Monday, April 21, 2008

Celts Gear Up For 08 Postseason Run - by Rob Soares

I am pleased to present the first of what I hope will be a great deal of articles by Rob Soares, a die hard Celtics fan and sadly a Red Sox fan as well.

Following the eight-player blockbuster deal that sent Kevin Garnett to Boston in the latter part of this past summer in addition to the pre-acquired Ray Allen during the NBA draft, I think it’s safe to say that the general consensus among Celtics fans heading into the season was still a fairly modest one, with expectations of making the playoffs and hopefully winning a series or two as the new team learned to play together during its first season. However, expectations and hopes rose almost immediately as the Celts started the season off on an 8-game win streak (last NBA team to be defeated), and since then have owned the NBA’s best record throughout the entire season. As the season progressed, more and more positive things started happening for the team that gave fans more and more reason to expect a championship in 2008…KG immediately made the big impact that was expected from him, all season he has put up MVP numbers that have been just slightly below his norm throughout his long career with the T-wolves.
With two other superstars surrounding him, Paul Pierce immediately looked “re-energized” and ready to do whatever he was called upon to do for the team, something he’s done all season long. While it was expected that the big 3 would continue to perform like all-stars and carry the team, it was not as expected that many role-players would come into their own and fill in the gaps off the bench. (Guys like: Glen Davis, Leon Powe, Tony Allen) These guys and the rest of the team would step it up while the team missed KG from January 27 up until the All-Star break, going 7-2 during that span. The Celtics defense, which was the biggest question mark coming into the season, has excelled all season and actually been the C’s forte in 07-08 being the NBA’s best, at least statistically-speaking.

If you look back on all the championship caliber teams throughout NBA history, you’ll find several things in common amongst them. First is a big time scorer and “go-to-guy,” in which the Celtics have a surplus. Secondly is a strong supporting cast and role-players. Players like James Posey, Eddie House, Tony Allen, Leon Powe, etc have fit in and adjusted to their roles on this Celtics team perfectly…a credit to coach Doc Rivers. Thirdly is the aforementioned team defense. Throughout the course of the season, the Celtics have held opponents to 90.2 points per game, a 41.9% field goal percentage, 31.5% from behind the arc and they sport an average point differential of +10.24 ppg…all of which are good for tops in the league. In addition, they allow opponents just 38.92 rebounds per game (2nd in the NBA) and have a +3.06 rebound per game differential (4th). Point: The Celts can play some serious defense, and do it better than the vast majority of teams in the league. The fourth thing you find in many championship teams is team chemistry and experience. The C’s have proven to have team chemistry throughout most if not all 82 games of this season. Experience on the other hand is something they lack, which is huge come playoff time. I don’t mean individual experience of course, having several guys on the roster with over 10 years on their NBA resume, but experience as a team. The Celtics’ +10 point per game differential tells you two things. One is that the Celtics dominated opponents this year (and that they played in the JV league AKA Eastern Conference), and that is certainly a positive thing. But the second thing it screams is that the Celtics really haven’t been tested or challenged a whole lot this year. I know there are more, but I can think of only about 5 or 6 Celts games off the top of my head this season where I was on the edge of my seat with hands covering my mouth, or standing up nearly on top of my T.V. screaming obscenities, or jumping up and down over a critical late-game play sending my downstairs neighbor up-a-knocking (he’s lucky we’re only weeks into Red Sox season). My point is that the Celts will be tested in the playoffs, and often…they won’t have to wait for a Western Conference opponent. Maybe it won’t happen much in the first round, but come conference semi’s and conference finals I fully expect to see many games going down to the wire; this is where lack of playoff experience as a single unit can come into play. Since the C’s do not yet have playoff experience together as a team, we will learn about the composure of the young players who have done their jobs and fulfilled their roles nicely all season, as well as the true coaching ability of Doc Rivers.
There is one last thing that comes to mind when thinking about what championship teams are made of. They can be found in many (maybe not all) championship squads. These are X-factors or make-it-or-break-it factors that sneak in under the radar and play a big roll in a team’s championship run. Kind of like Robert Horry’s ability to hit huge clutch threes for just about every playoff team he’s played for, or a rising star like Daniel Gibson for last year’s Cavaliers who steps up and provides a big boost. So here’s what I come up with when thinking of what the X-factors for the Celtics will be:

1. The play of sophomore point guard Rajon Rondo. No real elaboration needed here. It’s not too hard to see that the performance of Rondo [on both ends of the floor] could be the single most important make-it-or-break-it factor in the Celtics playoff success. If he continues to play like he has for about 85% of the year, the C’s are in real good shape. On the other hand if he does not and is affected by playoff pressure or a lack of experience then their offensive flow is vastly disrupted and it could spell doom for the Celts.

2. Sam Cassell and Eddie House tandem. I’m not exactly sure how often Doc intends to put a unit on the floor that includes these two players, but I feel they compliment each other nicely. The acquisition of Cassell in and of itself is big for more obvious reasons: He brings a great amount of experience and leadership, he can score in bunches, and he is a “true point guard” to back up Rondo…something that Tony Allen and Eddie House are not in my opinion. The part of the Sam Cassell pickup that is less obvious, and that I think can play a big role in the success of the Celtics bench is that he allows Eddie House to play the position where he is the most comfortable and accustomed to...shooting guard. Anybody who didn’t know much about Eddie House prior to him becoming a Boston Celtic now knows that he is a lethal scorer and can be a premier sharpshooter. However throughout the better part of the season, he has been asked to play the role of ball-handler and backing up Rondo at the point guard spot. This is not where House is at his best, and I think it’s partly taken him out of his comfort zone. Having another true point guard in Sam Cassell who can distribute the basketball allows House to roam free on the perimeter and gives the Celtics the option of running him off screens and such, presenting different scoring opportunities. Having Eddie’s shooting ability off the bench is a big asset for the C’s and should be used optimally; His ability to score in bunches can A.) Keep the Celtics from ever falling too far behind in the middle stages of games, and B.) Draw the team closer by closing the gap on a deficit quickly even if they are to fall behind by double-digits.

3. Backup Big Men: Leon Powe and Glen Davis. I love these guys and the effort they show on both ends of the court (although clearly not as much as Tommy Heighnson does). To me these are the two guys who have perhaps over achieved the most for the Celtics this year. They love to dive for a loose ball (Tommy Point!), scrap for offensive rebounds and second-chance points, and are glad to step into the painted area to take a charge. In addition, both of these guys benefit enormously from having a guy named Paul Pierce on the floor with them. Powe and Davis have a tremendous ability to find the open spot down low and free themselves up for an easy pass and layup, and Paul Pierce is all about penetrating to get to the hoop and when he does, he often finds Powe or Davis waiting for the bucket after the double team comes to stop Pierce. These two things go together like lamb & tuna fish (maybe spaghetti & meatball?).
I think most Celtics fans were almost afraid to set expectations so high as to expect an NBA championship in the first year of this new-look team. But with the way this team has played all season and after fans have witnessed the single biggest NBA record turnaround from one season to the next (24-58 to 66-16), it’s hard not to have that “championship or bust” mentality… and why not?

Some of my quick (and very non-professional) predictions:
The Celts drop a game to the youthful Hawks in Atlanta but get by with relative ease winning in five games. I think the Wizards/Cavs series will be a close one and could go either way, but Lebron does his thing and the Cavs come away winners then lose to the Celts in six. Home court advantage should be the difference maker in a Celtics/Pistons series that should be a great one. Celts win game 7 in a very, very rowdy TD BankNorth Garden. The Celtics then meet up with the LA Lakers in a series that will be perfect for the game of basketball and should restore the NBA back to the glory days of the past. I get chills thinking about it…
- Rob Soares

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