Clearly the Boston Celtics of the last three seasons were built for “now.” But has now already passed?
The banner hangs high above the far basket, hugging the corner of the court’s most distant wall. This white flag with green trim dangles last in the row of 18 pennants adorning the Boston Celtics practice court. The first 17 vertical flags are nearly identical: They were all earned by Boston Celtics championship teams. The only difference between them lies in the years inscribed in green thread against the white background. 1957 WORLD CHAMPIONS, reads the oldest commemorative shroud. 2008 WORLD CHAMPIONS boasts the 17th emblem. The 18th and final banner is distinct, though. It droops unmarked, bearing no green numbers, telling no tale of a championship won. The 18th pennant rests against the wall in Waltham, MA, blank, waiting for this year’s Celtics team to earn the green stitching—to earn another NBA championship.
A few Junes ago, the Celtics obtained All-Star guard Ray Allen. A month later they added Kevin Garnett to a mosaic that also included Paul Pierce. By the end of their first season together, in June of ’08, the three All-Stars and their supporting cast lay claim to the Celtics’ first championship in 22 years. In ’09, a repeat seemed probable, with the team amassing 62 regular season wins. Then injuries struck, and the team fell in the Playoffs to the Orlando Magic. This season, 22 months after last competing in the Finals, Boston is feeling pressure, both publicly and self-imposed, to capture another title. With seven players entering free agency this summer, and four key guys—Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Rasheed Wallace—checking in at 32 or older, “now or never” is this team’s unofficial credo.
“That all factors into [the urgency],” says 34-year-old sharpshooter Ray Allen, referring to the age and free agency concerns. “You just don’t assemble a team like this every day. We were almost lucky to stumble upon who we have now. You figure, Kevin being available, me being traded here, being able to get Rasheed, it just doesn’t happen like that every day.”
Coach Doc Rivers doesn’t disagree with Allen, and doesn’t temper expectations. “For us,” he says, “our urgency is that we understand we have the shot to win the championship, and either we take advantage of that or we don’t. And if we don’t, shame on us.”
With a record of 50-30 entering the final quarter of the season, the Celtics W-L record is par for the championship course, but unlike the ’08 version, crumbling cement at the team’s foundation is apparent, casting doubt on their Larry O’Brien aspirations.
For any veteran squad, injuries are a worry. So far this season, the Celtics’ worst fears have been realized—already, over 100 games have been lost to sprains, strains and fractures, including 12 missed by Kevin Garnett, 10 by Pierce and 29 more watched by key role player Marquis Daniels. With banged up bodies shuttling in and out of the trainer’s room, and in and out of the lineup, the squad has struggled to maintain their dominance. Two years ago, the Cs won by an average of 10.2 ppg; this year that number’s been sliced to 4. More concerning than their tendency to not play four complete quarters is the Celtics inability to rebound, as only Golden State grabs fewer boards per game.
On the offensive side of the ball, the team isn’t shooting the trey-ball well. Checking in at the 80-game mark with the 17th best percentage in the League, Boston is a far cry from the No. 5 spot they occupied two years ago and No. 1 spot they claimed last season. Most damning to the title talk is Boston’s 3-9 record against the teams ahead of them in the East, including an 0-4 clip against the Hawks. With newly acquired players Nate Robinson and Michael Finley attempting to acclimate themselves to the team in a hurry, and the sweetness of regular season victories souring, the ’09-10 Celtics are a team on the brink—of either being a disappointment or champions.
“’08 is in the way back of our minds right now,” insists Ray Allen, 12 years removed from starring as Jesus, and more than a season and a half removed from starring on that championship team. “Once you move to the next season, you never think, OK, we did this already, so we’ll just kind of half-ass this one. No. We focus on that hanging banner that has no writing on it yet.”
It’s not even the same decade as that ’08 title, and that’s readily observable in the Cs locker room, even before Rajon Rondo says, “It’s very different. It’s a very, very different group.” Gone are PJ Brown, Sam Cassell, Leon Powe and James Posey. In their stead stand versatile guard Marquis Daniels, 35-year-old four-time All-Star Rasheed Wallace and Knicks refugee Nate Robinson. And even among the core guys who’ve been in Beantown for the past few campaigns, who’ve played together for a while, the dynamics have changed, roles have evolved.
Coronated “The Big Three” upon uniting in Boston, Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce are three of the top 50 scorers of all time. This season, however, each of the trio is averaging their fewest points and fewest field goal attempts per game since their rookie seasons. Part of the decline can be attributed to age and injury. The other culprit lurking behind their drop in digits is their new status on the court, sometimes as supporting players.
“Roles change and you have to change with it,” says Allen, shooting well since the midseason break, but still currently shooting a career low 36 percent from downtown this season. “Rondo’s gotten better, and I just try to play off him and see what’s out there, see what he’s doing and watch his man and how they’re playing him.” The adjustment has led to Allen taking the ball to the bucket at a higher rate than he has in his two previous seasons with the Cs.
Of all the differences between this year’s team and previous versions, the lesser role of Garnett has been the most striking. With averages of slightly under 14.5 points, 7.5 boards and one fully functional leg per game, there are still occasional nights when KG is the linchpin of the team, scoring, rebounding and playing defense at his champion season level. But that is not a nightly occurrence anymore. “[My] role,” reveals Garnett, “that’s play defense, be talkative…move the ball, make sure we are playing the right way, and keep everybody’s confidence and spirits up.”
The beneficiaries of the backseat taken by Ray, Paul and Kev are Rondo and center Kendrick Perkins. Rondo, 24, a first-time All-Star this year, was considered the team’s weak spot not two seasons ago. “In [’08], remember, it was me, the little point guard who couldn’t win,” smirks Rondo. With season averages of 14 points, 10 dimes, 4 ’bounds and a League-leading 2.4 steals, the question mark’s become an All-Star. With a freshly signed five-year contract in hand, Rondo has the ball in his extra large mitts for the majority of each possession, confidently dictating the Celtics’ offensive attack.
Perkins was once a doughy preps-to-pros Draft pick. Six-plus seasons later, after spending a few campaigns as KG’s understudy, Perk has entrenched himself as the heart of Boston’s D while becoming one of the best post defenders in the NBA. “I need to be more consistent,” says Perk, still only 26. “Not to say Kevin or Rasheed are old, but their bodies have a lot of minutes [on them]. So I kinda have to be that captain on the defensive side now whenever they need a break.” Aside from protecting the paint, Kendrick fights for almost 8 rebounds and buckets 10 points a game, while shooting a near-NBA-leading 60 percent from the floor on a variety of continuously improving post moves. Perk and Rondo still have mental lapses, still have quarters where they’re MIA, but they’re the Celts’ future…and a large part of the present. (With that being said, Perkins’ play has tailed off as the season has wore on.)
With the young guys’ ascension to the top of the team’s totem pole, fans could be leery of an egotistical butting of the heads between the two camps. Recently, in fact, facing mounting pressure and criticism, Boston media reported that there were chemistry issues in the locker room. Like carbonation, though, the chemistry in the locker room is the same as in the past—fizz overflows every now and then on even the calmest of teams.
Assuming the Cs avoid injuries down the stretch, assuming the starting five perform at the level they’re capable of, assuming fissures don’t erupt in the locker room, Boston will still need the bench to produce in the Playoffs. Wallace, currently collecting 9 points and 4 boards per, will need to get better acclimated to the Celts offense–something which he hasn’t been able to do in the regular season–while shooting fewer threes, something he’s done at a 29 percent clip this season, his lowest long-range rate in a decade. Robinson will have to provide an offensive spark off the pine, scoring points in bunches while the starters sit. Daniels and Glen Davis will have to stay healthy and play on both ends of the floor. Tony Allen will have to check in to games and lock down the other team’s best scorer on a nightly basis. And Michael Finley will need to hit the open J when given the opportunity. If these guys handle their business, sacrificing time and touches on occasion for the betterment of the team, the Celtics will be where everyone believed they should be before the season began.
“Everyone feels as though we’re talented enough,” says Wallace. “We’re good enough. We have the heart, soul and desire to get that hardware.”
For now, though, a little more than 10 miles away from their home arena, high in the air on the far side of a practice court, a banner lies blank. Green thread is ready to be woven in, as it already has been on the 17 hanging next to it. It’s simply yet to be determined if this ’10 green team is capable of being the squad to complete the unfinished pennant.