ORLANDO - On the brief bus ride back from the Amway Arena to the team hotel after Tuesday's gutty 95-92 Game 2 victory over the Orlando Magic, Kevin Garnett was cracking up Paul Pierce and their teammates with running commentary on everything they passed along the way.
At one point, KG even demanded the bus driver start honking the horn at pedestrians.
As you can imagine, it's good to be the Boston Celtics right now, up 2-0 in the Eastern Conference Finals and ready to fly home Wednesday morning for a pair of games at the TD Garden this weekend and the opportunity to close out the series. If all goes right, the Celtics won't be coming back to Florida anytime soon.
Paul Pierce elevated over Dwight Howard for the jumper in Game 2, and he's gotten his team to raise its game in the postseason as they're making another run at a ring in 2010.
A lot of things have come together for the Celtics in the last few weeks. They've gotten healthy, seemingly more so by the day. They've put aside any internal issues that arose in the middle of the season. They've started picking each other up off the floor again. And along the way, they've returned to championship form.
Winners of five straight games for the first time since an 11-game winning streak that was sparked by an OT win at Madison Square Garden on November 22 and lasted until December 14, the Celtics struggled with consistency after their Christmas Day win in Orlando. Minor injuries mounted, Ubuntu seemed shelved and it didn't seem likely that the C's would have much left by the time the playoffs rolled around.
"I think we're becoming a team that started the season more than the team that played in the middle to the end of the season," said Head Coach Doc Rivers, who was credited before Monday's practice by multiple players with keeping a Celtics ship that was taking on water afloat. "The team that started the season was pretty good. The team from Christmas, the day after Christmas on struggled. So I would like to think we're that team, the team before that."
As March would down, April drew near and the postseason was on the horizon, the Celtics showed signs of putting it all together. To his credit, Rivers kept telling the media he was seeing signs. It's just unclear if anyone outside of a training facility in Waltham, MA believed him. But there was the famous Big Three summit dinner after a Friday night home loss at the Garden, and undoubtedly plenty of other team discussions and soul-searching moments about which outsiders will never know.
The specifics aren't important now, but what remains relevant is that a team that was counted out by observers who felt the C's were too old and couldn't turn it on for the playoffs has managed to turn back time, and yes, turn it on this spring for another run at a ring.
"I know it's starting to look that way. But I think even though we lost some games down the stretch, there were some things we were doing down the stretch of the season the last ten games, we were seeing that we were turning the corner," Pierce said. "Even though some of the things didn't result in wins, I thought Coach really saw some things that we did in those last five or ten games that were some positive things that we really didn't do for most of the season. I think we saw it coming, we stayed positive."
So did the Celtics just flip a switch for the postseason?
"I know it's starting to look that way, [so]...maybe you can," Pierce said at the postgame podium, grinning.
Pierce, who scored the Celtics first nine points and dropped 28 altogether, hit two free throws in the final minute of Game 2 (his only points of the fourth quarter after a 22-point first half) and fouled out of the game.
But he summed up the change in his team's attitude and outlook his way to the locker room after leaving the court. "Two more now. Let's get greedy."
Greedy? An underdog since beating the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals, the Celtics have been downright gluttonous since the first round. They flew under the radar while dismantling LeBron James and the Cavaliers (and perhaps the future of basketball in Cleveland), and they just won two games that suddenly could be the last ever played at Amway Arena.
It's hard to imagine that this team can go overlooked any longer, but the Celtics would probably prefer that's exactly what happens.
"I wish we could take them to Alcatraz for four days and be on the island all by ourselves," Rivers said, acknowledging a bandwagon that's picking up steam and passengers with each win. "Everywhere they go, they're going to hear how great they are. We haven't done anything. You need four wins; we have two."
If Wednesday's team flight charts a course for San Francisco rather than Hanscom Air Force Base, so be it. But you get the sense that this team has already rallied around the idea that people thought they were cooked midway through the season, that they've been counted out a few times in the postseason already, and probably would be again should they beat the Magic twice more over the next five games and reach the NBA Finals.
Pierce, who spent his summer after the 1998 draft calling out the names of the nine players picked ahead of him during shooting drills, has regularly derived motivation from being overlooked throughout his career. And when he feels ignored, he's not afraid to spout off the occasional bravado-laden boasts. For instance, in the days leading up to the Three-Point Shootout at All-Star Weekend in Dallas, Pierce told everyone who would listen that he was "one of the greatest shooters in NBA history" but typically punctuated the claim a wink or chuckle. And then he went out and won the contest.
After winning the 2008 NBA Title, Pierce proclaimed himself the "best basketball player in the world." While many ridiculed his contention, Pierce laughed off the haters all summer, from the start of the Duck Boat rolling rally (with trophies and Red Auerbach's cigar in hand) around Boston to a party at the Mirage in Las Vegas where he made it rain with dollar bills and enjoyed being the Finals MVP in the VIP.
Following Tuesday's Game 2 win, on his way to the postgame press conference podium, Pierce checked his look in a bathroom mirror as he straightened his tie, knowing he had a camera trained on him. "You've got to set an example when you're the best dressed in the league," Pierce said in a dramatic tone before chuckling at himself.
Similarly, before training camp even started this fall, he told Celtics.com in a casual backyard interview at his house that he felt the Celtics, not the Cavaliers, were the team to beat in the Eastern Conference. He made no mention of the 2009 Eastern Conference Champion Orlando Magic at the time. But with LeBron now sitting home pondering free agency and the Magic facing a pair of road games and a 2-0 deficit, that prognostication is starting to look damn-near clairvoyant.
Whatever the reason, Pierce and his teammates are back on a mission.
"I use a number of things to inspire me. Just playing the underdog role, me individually, that's been a role I've played pretty much my whole career. A lot of these guys I think in the locker room really take that personally," Pierce said.
"Our goal still was the same going into the playoffs, to win a championship. We said it in the preseason, we said it in training camp. The good thing is we are keeping our eye on our goal. It doesn't matter what people say about us. What people write, what people say on the television. We know the team we have in this room is championship caliber. It's just starting to come together at the right time."