By Jeremy Gottlieb
20 games down, a 10-game winning streak in the books means it’s time for another list of five observations we can make about your defending NBA champs (because both 20 and 10 are factors of five, of course).
Note: since there is so little to be critical/pessimistic/controversial about regarding the Celts, not only will this five-pack be brimming with good feeling, but it will also attempt to delve somewhat into the rest of the NBA. So without further ado…
1. RAJON RONDO IS THE MAN
Now before we all get ahead of ourselves, let’s remember that Rondo showed some similar flashes of excellence last season only to confound and confuse shortly thereafter with the occasional stinkbomb or at least mediocre performance. That being said, nothing positive that he did last year even came close to the stretch he’s having right now, which met a crescendo with his jaw-dropping triple-double (16 points, 13 boards, 17 assists) Wednesday night against Indiana, a triple-double he needed less that three quarters to complete, as well as the first Celtics triple-double in over two years. Kevin Garnett probably said it best when he was quoted after that 18-point shellacking of the Pacers as saying, “It seemed like there were three Rajon Rondos out there.” The thing about Rondo is that he had all of last season to learn, to work, to hone his craft, while just trying to get the ball to Messrs. Garnett, Pierce and Allen, and stay out of the way. As a young, inexperienced point guard last year, all he was asked to do was not screw things up and that lack of responsibility meant he had more time to improve, by hard work, osmosis, and the regular tough love he received (and likely still receives) from Doc Rivers. A guy with a skill set like Rondo’s; lightning speed, great jumping ability, quickness and court savvy, as well as his freakishly long arms that he uses to superior effect while playing stifling defense, is a powerful threat when things are both working and he “gets it.” Could he use a better jumper? Sure. Would it be nice to see a little bit more consistency? Of course. But I don’t think anyone is complaining about what Rondo is giving right now (almost 14 points and nine assists in his last nine games). If he keeps playing close to this level then he will take a truckload of pressure off the shoulders of the Big Three as the Celts strive to repeat.
2. ANYTHING UP WITH PAUL PIERCE?
It’s strange, but Pierce seems off, somehow. I’m not sure if it’s his 40 percent shooting (career 44 percent) or the way he seems to be missing so many of those shots (short). It’s probably nothing and has had exactly zero negative effect so far. But it’s strange to see a game like the Indiana game, when Rondo does what he does, KG has a classic KG game (26 and 14), Ray Allen continues to shoot the lights out (11 of 18, 31 points, 6 of 9 three-pointers) and even Kendrick Perkins rocks out (16 and 10) while Pierce struggles from the floor (5 of 17, zero field goals in the first half) is such a pronounced way. He’s averaging 18.6 PPG, more than four off his career average, and, other than a five-game stretch in mid-November when he scored 36, 34, 19, 28 and 22 respectively, has appeared slow and out of sync. Now again, it’s nitpicking; the team is 18-2, he’s still posting solid numbers and the marked improvement of Rondo, Perkins and (gulp) Tony Allen has masked some of his troubles. But it will be interesting to see how long this lasts and whether or not any type of revelation, injury or otherwise, comes forth.
3. IT’S TOO SOON TO SAY THE CELTS ARE BETTER THAN LAST YEAR
Through 20 games, the Celtics have won 18, including streaks of 10 and six. Last season, the Celtics won 66 games and the NBA Championship. What that means is that it’s far too early to anoint this year’s edition of the Green as better than last year’s edition. They are certainly playing as well now as they did at any point in ’07-’08, as they have recently begun to blow their opponents out with the kind of clinical precision they made famous last year, summoning the perfect combination of stifling defense and offensive firepower at will (or at least at the most opportune time). But that’s all they’ve done, this year. It’s the job of sports writing guys and sports TV guys and sports radio guys to pontificate on such topics, but in the real world, there is no way to gauge whether the entire body of work this year is comparable to last because there haven’t been enough games played yet. It remains to be seen if Tony Allen can do what James Posey did in big games, or whether Rondo and Perkins can keep up the rapid pace of their improvement or if the team can avoid major injury as it did last year or if at some point, the combo platter of great expectations, opponents’ best efforts and fatigue becomes a weight that’s too much to bear. At this point, it is safe to assume that if the Celtics stay healthy, they are as close to a lock to return to the Finals as can be. But remember, faithful readers – there are still five months of regular season and three rounds of playoffs to go.
4. THE NBA FEELS KIND OF TOP HEAVY
Look at the standings. The first place team is at least eight games over .500 in five of the six divisions. Three first-place teams (Celtics, Lakers, Cavs) have a double digit win/loss ratio while Orlando is nine games over sea level. Meanwhile, 14 teams sport sub-.500 marks, with three of them in the Pacific Division. The point is that there may well be a couple teams come playoff time who are carrying lousy season marks into the tournament, making it even more likely that the Alpha Dogs, e.g. Boston, L.A., Cleveland, Portland, Orlando and even Detroit will have an even easier road to the postseason’s later stages than one might have initially supposed. What does this all mean? It means that there isn’t as much parity in the NBA as the league would like the average fan to believe actually exists. And the reason why has nothing to do with money, like in baseball. The salary cap ensures that all teams are at least sort of operating on the same level, luxury tax teams like the Knicks, Nuggets and potentially the Celtics be damned. No, the reason there isn’t as much parity as the league would like is because of inept management in too many cities. Look at teams like the Grizzlies, Clippers, Bulls and even Phoenix, all teams that don’t understand how to assemble the right parts. Sure, Danny Ainge went from a fraud to a genius when he was able to acquire Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen without giving up anything of value not named Al Jefferson. But there’s a lot to be said about GMs like Chicago’s Jon Paxson and the Suns’ Steve Kerr, both of whom collected individual names without bothering to think about how said guys would fill specific roles (honestly, is anyone even remotely surprised that the Bulls stink after giving up their only legitimate low post guy in Tyson Chandler in favor of the fossil of Ben Wallace while putting nothing but tweeners at the 2 and 3 around him?). The teams that are winning right now either have superstars (Cleveland, L.A., Orlando, New Orleans) with enough competent complimentary guys around them or are well-balanced by virtue of shrewd front office maneuvering (Boston, Houston, Portland, Denver). Everyone else is either mediocre or is already lottery-bound barely a month and a half into the season. And if you don’t believe me, again, just look at the standings.
5. IT’S AWESOME HOW GOOD THE CELTICS ARE
Forgive me, neutral observers, but I have to revel for just a minute. I just love the fact that the Boston Celtics, my first ever favorite sports team, is not only relevant, but good, and really good, again. After so many crappy years before the Garnett and Allen deals, it feels incredible to see Boston win and win so consistently and convincingly. It seemed like forever that the Celtics were the team that jumped out to a big, first half lead over a superior opponent only to wilt under the weight of five third quarter minutes of good defense and paying attention by the other team. Now, it’s the Celtics who do that (witness last week’s game against Golden State, among others, if you doubt me). And don’t think it’s a mystery when results like the Philly or Minnesota or Toronto games from late last month pop up. I don’t care if I’m called a homer for saying it. I love it!