By Jeremy Gottlieb
Woke up this morning all ready to do some serious Celtics playoff analysis. There were visions of the KG-fortified Celts bludgeoning their way back to the Finals and a rematch with the Lake Show dancing in my head. I couldn’t stop thinking, “finally.”
Then I turned on the computer.
Now, I’m feeling rather confused about the whole thing. I mean, aren’t you? Not only did we discover that KG would not be returning from his endlessly shape-shifting knee injury for the playoffs, but then came word that GM Danny Ainge had a heart attack and was in the hospital. The actual games and all that would go into them don’t seem nearly as interesting, appealing or important anymore. Ainge is going to be fine – word is, he’s resting comfortably at the Mass. General and will be home in a couple days. But his situation takes the conversation to an entirely different level, rendering any analyzing of matchups or strategy or what have you far less meaningful, at least temporarily. KG’s injury is just bad timing for his team, bad luck for him. It’s also just an injury. What happened to Ainge is far more serious, and transcends the game.
The show must go on, though. Just as KG will recover, so will Ainge, and the games will be played, starting tomorrow with Game 1 against the better-than-you-think Chicago Bulls. They pay me the big bucks to write about stuff like that, not to get holier-than-thou on all 12 of you. So with that in mind, let’s take a look at five playoff-oriented issues regarding the Big Ticket-less defending champs on the eve of the postseason.
1. THE BIG GUYS BETTER BE READY TO PLAY D
News Flash – the Celtics will miss Garnett the most on the defensive end. There’s simply no replacing the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, which was more than evident in the 22 regular season games he’s missed since the injury happened. His absence on defense will be magnified in the postseason because at this point, so many games become bruising, half-court battles of attrition. This is where Big Baby Davis, Leon Powe and Mikki Moore come in. Big Baby, a free agent who was hardly a regular contributor and seemed ticketed out of town on Opening Night, has made himself into a highly skilled and valuable offensive player and now looks like a guy at whom the team will have to throw some money. Leon is another guy you don’t need to worry about on offense while Moore has shown a nice shooting touch since his arrival from Sacramento. But on the defensive end, all three combined might not be as good as Garnett. Davis is the furthest along – he doesn’t ever seem too lost on D. But Leon has a rather maddening tendency to miss a rather important rotation or two and Moore is, to put it extremely kindly, a foul machine. This troika, along with Kendrick Perkins, has quite a bit of work to do if it wants to even approach recouping the loss of Garnett on defense. The perimeter will be well secured most of the time thanks to Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and the defensive demon, Rajon Rondo (as well as Stephon Marbury, hopefully). How the healthy bigs perform will reflect a lot on how far the Celtics advance.
2. IT WOULD HAVE BEEN BETTER TO PLAY PHILLY
It’s not like the Bulls are the second coming of the ’96 champs or anything, but they pose a bigger threat to the Celtics than the Sixers. The Bulls extricated themselves from nearly two full seasons of serious underachieving when they banished Andres Nocioni and Drew Gooden (since resurfaced in San Antonio) to Sac-town and rid themselves of arguably their worst acquisition of that stretch in Larry Hughes. In came Brad Miller and John Salmons, two talented, hungry dudes who were stagnating in the depths of the Western Conference. A team that was floundering at the all-star break then seemed to turn itself around, ending the season with eight wins in 11 games while getting clutch, consistent play not only from alpha dog Ben Gordon but from promising youngsters Tyrus Thomas and Derrick Rose. The Bulls are relatively young and fresh-legged. They have the guns to run up and down the court with Rose, Joakim Noah and the freakishly athletic Thomas leading the way, or they can slow it down and have Salmons (38 points in their St. Patty’s day win over the Celts) and leading scorer/wizened veteran Ben Gordon generate the offense. They also have the experience of upsetting another defending champ in the first round just two years ago when they dispatched D-Wade, Shaq and the Heat with a few of the same guys under taskmaster Scott Skiles. In short, there is a wealth more talent and know-how here than in Philly. The champs will win the series, but not without a fight. Celtics in 6.
3. EVEN WITHOUT KG, THE MAGIC AREN’T THAT SCARY
Odds are that while the Celtics are dispatching the Bulls, Orlando will be doing the same to Philly, which was mired in a crushing, six-game losing streak down the stretch before needing overtime to barely beat the LeBron/Mo Williams-less Cavs on Wednesday. Assuming both outcomes are fulfilled, it’s hard not to like the Celts’ chances, KG or no KG. A month ago, the Magic looked better than the Celtics, looked like they would have home court in a series between the two teams and even looked like they could potentially give the Cavs a run if given a chance. Now, they seem a bit lost. Tied with the Celtics in the standings 10 games ago, they went 5-5 down the stretch, giving three games and guaranteeing a potential Game 7 here. Dwight Howard, who is capable of looking eerily like Moses Malone with a bit of Bill Russell sprinkled in, seemed to fade as the season wore on. His April averages of 16 and 12 were his worst of any month of the season. And his primary running mates, Hedo Turkoglu and Rashard Lewis, were hobbled by nagging ankle and knee injuries in the season’s final weeks. Even if all three are operating at peak efficiency, is there enough defense here? Will their offensive style, reminiscent of the Hakeem Olajuwon-led teams on the ‘90s on which four guys stood around the three-point line and Olajuwon roamed the post, hold throughout the tournament? Will their weaknesses in the back court hurt them? It’s likely that some combination of these potential problems will creep up in a slugfest against a team as focused and determined as the Celtics. Can the Magic work through it? I don’t think so, not yet. They’re too much finesse, not enough toughness.
4. IT MAY NOT BE SO BAD TO BE UNDERDOGS AGAINST CLEVELAND
If the Celtics can survive the first two rounds and meet their fated opponent the Cavs, they will be huge underdogs, as well they should. Not only are the Cavs better, they will have home court and if you haven’t heard, the Celtics haven’t won in Cleveland practically since the halcyon days of the Richfield Coliseum. But it remains to be seen how the LeBrons react to that kind of pressure. The Celtics will be playing with house money. To have gotten that far will be even more improbable than winning 62 games amidst all of the tumult of this season. The Cavs will be the team that’s supposed to win. The Celtics were anointed as such last year and even though there were some very serious bumps in the road, they proved to be up to the challenge. It’s likely that the Cavs will be as well – LeBron is so unbelievably good and so amazingly tough that he may be able to single-handedly keep them from losing if it comes to that. It probably won’t, but under the current circumstances, the Cavs either getting psyched out or psyching themselves out may be the only chance for the Celtics to beat them outside of LeBron breaking his leg while participating in one of those wacky pregame rituals they’ve adopted.
5. NEVER UNDERESTIMATE THE HEART OF A CHAMPION
Grasping at straws? Hardly. In fact, it’s fair to say that the Celtics showed even more heart and passion this season than they did last. In winning those 62 games, the Celtics did it not just having to deal with Garnett’s injury, but also huge shots to their depth thanks to injuries to Powe and Davis. Rondo had to battle ankle problems for half the season yet he still took the proverbial “next step.” Rivers had to turn Marbury and Moore from insurance policies into regular contributors far faster than expected. And Pierce, who had what is most likely his best all-around season, had to maintain his usual workload while also guarding the opponents’ best perimeter guy and getting everyone’s best possible effort every night, more than 20 times without Garnett at his side. It certainly helped that Ray Allen played like a true, unquestionable Hall-of-Famer all year long and that the Celtics got off to such an incredibly hot start and maintained the pace for as long as they did (remember when they were 28-2?). Naturally, if they want to win again, he is going to have to carry them. I don’t think that they will, but I have no doubt that he can.