Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Return of The Blog... Part One: The 'I Told You So'

It's not often that I'm right. Just ask my wife.

That's why this moment, as ridiculously predictable and random that it is, will not go unnoticed. You may recall a previous "State of the Celtics Address" posted nearly three months ago. In it, I guaranteed the Celtics would reach the 61-win plateau and set a new NBA record for best single season team record turnaround.

I predicted they would do so before their April 9th rematch with the Washington Wizards. I predicted they would come absolutely nowhere near the incredible 72-10 season of the '95-'96 Bulls. I predicted they would rally through injury and occasional poor performance to continue their torrid level of domination. And, in order...they did, they didn't and they did.

I told you so.

This past Saturday's de-clawing/neutering of the abysmal Charlotte Bobcats earned Beantown a 61-15 overall record and a remarkable 37-game improvement from last season's win total. Here's what I had to say about the single season wins turnaround on January 15th...

"If Boston wins 61 games this season, they will break that record. They are on pace to do so. Hear me now and believe me later, that record will be theirs by the time they next face the Wizards in Game 78 on April 9th."

The Celtics cut it close, but they proved me right. They did it with a game to spare as they prepare to matchup with Milwaukee and gun for win #62 tonight. And they beat the Bobcats on Saturday without a single member of the Big Three. Paul Pierce missed the game to be with his family (his daughter was born just less than 24 hours earlier) and Doc Rivers chose to sit Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett to give them a breather. And they won by 23 points.

Most of the media looked at the achievement of this turnaround record as a positive milestone for the Celtics. While that approach is certainly understandable, the non-Boston media missed out on the larger point. They were able to set that record, not just because this year's team is so good, but mainly because last year's team was so bad.

The fact that the Celtics front office let it get that bad should not go unnoticed. And it was bad. Though they did make the playoffs for four straight years from 2002-2005, they slipped into the postseason mainly due to a weakened Eastern Conference in at least two of those seasons. No losing team should be allowed to play in the postseason...out of principle. Why should any fan have to pay to watch a losing team in a playoff tournament?

Meanwhile, Doc Rivers continues to get a good amount of credit for the turnaround while the players outperform their peers. I can not recall a single game this season in which I felt, for more than one possession at a time, that Doc Rivers outperformed one of his coaching peers. However, his players take care of that by simply raising their own level of performance...and winning.

But I will say this for Rivers, he's gotten this team to buy-in. Defensively and offensively, it's an all-out effort to win when it matters. That is very refreshing to see in today's haphazard NBA. Watching teams like the Suns, Warriors and Nuggets is irritating to me. They treat possessions like inconveniences. They are more fast-paced than McDonald's at quitting time...but even less effective. Shot quality isn't valued, it's about taking more shots than the other team. If you take more, you generally make more. Run the floor, sub in and out when you get tired, and pray the other team isn't better that given day. It's enough to make me almost want to watch golf. Almost.

But the Celtics haven't wavered from their desire to win games on defense. They remain first in the entire league in opponents' points allowed, first in average scoring margin, and first in opponents' field goal percentage and three-point field goal percentage. They also hit the glass, ranking third in the league in both defensive rebounds allowed and rebounding margin. They want to win. Watching them hustle when they're up double digits in a relatively meaningless game should make all hoops fans giddy. Especially Celtics faithful who suffered through the Antoine Walker show in recent years. Walker wouldn't sprint down the floor to play defense unless someone was dragging a deep-fried Twinkie across the court.

Some may argue this dedication to team basketball and downright toughness stems more from their two main offseason player acquisitions than it does from Rivers. That may be true, but Doc deserves some credit. They've worked day-in day-out for 76 games and it's paid off. They are on top of the East and clinched the conference title. Simply incredible.

And while I was right in most respects back in January, I was wrong in others. I discussed the team's player quality in three tiers back on 1/15/08:

"The second coming of the Big 3 in KG, Pierce and Allen...the 'I hope they positively contribute' group of Rondo, Perkins, Davis, House and Posey...and the 'If these guys are out there, I'm biting my nails and cursing under my breath' group of Tony Allen, Pollard, Scalabrine, Powe and Pruitt."

Here's where I made my major errors. Rondo has become one of the rising stars in the NBA. Unselfish, tough and hard-nosed, he scraps for rebounds and has become absolutely reliable. He's a stud but it took the Big Three to get his game on track. While Perkins has become more consistent, his 6'10'' frame still only brings down six boards a game. That needs work. While Rondo and Perkins have indeed raised their levels of play, two of the team's younger faces have had surprisingly strong seasons.

Glen 'Big Baby' Davis and Leon Powe, when called upon, have been impressive. Davis, the rookie out of LSU, established a fan following with a 20-point performance against hated Detroit ten days before my last Celtics-related post. Ever since, he's been a strong post presence in limited minutes. He spells a few breaths for the right guys and doesn't make as many critical rookie positioning/technique errors as he did near the start of the season.

As for Powe, whenever KG hasn't been in the lineup or wasn't quite playing up to 'Big Ticket' status, Powe has stepped up. He's led the team in rebounds in eight games this season and has twice gone over the 20-point plateau. He single-handedly decimated Charlotte on Saturday. When Garnett is out, Powe's game sends a message: "I may not be Kevin Garnett, but you will remember every possession that I defend you." He's making it personal.

Tony Allen, James Posey and Eddie House have been serviceable. They've done their jobs. All three are pitching in as each is scoring over six points per game. The addition of Sam Cassell has also been good. Maybe this pickup wasn't totally necessary because of Rondo's emergence, but it seems to have paid off. He lights a fire under Garnett...and if KG ever asks the front office for anything over the next two to three seasons, he should get it.

Six games. That's all that's left in the regular season. Then we find out what this team is really made of. It will be fun to watch. And since I'm doing so well with predictions...

Barring severe injury to two members of the Big Three, total team implosion or natural disaster, the Celtics will win the NBA Championship. I said the same in January.

No team can beat this group in a seven-game series. None. Not Orlando. Not Cleveland. And certainly none of the run-and-gun teams in the West. Detroit, New Orleans, San Antonio and Houston have a chance in hell.

That's it...a CHANCE in hell.

Last month, my cousin Seth and I sat in a Irish pub in Manhattan and watched as Boston came from 22 down to beat San Antonio in Texas. It was a watershed moment. They weren't at their best, yet they won. They could have quit, yet they didn't. The Spurs looked as if they were going to uphold recent Western Conference dominance, but the Celtics rallied and triumphed.

The rest of the NBA got the picture. No one is getting in this team's way. It's just not happening this season. No team can match their hustle or skill. If only the NBA season and it's mind-boggling playoff structure (seven-game series...every round...really?!?) wasn't so frustratingly long... Otherwise, Beantown could begin the parade preparations.

You know what? Why wait? All of you get a hold of Mayor Menino and tell him to publicly begin the celebration. There's no reason to put it off any longer.

Boston will again be a 'City of Champions' with the Celtics and Red Sox both on top of the sports world. If not for the single-most incredible catch in NFL history combined with Randy Moss lolly-gagging on the Patriots' last drive, it would be a three-sport title town.

But enough is enough, this is about the Celtics. The result has been predetermined. 2008 NBA Champions.

And on that note, cue the music.

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