By Jeremy Gottlieb
(Editor’s note: This is the first of a regular series of submissions from new staff writer Jeremy Gottlieb, who you may also know from his work at Cold Hard Football Facts, various zone editions of the Boston Globe, the Metro-West Daily News and North Shore Golf Magazine. Please give Jeremy a warm welcome. We’re glad to have him here.)
Hard to believe the season is in full swing and the Celtics have already made their first semi-extended road trip of the year, but that’s indeed where we are and the Green have a 4-1 record to show for it. No, it’s not last season’s 8-0 start, but there have been flashes thus far to be sure. So, with the schedule getting slightly more dense in the coming days/weeks (six games in the next eight days), here are five observations on what we can gather from the first five games on the docket.
The Celtics Can Win Any Way They Want
Take a look at the results. Opening night was a grueling, playoff-style battle in which the Celtics needed a big fourth quarter and a lot of the same defensive intensity seen last season to dispatch LeBron and the Cavs. Even though they led big at one point against the Rockets and got a huge game from Ray Allen (more on him later), the Celtics needed a similar effort to put away Houston. The Bulls game showed that they know what they need to do against far inferior opponents, hence the blowout. And Wednesday night’s game against Oklahoma State, um, I mean the Thunder, was a classic case of barely showing up on the road, allowing the opponent to think it had a chance thanks to an energized first quarter, then flipping the switch when needed in order to coast to victory. Let’s hope that style of win doesn’t become a habit as the Celts try to repeat, but at least they showed that they still know when and how to summon the proper intensity when needed. We already knew these guys, as constituted, could win in a variety of ways. But it’s been nice to be reminded over the course of the past week and a half.
Ray Allen Doesn’t Look Washed Up Anymore
It was tough to watch last spring, remember? Ray Allen looked as done as dirt against Cleveland and Detroit before picking himself up off the mat as the Pistons series progressed and in the Finals against the Lakers. Well, it looks so far like the Ray we all know and love benefited not just from the summer, short as it was, but from the doubters as well. He scored 29 and shot 11-of-15 with five boards and five dimes against Houston before fouling out, then submitted a nifty 18-9-4 line against the Cowboys, er, Thunder, draining a couple patented Ray-style threes and even showing some pretty impressive hops for a washed up guy (his fourth quarter drive, explosion and dunk on ex-teammate/stiff Nick Collison was sweet). Look, it’s very early and there’s no telling what another full season plus playoffs will do to his 33-year old body or ankles after 100+ games last year. But with the Doc Rivers pledging to monitor the overall minutes of the Big Three and without James Posey as a long range threat, it sure is nice to see Ray playing like, well, Ray.
Posey Hasn’t Been Missed…Yet
Granted, an early season game in the middle of nowhere certainly isn’t an indicator, but the Celtics are holding their own without Posey, whose contributions last year may as well have expanded the term to the Big Four. It obviously remains to be seen what his absence will mean as the season wears on, and particularly in the playoffs. And there doesn’t seem to be anyone on the roster who can duplicate what he represented (sorry, Donny Marshall, but your boy Tony Allen hasn’t got a prayer and if you don’t believe that, just watch his mind-boggling foul on Tracy McGrady as T-Mac went up for a three in the late stages of the Houston game – eerily reminiscent of the head fake and foul of Chauncey Billups in the first Pistons game last fall). The combo platter of smarts, defensive tenacity, versatility, heart and onions that Posey contributed will be sorely missed at some juncture. Let’s just hope it’s later rather than sooner.
The Rest of the East Doesn’t Seem Too Scary
Other than Cleveland, is there any team in the Eastern Conference that will really challenge the Celtics? Despite their blockbuster trade, I’m not convinced the Pistons are all that much better. Allen Iverson is reaching the stage of his career in which he may be thinking about subjugating his own interests in favor of winning a title and Detroit may be the place to do that. There will surely be some element of a “last dance” type of mentality there with Billups already gone and Rasheed Wallace on his way out. But beyond an initial surge, I just can’t see guys like Rodney Stuckey, Jason Maxiell and Amir Johnson ready to play the types of roles they’d need to play in order for the Pistons to beat the Celtics or the Cavs. As far as teams like Philly, Miami, Orlando and Atlanta, all have loads of potential but all are too young, too inexperienced or too inferior defensively to make a team like Celtics really worry. Plus, I have a feeling that Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, not to mention Allen, will be constantly reminding the younger guys that no one thinks they have the discipline to give the same kind of effort they gave all year last year and stay on anyone (Tony Allen, Big Baby Davis) who may stray. I’m not predicting another title (yet). And a lot can happen between now and May in terms of injuries and other teams improving themselves. But right now, I can’t really see anyone but the Celtics representing the East in the Finals again.
There Should Not Be an NBA Team in Oklahoma City
Really now – the Thunder? I understand the game against the Celtics was just the third home game on the docket and they are still getting acclimated down there in Stillwater, er, Oklahoma City. But everything about that game felt so un-NBA like. Two delays because of lousy netting around the rims? Another because of condensation on the floor from the ice underneath (and furthermore, there’s a hockey team in Oklahoma City???). All the good players on the Thunder (Kevin Durant, Jeff Green, Russell Westbrook) should still be in college while all the better role players (Collison, Chris Wilcox, Earl Watson, Joe Smith) haven’t been any good since college and the coach (P.J. Carlesimo) had his best coaching days in college. And those colors; yellow and that old NBA standby, teal. I thought I was watching the Celtics scrimmage against a CBA team until I remembered that Isiah Thomas bankrupted the CBA. Look, some day the Oklahoma City Thunder will feel more like a real NBA franchise and less like Oklahoma State. But now, they look like they should still be playing in Seattle.