Postseason Equinox? Season No. 2 Begins

WALTHAM, Mass. – The first day of spring may have arrived back on March 20, but make no mistake about it, today marks the beginning of the new season.

The Boston Celtics gathered in Waltham, Mass., today to begin their third consecutive attempt at bringing home the organization’s 18th championship banner. After finishing the regular season with a victory over the New York Knicks on Wednesday night, it’s now time to move on to the most important season on the Celtics’ schedule – the postseason.

“It’s kind of synonymous with spring,” Ray Allen said at Thursday’s playoff-opening practice, speaking of the first day of the new season. “Obviously, they’re always the same time of the year, but I was just thinking back on the last year or so, two years, and just how much better our bodies felt just as we’ve always gotten extra rest toward the end of the season. So we’re always ready for it.”

By “it,” Allen means a championship push. Doc Rivers has done his best to align his stars in a way that will allow the Celtics to overcome its 10-11 finish to the regular season and make another run to the NBA Finals.

In order to make those alignments, Rivers and the rest of the Celtics’ basketball operations group decided to rest the team’s star players for a full week heading into the playoffs. Allen, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Rajon Rondo will have had a full week without a game by the time Game 1 against the Knicks tips off at 7 p.m. Sunday night in the TD Garden. Jermaine O’Neal and Delonte West will have had about six days of rest, and Shaquille O’Neal should be fresh coming off of his stint of no games following a right calf strain he suffered on April 3.

Though Pierce was one of the players who lobbied to continue playing in the final two games of the regular season, his body is now telling him that Rivers’ decision to rest Boston’s stars was a great one.

“It’s amazing when you play so many games, the little injuries, you play through them and you become numb to them,” Pierce said. “And then you sit down for a few days, a lot of those injuries go away, and that’s when you feel the difference.”

With Boston’s starters refreshed and the new season finally arriving, it felt as if the Celtics gathered on Thursday at the Sports Authority Training Center at HealthPoint with a clean slate. Everything that happened during the regular season doesn’t matter anymore; now it’s time to hammer away at one specific opponent for, at the most, seven games.

With the slate being wiped clean, a new look was noticeable in many of the Celtics’ eyes this afternoon. That’s to be expected from their coach, because he has seen that look arrive in mid-April for the past three seasons.

“That first day of (playoff) practice, it’s a different feel,” said Rivers. “Again, you have one single focus, and one single team (you’re playing). You don’t have to worry about anybody else, you don’t have to worry about the four (games) in five (nights) coming up. You’re focused on one team, and I think that’s always been a good thing.”

The Celtics haven’t been able to do that since June of last year, when they fell in Game 7 of the Finals to the Los Angeles Lakers. That loss still stings the entire organization, and certainly held weight on Boston’s players throughout this season. Rivers commented on the long process of moving on from that loss and finally arriving at today – a new starting point.

“It’s tough, you lose a Game 7, a seven-game series in the Finals, and then you have, not only just the rest of the summer which is short, but then you have an entire year to get to (here) just to try to get back to where you were at,” he said. “That is tough, mentally.”

Another difficult task is integrating five new players on the fly during the stretch run of the season. The Celtics brought in a handful of new pieces between the trade deadline and the first week of March, but the team has barely had any practice time since then to integrate them into the team. Rivers, off the top of his head, recalled seven practice sessions since those acquisitions took place, and none of them were of back-to-back nature, which he considers the best kind.

That all began to change at 2:15 p.m. this afternoon.

Boston rested its starters with the intent of going hard at practice for three consecutive days leading up to Sunday night’s Game 1. That stretch of practices began this afternoon with a lengthy film session and then a walk-through on the court immediately after the film was turned off. Today’s session will be used to install the game plan against New York, and the next two days will be used for the players to learn it at full speed and memorize it as if it’s their birth date or social security number.

The advantage Boston has held over opponents in its previous three postseasons is that it often executes its game plans to perfection. When a team can do that for seven games, it’s difficult to beat. With a team full of fresh legs and fresh minds, there’s no doubt that the Celtics will be pushing for that perfect execution during Game 1 and beyond.

Only time will tell if this current Celtics team will be able to put that 10-11 finish to the regular season in the past and move forward in the manner it did in the 2010 postseason. Boston steamrolled its opponents and came within minutes of bringing home Banner 18 on June 17, 2010.

Sure, the journey toward attaining that goal resumed on Day 1 of training camp back in September, but we all know that championships are won in the postseason, not the regular season.

Boston entered the latter on Thursday afternoon, and instead of rainy days and blooming flowers, which are often associated with this time of the year, the postseason is accompanied by the scent of 16 more wins and a familiar gold trophy.