Celtics poised for championship run
The Celtics appear headed for an NBA Finals showdown with the Lakers
A healthy Kevin Garnett is a big reason for the Celtics' playoff revival
The Celtics have been almost impossible to defend in the Orlando series
|(2) Magic vs. (4) Celtics|
|Celtics lead 2-0|
|Game 3: @ BOS Sat. May 22, 8:30 p.m., ESPN|
|Game 4: @ BOS Mon. May 24, 8:30 p.m., ESPN|
|Game 5: @ ORL Wed. May 26, 8:30 p.m.*, ESPN|
|Game 6: @ BOS Fri. May 28, 8:30 p.m.*, ESPN|
|Game 7: @ ORL Sun. May 30, 8:30 p.m.*, ESPN|
|Times eastern, * - if necessary|
ORLANDO -- I believe! I do believe, and I shall doubt no more. The undersigned hereby acknowledges that these elderly Boston Celtics can and possibly should win an 18th championship next month.
As we close in upon yet another Celtics-Lakers sequel -- now that Boston is returning home with a 2-0 lead following its 95-92 win Tuesday over the Magic in Game 2 of the Eastern finals -- let me start by pointing out (defensively) that I opened the season picking Boston for the title. But confession is a gift that keeps on giving, especially when you can Google back to find the many times I expressed doubt about the Celtics postseason chances while they were going 27-27 after Christmas.
"The things that were said were probably deserving," said Celtics captain Paul Pierce with magnanimity after scoring 28 points Tuesday. "We didn't play well, we didn't play consistent. So a lot of the flak we got, we probably deserved."
Now they deserve just the opposite. They have more weapons across their starting lineup than the championship team of two years ago, as Pierce (28 points overall) and Rajon Rondo (25 points and 8 assists) demonstrated throughout Game 2 as the Celtics systematically spread the floor to exploit seams and mismatches.
"The feeling of the team right now is just focus," said Pierce. "Only thing we did was win two games; in order to get to the NBA Finals, you have to win four. This is a team that doesn't take that stuff for granted or get overjoyous for two wins."
Throughout his postgame interview Pierce spoke with humility, even after he'd outscored his hosts 9-5 out of the gate to demonstrate the Celtics were seeking a sweep of their homecourt. But his official Twitter page had a provacative message that read "Anybody got a BROOM?" The company that manages Pierce's Twitter account said it was hacked into and the post has since been taken down.
However, media and players still questioned Orlando's Dwight Howard about the tweet.
"Am I supposed to comment on that?" said Howard, who scored 30 points (9 of 13) on a night when any teammate who wasn't a center was combining to shoot 18 for 57 (31.6 percent). "They only won two games. Pride comes before a fall, just know that."
But look how they've won those two games and how they've won the last five overall against Orlando and Cleveland, the top two seeds in the East and arguably two of the top three contenders (along with the Lakers) as the playoffs began. This is the longest Celtics winning streak since they won 11 straight through Dec. 14, more than five months ago.
"We're becoming [the] team that started the season, more than the team that played in the middle to the end of the season," said Celtics coach Doc Rivers. "The team that started the season was pretty good. I would like to think we're that team."
They're better than that team because Garnett (10 points and 9 rebounds) is healthier than he was in late 2009 as he was recovering from knee surgery last May. He showed it while matched up against Howard in the fourth quarter while swishing an outrageously soft fallaway baseline jumper over his two-time successor as defensive player of the year to give Boston a 91-90 advantage at 2:45 remaining. "That's not a matchup we were hoping for, I can tell you that," said Rivers, who had felt the same way in the previous round when Shaquille O'Neal opened Game 6 by trying to negate the length advantage that Garnett usually exploits. Two years ago, the Celtics had to convince Garnett to attack the defense by shooting, but in these playoffs he has taken on that ambition more naturally with each game as he grows comfortable around his restored right knee. In the third quarter, he upfaked Howard to dunk down the unguarded lane, and before halftime he was even goaltending a jump hook by the 6-foot-11 center.
Kendrick Perkins is a more confident scorer and better defender than he was two years ago, and Rondo has simply taken control of the boardroom in ways that were unimaginable months back. There was a time earlier this season when Rondo couldn't be trusted to make half of his free throws. Not only is he now a respectable 72.1 percent from the foul line this postseason, but he is taking and making jumpers as if there never was any doubt. After having him drive through and through the Cleveland defense like a tailback, the Celtics have played Rondo off the ball quite a lot this series. When Pierce passed out of a double-team to watch Rondo smoothly hammer down the 16-footer that put Boston in front 93-90 with 1:33 remaining, the Magic were left to wonder how this team can be defended. If it's not Pierce beating them, then it's Rondo. If not Garnett, then Ray Allen (with 25 in Game 1). Or Rasheed Wallace, who was 2 of 3 from the arc as he continued his revival. Or Tony Allen or Glen Davis, who routinely cut back door for layups and dunks from simply beautiful passes by Rondo.
They're equalling the rebounding performances of opponents this postseason after being clobbered on the boards over the preceding 82 games. Defensively they're approaching the 2008 level while yielding a meager 43.7 percent shooting in the playoffs. In the last two series, it has been easy to define the Celtics' defensive gameplan because they've acted it out upon the stage as if assistant Tom Thibodeau were Shakespeare himself. They're guarding Howard one-on-one and refusing to let the others breathe. Ask Vince Carter how that feels after he went 5-for-15 and missed both of his big free throws with 31.9 seconds to go.
As often as he spent those long lonesome months of January, February and March dreaming they would overcome their injuries and age and have it turn out this way, Rivers left Orlando feeling ominous discomfort because of his 2-0 lead. "Unfortunately we have a month off before the next game," he said of the odd delay before Game 3 Saturday in Boston. "So we have to try to keep it together, you know. For four days they're going to hear how great they are. We have to get our guys to stay focused and humble."
He hasn't forgotten about the regular season, that's for sure. Even after watching his players refuse to be satisfied with homecourt advantage as they ruthlessly seized Game 2, he cannot forget their not-so-long-ago tendency to relax.
"I wish we could take them to Alcatraz for four days and be on the island all by ourselves," he said. "That's not going to happen."
Here's something else that isn't going to happen, not after they've worked so hard to come this far: A letdown.