With Lockout Over, C's Locking In on Banner 18
NEW YORK - As the Celtics' team bus snaked through the grid of midtown Manhattan on its way to the team hotel, last-minute shoppers lined the streets of New York City, queuing up hundreds at a time just to get a chance to get inside stores to buy Uggs and iPhones. Who knows what stores actually had left on the shelves? Those who waited this long to do their shopping couldn't possibly know what to expect by the time their wait was over. But the anticipation of Christmas was palpable just by looking out the window of the chartered bus.
Along those lines, after a long offseason filled with doubt, uncertainty and acrimony, the NBA is back. And while there's plenty of excitement for the Celtics to take the court for real on Sunday, they enter the 2011-12 season with more questions than answers.
Chief among them: How will the Celtics handle a 66-game season? Well, in 2008 when the Celtics hung Banner 17, they won exactly 66 of their 82 regular season games. Forty-five games is probably a good over-under number for the prognosticators among us. The Big Three-era Celtics have been notorious for starting the season fast but fading late in the year, and the impact of the truncated slate on aging legs remains to be seen. Still, at the end of the day, 29 other teams are facing the same task.
The good news is the C's rebooted a bit and on paper and they appear to be a deeper team than last year's squad. When the league's labor agreement was finally reached over Thanksgiving weekend, Danny Ainge wasted no time attempting to retool his aging team, quickly deepening the team's frontline with the additions of Chris Wilcox and Brandon Bass.
After dealing Kendrick Perkins in the much-maligned deadline deal last season, the Celtics needed to regain some of the size, toughness and veteran swagger it sacrificed in the swap that yielded two players, Jeff Green and Nenad Krstic, who won't contribute this year. Bass and Wilcox should help in that department, even if Wilcox has played his entire career without a postseason game on his resume.
As for the players acquired in last year's trade, Krstic opted to play overseas during the lockout, while Green's 2011-12 season was erased last week when the results of his physical revealed a heart condition that will require surgery. In hindsight, the Perkins deal represents a significant setback, but Krstic and Green's future couldn't have been expected at the time of the transaction.
Saturday's signing of swingman Mickael Pietrus after his buyout from the Suns should help replace Green's absence, giving the C's some additional help as a wing defender and practitioner of the the corner 3-pointer. Pietrus has had some big games against the Celtics in the past, so the hope is he can continue to contribute now that he's in the proper uniform.
And there's another guy who's finally wearing green worth noting. Keyon Dooling, long a target of Doc Rivers, finally arrived in Boston to solidify the backup point guard role behind Rajon Rondo. The C's hope he can be a little more dependable than the oft-injured Delonte West and mercurial Nate Robinson. When you consider the limitations of Eddie House and Father Time's influence on Sam Cassell by the time he got here, Dooling represents the best option Rivers has had to back up Rondo since he's been in Boston.
Of course, Rondo himself spent a few days questioning his own future this month; his name flew in trade rumors when camp opened but a deal was never consummated. To his credit, Rondo appeared largely unfazed, and even told reporters that he'd make a concerted effort to be more cooperative than he's been in seasons past. He seemed eager for a fresh start. Meanwhile, Paul Pierce was telling anyone who would listen on Media Day that he expected a huge year out of Rondo, calling him “the best player on the team” and noting his personal growth and maturity.
While Rondo's emergence was once a pain point for the veterans in the Celtics locker room, the torch passing is well underway. Pierce understands that when it comes to his own career, he's looking more at the game clock than the shot clock, if you will. Having played for just one franchise is a source of pride for the captain, and he knows that he's running out of chances to hang another banner in Boston.
With Sunday's season opener a day away, Pierce traveled with the team to Manhattan, but there was no indication whether he'd actually take the floor at MSG. It's hard to believe he'd sit out if there's anyway he can play; no one likes the big stage more than The Truth. Still, the Celtics can't really afford to risk further injury if he's not ready.
As for the other veterans, Ray Allen showed up for camp in terrific shape (spoiler alert!), but that's nothing new. Kevin Garnett's been quiet with the press as usual, but Rivers has made a point more than once of saying that he wants the Big Ticket to be more aggressive offensively. He's also indicated that he'll be more meticulous when it comes to managing the big man's minutes, limiting him to five-minute stretches of playing time as he looks to avoid having a gassed Garnett in fourth quarters.
Jermaine O'Neal, who spent much of last year trying to avoid surgery before finally acquiescing to the knife, appears to have picked up where he left off in last year's postseason when he finally looked to be regaining his form. Much like Rondo, he also saw his own name in trade rumors, and while he's been around way too long to let that bother him, he did make it clear he'd rather retire than play for anything else but a ring.
He's not alone in that regard. Pierce, Allen and Garnett are all focused on another championship after winning in 2008 and getting tantalizingly close in 2010. Is it the last stand for the Big Three? Perhaps, but we've heard that before.
This much is true: They may have been locked out for the summer and fall, but to win a title in the summer, they'll have to be locked during the winter and spring.