The message in Waltham on Friday was resolute: the playoffs are here and the slate is clean.
But the writing on the wall -- the impending race against time -- was very palpable, and almost every member of the team who met the media seemed a little on edge. Calling it the fear of the unknown might be overstating it, but on the eve of the 2010 postseason, one got the sense that nobody, be them fans, media, coaches or even the players themselves, really quite knows what to expect from the Boston Celtics in the playoffs.
With a disappointing 50-win season (50-win seasons will disappoint those with only the greatest of expectations) under their belts, the Celtics tip off the playoffs at the Garden Saturday night against the Miami Heat with a point to prove and perhaps their last crack at a title before it's time to rebuild.
Kevin Garnett and the Celtics stared down the playoffs after Friday's practice.
If there's a switch to be flipped, the Celtics will likely find it tonight in front of a sold-out Garden crowd that wants another taste of a title.
Slowed by injuries and burdened by expectations, the 2009-10 Celtics limped to the finish line playing inconsistent basketball (they were 3-7 over their last 10 games of the regular season) despite being about as healthy as they've been all season long.
They've been doubted, questioned and all-but written off as title contenders since their Christmas Day win over the Orlando Magic, when they were 23-5 and appeared to be an early favorite for another NBA title. Since then, they went 27-27 over their last 54 games and lacked the consistency that made them so dominant in their championship season. Meanwhile, the SRO bandwagon that loaded up in the summer of '08 began hemorrhaging passengers with each three-game skid, and pundits surmised that the window was closing on them.
And while at times it's hard to tell if professional athletes are really in tune with the public perception of their performance (remember, none of these guys read the papers, right? Right?), this team seems keenly aware of the criticisms they've sustained all season long.
Honestly, on the eve of the playoffs, the guys in green seemed more than a little on edge. And maybe that's a good thing, because up until this point this season, they've rarely shown their hand.
Rasheed Wallace, who gained early favor from fans by predicting a 72-win season in October, found that his Boston honeymoon was over well before the New Year and struggled shooting the ball all year long. Sheed admitted as much Friday, acknowledging that he's shot the ball poorly and that his season was "nothing to write home about". Still, he defiantly pointed out that the fans in Portland or Detroit didn't embrace him in his first years in those cities either.
"Half the people like me and half the people don't. I'm not out here to please the fans or whatever, I'm here to win a title," Wallace said. "Some of the fans are mad at me, some of the fans cheer for me, I can't worry about that. I'm going to go out there and do what I've got to do."
Despite espousing his indifference toward public opinion, Wallace continued to imply that the playoffs would awaken his intensity and he maintained that the team's confidence, as well as his own, remains high.
Kevin Garnett, who tired of answering questions about his convalescing knee roughly two days into training camp, told Doc Rivers "I have no choice" when the coach asked, "Is Kevin doing media today?" during Ticket's junket after practice.
Garnett is not one to acquiesce. If KG doesn't want to do media, he doesn't do media. But these days, Garnett's learning to accept that he can't control everything anymore. His body hasn't always been able to respond for him this season and he's admitted several times that some days are better than others with regard to his health. His play this season has revealed as much; some nights he's out there talking opponents' ears off, blocking jumpshots on their way down at the rim after the whistle and finishing alley-oops like KG of 2008, other games he seems reluctant to challenge shots and unable to track down rebounds he would have gobbled up in seasons past.
The good news is, Garnett's been showing regular signs of the old KG, and with extra days off between games in the postseason, he'll have optimal conditions to push himself as far as he can go. Either way, when he steps out on the parquet and beats his chest as the Garden is going bonkers, you have to believe he'll reach down for a little something extra to carry him through. Asked about Rivers watching his minutes in the regular season to preserve him for the playoffs, Garnett hyperbolically suggested that he was prepared "to die on the court" this postseason.
But more than anything, Celtics fans are seeking a resurrection of the 2008 KG model who dominated the paint, intimidated opponents (remember him going down on all fours to D-up opponents and laying out Zaza Pachulia with a vicious blindside pick in the backcourt?) and induced crazed crowd crescendos with the mere raising of his arms. That might not be completely realistic, but until Game 1 tips off, KG himself probably doesn't even know of his capabilities.
Ray Allen, who typically trends loquacious when it comes to off-day interviews, was decidedly economical with his comments Friday, giving a few one-word answers to reporters who were expecting a more interactive interview. Allen did allow that the last few practices have been more focused, but revealed little else about the state of the union.
Paul Pierce is known to rise to the occasion, and the C's will need everything their captain can provide this postseason.
Captain Paul Pierce was somewhat understated, but was certainly encouraging while talking about how healthy he is heading into the postseason. Pierce has been attacking the hoop over the last few games (a sure sign of his health) and if anyone on this team rises to the occasion, Pierce is the guy. Perhaps no one's more in touch with the gravity of this playoff run than The Truth, a lifelong Celtic who's regularly contemplated his place in franchise history since he took home the NBA Championship and Finals MVP award in '08.
Even Doc Rivers, ever the even-tempered diplomat and Ubuntu architect who spent a few seasons as a member of the media himself, seemed a bit flustered by an inquiry he perceived as silly. Having spent the last few days downplaying media reports that he may consider leaving the bench at season's end, on Friday, Rivers mocked the idea that there was any more pressure on the team as they started the playoffs. The coach seemed downright incredulous and even broke sound-bite character with his response, telling a scribe, "that's just not how athletes think."
The one guy who seemed business-as-usual? Kendrick Perkins, the real-talk captain of the Celtics, a media go-to guy when you want the pulse of the team. Perkins is among the most straightforward NBA players in the league, and he's not afraid to say exactly what's on his mind and point the finger at himself when it's deserved.
Speaking on the team's defensive execution, Perkins noted that effort was part of keeping Dwyane Wade out of the paint, but implied pride and manhood would play a far greater role in the team's success or failure. But he also said that the team enjoys the role of the underdog, an approach that served the New England Patriots extremely well when Rodney Harrison played the "no-respect" card year after year.
So where does this Celtics team stand? Either they're dangling at the precipice of an era gone by, or their ready to flip the switch they've been looking for since January.
They've been hearing the questions in the press for months. On Friday, they answered the media with an edge.
Tonight, we'll start getting the answers on the court.