Past ominous for Celtics' future
You see them against the Detroit Pistons or the Indiana Pacers recently and you think, why not? You see them against the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Memphis Grizzlies recently and you think, why bother?
Can the Celtics turn it on and make a serious run at the NBA championship? They are saying it's possible, which is what you'd expect them to say. History, both recent and in the more distant past, tells us it's possible -- but highly unlikely.
Let's start with the two Celtics teams of 2009-10. There is the through-Christmas team that vaporized opponents, suffocated them on defense and proceeded to win 23 of 28 games. Then there is the Celtics team since then, which has played at a .500 clip (19-19) while battling injuries, inconsistency and, at times, sheer and mystifying ineptitude.
General manager Danny Ainge believes Celtics Team No. 1 is still out there, waiting to return for the postseason. He said as much with his actions last month up to the trading deadline, making only one deal (for Nate Robinson), which basically told everyone, "It's up to you guys now. I think you're good enough to win it all. You say you're good enough to win it all. Now go out and prove me right.''
Usually, however, the team that you see in March and April is the one you're likely to see in the playoffs. Sure, there have been times when teams coasted through the regular season, then caught fire in the postseason. (And there have been cases that have gone the other way, in which a red-hot team in April stumbles in the playoffs. See the 2005 Nuggets, who finished 32-8 under George Karl and then lost in the first round in five games.)
Longtime Celtics followers -- and we mean longtime -- can point to the 1969 squad, which finished in fourth place as player/coach Bill Russell rested his veteran team in anticipation of what might come. And it was a veteran team. Russell was 35 in what would be his last season. Sam Jones was nearing 36 in what would be his last season. Bailey Howell (32), Tom Sanders (31), Don Nelson (29), John Havlicek (29), Larry Siegfried (30) and Emmette Bryant (30) all were experienced players.
We know what happened. A five-game dispatch of the 76ers in the first round, a six-game dispatch of the Knicks in the conference finals and then the improbable seven-game series with the star-studded Lakers, with the Celtics winning Game 7 in the Fabulous Forum.
That team won 48 games in the regular season.
The 1994-95 Houston Rockets won 47 games in the regular season, but found their groove in the postseason to win a second straight title, capped by an implausible sweep of heavily favored Orlando in the Finals. That team, however, made a major trade during the season, acquiring Clyde Drexler from Portland. It lost its last three games of the regular season, yet when the playoffs arrived, the defending champs won all four series without having home-court advantage in any of them. They won "winner-take-all" games in Utah and Phoenix.
Then there are the 2000-01 Lakers, who are probably the gold standard for getting it together in the postseason. They were fresh off their first title of the Shaq/Kobe/Phil era and did not exactly look like putative defending champions when April rolled around. They had had injury woes (like the Celtics did this season) with Derek Fisher missing 62 games, Kobe Bryant 14 and Shaquille O'Neal eight.
But something clicked. The Lakers ran off eight straight wins at the end of the regular season to overtake Sacramento for the No. 2 seed in the West. The postseason was a scorched-hardwood job: 15-1, with 11 straight wins at the start (making it 19 straight wins dating to the regular season). The one loss was in overtime and at home. They were unstoppable, crushing the Spurs in four straight in the conference finals by an average margin of more than 22 a game (and 34 a game in the two games in Los Angeles).
Asked about that season this week, and about the likelihood of a good, but not great, regular-season team peaking for the playoffs, Lakers coach Phil Jackson said, "There's some validity to that.
"We came on at the end of that season and won eight games in a row [after] the players came back. Fish [Fisher] came back from almost a three-quarters-of the-season injury. Kobe came back from an ankle injury. We had numbers of guys that came back onto that team and just kind of regenerated energy during the stretch drive. And we got hot and just went through the playoffs."
But here is one big difference between what that team did and what this Celtics' team hopes to do: age (or wear-and-tear.) Kobe was 22. Fisher was 26. Even Shaq was a spry 28.
"Our players were young,'' Jackson said. "They came back and were very energetic."
So, when is the last time you saw the words "Celtics" and "very energetic" in the same sentence? They actually looked as energized as they've been in a while Monday night, especially for the second game of a back-to-back. Then again, they didn't look like they expended all that much energy the day before in Cleveland, particularly the comatose Rasheed Wallace.
"It is frustrating because you know what you are, you know what you are capable of,'' said Kevin Garnett. "It [shouldn't] matter if it's Cleveland or Detroit."
There are, however, some season-long concerns that militate against some sort of miraculous resurgence for the Celtics. Bear in mind as this is being written, the Celtics are closer to seventh place in the East than they are to No. 1. They are only five games ahead of surprising Milwaukee in the loss column and still have two games left with those pesky Bucks.
Should the Celtics somehow defy history and win the title this season, they will do so sporting the second-worst home record of an NBA champion since the league eliminated neutral-court games after the 1973-74 season. (Hartford was never seen as a neutral court. It was always a Celtics home game, although the players didn't see it that way.)
Only the aforementioned late-blooming Rockets were worse at home (25-16) than these Celtics would be (20-12 going into the Knicks game on Wednesday.) The only other NBA champion to lose as many as 12 home games since 1975: the 1978 Washington Bullets, who were 29-12 at home. The Celtics would have to run the table at home over the final month just to match that record. They are nowhere near the imposing, dominating team at home that they need to be.
The Celtics also have played unevenly against the elite of the league, especially post-Christmas. Prior to Dec. 25, they were 10-3 against teams that today would make the playoffs, but 5-3 at home. Since then, they are 8-10 against such teams, including 4-5 at home. This trend had better stop quickly, with a stretch that includes games against six probable playoff teams and two more against a team that is fighting to join the Western Conference qualifiers: the Houston Rockets.
Finally, there has been the season-long concern of rebounding, or lack thereof. How can this team be so bad on the boards? The Celtics are one of 12 teams with a negative rebounding differential, but they have some decent company (Dallas, Denver and Atlanta also are in the red in this particular area). And their anemic totals on the offensive glass (last in the league) are somewhat due to the fact that they are the fourth-best shooting team in the league.
In the championship season of 2008, the Celtics were ninth in rebounding. Last season, they were 12th. This season, they are 24th, and of the six teams below them, only Toronto is a playoff team as of now (and barely at that). Pat Riley famously said, "No rebounds, no rings." Watching Anderson Varejao blow by and around Wallace (and just about anyone else) on Sunday was depressing but revealing. If the Celtics don't start rebounding, they can forget about any new banners.
But, needless to say, optimism prevails, as it probably should. At least for public consumption. After the Detroit game, Garnett stated the company line, one that he and others have been offering for quite some time.
"The year isn't over, man. We still have a lot more basketball to play,'' he said. "You know, Doc does a real good job about making sure that we stay focused on the game that is sitting in front of us. There is nothing that we can do about the future, there is nothing we can do about injuries. [We're] just trying to keep guys healthy and gain this momentum going into the later parts of the [season].
"[We] can't do anything about the past. Every year is new, new personnel, new team. But you have to have the same consistencies."
There are 16 games left before the fun (they hope) begins.
Longtime Celtics reporter Peter May is a contributor to ESPNBoston.com.