, barks at opponents non-stop, and seemingly lets out an expletive with every breath he takes.
"On game day, don't mess with KG," Shaq said. "But on practice day, he's the funniest guy ever."
Of course, even on practice days, all the nonsense worries Rivers.
"I was concerned, and I am every day with them," Rivers said, "that we went from competition to entertainment. And we want to make sure we keep this as a competitive thing every night. It's always got to be about the competition. It can't be about the show."
But the results speak for themselves. For the fourth straight year, the Celtics are off to a hot start and have avoided the missteps that we've seen from the Lakers, Heat and Magic.
"They've done a very good job," Rivers said, "in practices too. Because if you can't keep the focus in practice, you're not going to be able to keep it in the games. We've had great practices this year when we've had enough guys to practice."
Not only have the Celtics integrated Shaq into their comedy routines, but they've seamlessly integrated him into their starting lineup as well. And that wasn't necessarily a given, because this is a team that has thrived on ball movement and pick-and-roll defense, two things that are not associated with the 38-year old Diesel.
And while O'Neal had solid numbers in Cleveland last year, the Cavs were a better team when he was on the bench.
But this season, the opposite has been true. The Celtics' starters, with O'Neal replacing Kendrick Perkins, have been the best lineup in the league. They've brought in a 325-pound guy who can be a ball-stopper in the post and who doesn't move well defensively, yet they haven't skipped a beat.
"It hasn't been like we're trying to integrate a star into the lineup, where we're going to go to him or feature him," Rivers said. "We've integrated a gigantic role player. And he's accepted that. So in that way, it's been easy for us, because he has accepted that.
"In the past, probably where he's gone, they've tried to integrate him as one of the go-to guys, key guys. And I'm sure that must have been more difficult. But for us, Paul, Ray and Kevin are going to get the ball most of the time. [Rajon] Rondo's going to have the ball in his hands. No one's going to come in and change that. So in a lot of ways, I think it's been easier for Shaq in that way."
"Shaq knows exactly where to go," Allen added. "Sometimes on offense, he just looks up and the ball is in his hands, he doesn't have to do a whole lot. Defensively, he sees where he's supposed to be spot-wise. He's going to be there and we're going to be there for him."
Now, it's just a matter of getting healthy. O'Neal, Rondo and Jermaine O'Neal have all dealt with early-season injuries, but the Celtics have still built a little bit of a cushion atop the Eastern Conference standings. And while the Heat are now making a charge, Boston already has a 2-0 head-to-head advantage.
Oh yeah, that's the other element to the Celtics' likeability. They're clearly the No. 1 foil to the new big three in Miami. And the anti-Heat sentiment among NBA fans is probably stronger than any fondness for the characters in the Celtics' locker room.
"I don't think anyone likes us any more," Rivers said. "They just hate someone else more."
Perhaps that's it. But how can you not like a team that plays so well together on the court and doesn't take itself too seriously off it?
Unless you live in L.A., Miami or Orlando, it's perfectly fine to like these Celtics. And if you can accept that, you'll still have a team to root for come May and June.
John Schuhmann is a staff writer for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter. The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.
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