April 12, 2008 -- It’s not often that a team in need of saving finds a capable Jesus.
But in moves last summer that brought Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett to Boston, the moribund Celtics found their resurrection in two.
Not everyone was a believer, however. Many observers saw the Celts winning the Atlantic Division, but few had faith they’d get any further. Experts doubted the overhauled squad would gel soon enough to contend this season. Critics bemoaned Boston’s matador defense and lack of depth. In ESPN The Magazine’s NBA season preview, Chris Broussard quoted one successful exec as saying, “There’s no way they’ll win the East.”
Ye of little faith.
The C’s finished the 2006-07 season at 24-58, just two wins better than the league’s most futile team, the Memphis Grizzlies, and 23 game behind the Atlantic-champion Toronto Raptors. That record was the sixth worst for a proud franchise that over a 30-year span had won a record 16 NBA titles.
Those 58 losses reveal in the starkest terms the star-crossed season the Celts suffered last year, but they only hint at the blows the team took to fall so low. The first punch in the gut came on Oct. 28, three days before the Celtics’ season opener, with the death of Red Auerbach.
Was the old coach’s demise an omen? You could hardly blame anyone who thought so. Barely a month into the season, an injury plague hit Boston, felling four starters. Wally Szczerbiak played just 32 games (ankles); Tony Allen (ACL) and Theo Ratliff (back) were lost for the season; and the Celtics’ five-time All-Star and leading scorer, Paul Pierce, missed 35 games (foot, elbow). In one of his stretches on the sidelines, Pierce watched the Celtics lose 18 straight – the longest skid in team history.
Then, on Feb. 22, the franchise suffered a deeper loss when former Celts guard and one-time Finals MVP Dennis Johnson died of a heart attack at 52. Boston won just 11 more games on the season.
Pierce had called Boston home for all of his nine years in the league. But last summer, “The Truth” gave serious thought to fleeing The Garden.
The arrivals of seven-time All-Star Allen from the Sonics on June 28 and Garnett, a 10-time All-Star, on July 31 – in an unprecedented six-for-one trade with the Minnesota Timberwolves – prompted Pierce to think again. “The Big Three” was reborn, the nickname revealing their goal to follow the lead of Larry Bird, Robert Parish and Kevin McHale, who had helped the Celts to three NBA championships.
The nickname also reflected this troika’s commitment to team. There would be no Jesus in Boston, no one man shouldering the load.
Even so, the Celts’ role players have come through as if divinely inspired. Boston has gotten consistent production from Kendrick Perkins, James Posey, Eddie House and the resurrected Allen – then, for good measure, added solid veteran role players Sam Cassell and P.J. Brown halfway through the season. Better still, the Celtics’ young players have exceeded all expectations. Rookies Glen Davis and Gabe Pruitt provide sparks off the bench and sophomores Rajon Rondo and Leon Powe have improved in nearly every statistical category – enough that Rondo is arguably this year’s most improved player.
From the season’s tip-off, these Celtics put that team ethic to work, rattling off eight straight wins. The C’s have enjoyed several such winning streaks – two nine-game streaks, one 10-game, and a seven-game. Though KG, Allen and Pierce were named All-Stars and Garnett picked up two Player of the Week awards (for a total of 17), no one Celtic has had the garish stats of a Kobe Bryant- or LeBron James-like superstar.
In fact, the man who ought to be their superstar has had something of an off season. KG’s scoring and rebounding averages are down – the primary reason “The Big Ticket” is a long shot to win a second MVP trophy. At 19 points and 9.3 rebounds per game, Garnett is averaging less than a double-double for the first time in 10 years. He’s also playing just 33 minutes per game, five fewer than his career average and the fewest since his rookie season, when he averaged 29 – a testament to the depth of this Celtics squad and the trust the players have in one another to get the job done.
And get the job done they have. A few examples:
- March 18: The Celtics snap the Houston Rockets’ historic 22-game win streak. Afterward, Tracy McGrady tells reporters that he’s never seen a better defense than Boston’s in his 11 years in the NBA.
- March 20: The C’s pull out a win over the Mavericks in Dallas, wrapping up the team’s first sweep in the Texas Triangle since Feb. 1987.
- March 30: The Celts hold the Miami Heat to 17 field goals, the fewest in the shot-clock era.
- April 2: Boston reaches 60 wins for the first time in 22 years.
- April 5: With “The Big Three” sitting out, the Celtics beat the Bobcats to break the NBA record for single-season turnarounds, going from 24 wins to 61. With the victory, they also clinch the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
- April 12: Team Green reaches 64 wins, more than all but two teams in Celtics history -- the 1972-73 Dave Cowens-led squad that went 68-14 and lost in the Eastern Conference Finals; and the 1985-86 "Big Three" team that finished 67-15 and won the NBA title.
With two regular-season games to play, the Celtics head into the playoffs not only as the NBA’s top team but as arguably the best defenders in the past 35 years. Under the guidance of associate head coach Tom Thibodeau, they rank first in scoring allowed at 90 points per game, and hold a +10.5 ppg differential – more than 3 ppg better than that of the Detroit Pistons, the league's No. 2 defense. Led by Garnett, who has more than made a case for winning Defensive Player of the Year honors, the Celtics have held opponents to a league-low .418 field goal percentage and .315 from beyond the arc.
Lest their accomplishments be waved away as of “Leastern” origins, the Celts went 25-5 against Western Conference teams on the season – and only one of those losses came at The Garden. Against Western teams headed to the playoffs, Boston prevailed in 12 of 16 games.
The only team that has consistently caused problems for the Celtics has been the Washington Wizards, who have won three of the teams’ four meetings.
If the C’s can figure out Washington, if they meet again in the playoffs, there’s no reason to think Boston can’t make it to the NBA Finals.
If that should happen, the Celtics would be the first among the league’s biggest-turnaround teams to accomplish that feat.
If they get that far, Boston might win it all in what would be the ultimate NBA turnaround.
That's a lot of ifs, but these Celtics have plenty of reasons to believe they can do just that.