They lost Jeff Green to an aortic aneurysm at the start of the regular season. Then Chris Wilcox was forced out of contention in March after being diagnosed with a heart irregularity. Jermaine O’Neal parted ways with the franchise in April following a season-ending wrist surgery, while Avery Bradley’s shoulder injury has had the young guard out of action since Game 4 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.
And yet, here are the Boston Celtics, one win away from their third trip to the NBA finals in five years.
You might call it luck for who would have imagined these Celtics getting past a Derrick Rose-led Chicago Bulls or a fully functional Miami Heat unit that didn’t have Chris Bosh available for the first four games of the Eastern Conference Finals.
Equally, though, you must give the Celtics their due because no team has suffered more injuries this season than them. Even now, as they threaten to pull off one of the biggest upsets in playoff history, Ray Allen (right ankle) and Paul Pierce (MCL sprain) aren’t anywhere close to being fully fit. Yet, this Celtics team has chugged along in these playoffs, taking most of us by surprise. They aren’t playing the prettiest basketball, but unlike 27 other teams, the Celtics haven’t yet been forced to go fishing just yet. In the end, that’s what counts. It’s what Gregg Popovich would have wanted for his San Antonio Spurs, who have had the offseason unceremoniously forced on them by the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference Finals.
Much of the Celtics resurgence is owed to the play of Kevin Garnett and Rajon Rondo. Garnett, who was averaging just 14.4 PPG and 7.9 RPG before the All-Star break, lifted himself to 17 points and 8.5 boards after All-Star weekend to close out the regular season. Those numbers have further improved to 19.9 PPG and 10.8 RPG in 18 games for the Boston Celtics in the 2012 playoffs.
“The competition, the naysayers, the owners who talk too much,” said Garnett when asked by ESPN’s Doris Burke about what motivated him to deliver after 17 years in the league. “You know the people who don’t think at 36, a 35-year-old can do what I do. I take a lot of my pride in my craft. I work really hard on my craft everyday. I’m a true professional.”
Rondo, similarly, has been playing at fifth gear right through the regular season. He has dished out assists night after night at roughly the rate of the morning newspaper delivery boy and notched up triple-doubles (nine and counting this season) that has put him in the discussion of the game’s absolute greats. He has shown leadership qualities with Pierce and Allen constrained either by foul trouble or injury issues (Games 2 and 4 of the ECF are ready reckoners) and he has also not been afraid to call out his opponent (“Them [Miami Heat] complaining and crying to referees in transition
.”) if he thought it appropriate.
Even then, where would these Celtics be without Doc Rivers? If San Antonio’s ouster from these playoffs prove that Gregg Popovich’s Spurs weren’t the perfect unit we imagined them to be, then Rivers must be commended for guiding this banged up Celtics team to the Eastern Conference Finals.
Ever since Rivers convinced Garnett to move to the center position around the All-Star break, Boston have felt and played like a different team. They were 15-17 going into the All-Star celebrations in Orlando, but finished the regular season 24-10 thanks to Rivers’ idea of playing the Big Ticket at the 5 spot. As much as Ray Allen deserves credit for not having any ego hassles in allowing Avery Bradley take his spot in the Celtics’ starting lineup, Rivers’ conviction in Bradley’s ability to replace Allen must also be lauded. Equally, Rivers’ ability to get the best of Boston’s limited options among their reserves – Marquis Daniels, Keyon Dooling, Mickael Pietrus, Greg Stiemsma – must not go unnoticed.
At the start of the 2011-12 NBA campaign, there were many among us, including yours truly, who thought the Celtics best days in the Big 3 era were behind them.
Now would be a good time to atone for our underestimating of the league’s most resilient franchise in current times.
Now would be a good time to start believing.
Note: Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals between Miami Heat and Boston Celtics can be seen LIVE on Ten Sports at 6:00 AM on June 8, 2012 (IST). Game 7, if necessary, will be at 6:00 AM on June 10, 2012 (IST).
All stats are up to games played on June 7, 2012 (IST)