By: Rich Levine
Last night, while the Patriots were saying hello to Nate Solder and more future draft picks, America was saying goodbye to a TV icon.
But even though Michael Scotts career at Dunder Mifflin has officially come to an end, his legacy will live on
In my CelticsHeat preview.
So here are 10 stories to follow as the Big 3s prepare for battle, with headlines inspired by Mr. Scott, and the catch phrase he unleashed on pop culture:
1. Is the Big Fella ready?
Three months later and we still dont have an answer. Or more, the answers apparently still no. But for all the indecision, heres what we know for sure about Shaquille ONeal: He wont be the reason the Celtics win or lose this series.
If he plays? Yeah, he makes them better. Hes an extra body who can put a little more pressure on Miamis thin frontcourt and take some pressure off the rest of the Celtics starters. He can deliver a few hard fouls and give the Celtics a little added toughness. But in very small stretches.
Speaking yesterday on WEEI, Danny Ainge said that, at this point, he doesnt think Shaq can even given them 12 minutes. And theres no reason to believe that will change over the course of the next two weeks. Maybe if the Celtics make it through to Chicago, but for the extent of this series, Shaq will not be a huge factor.
Even in his best-case scenario, the games will be won and lost with him sitting uncomfortably on his sideline throne.
Worst-case? He doesnt play at all, and the Celtics still have a very real shot.
2. These guys cant go forever
The Celtics bench struggled in Round 1, and even though Glen Davis and Delonte West looked a little better as things wound down, its fair to say that the Celtics wont be able to count on their second unit as much as they have in the past; and certainly not as much as they hoped to when this season began.
Jeff Green doesnt have it. Theyve lost confidence in Nenad Kristc. They never had any in Troy Murphy. The bench is a problem, yet Thursday at practice, Doc Rivers didnt sound worried.
(Depth) is important, he said, but at the end of the day the starters are the key. The starters have to play well. The bench has to help, and we have enough guys that that will happen for us as well. But lets make no mistake, if your starters are playing well, then you have a very good chance of winning playoff games.
He added, I dont think anybody has that big of a bench problem in the playoffs.
And maybe thats true, but I dont think you can downplay the importance of having a quality bench.
(I realize that Doc did say depth is important, but he definitely understated it).
Weve seen the second unit turn many a game in the playoffs these last few years. The Celtics bench almost single-handedly won them Game 4 of the Finals last year.
Sure, maybe a bad bench isnt a problem but a great bench sure as hell is an advantage. Its just one the Celtics wont have anymore. Not ideal when youve got the oldest starting five in the league.
Theyll need to find ways around that.
3. A split would make this a lot easier
I refuse to sit here and type that the Celtics cant lose the first two games in Miami and still win the series. Even if history shows that teams that go up 2-0 win 95 of the time, and only 14 of the nearly 300 teams that have gone down 2-0 in a series have ever come back to win.
Ive learned to never say never in sports. It always can happen, and at some point it will. And if any teams capable of showing that kind of fortitude and resiliency, its probably these Celticsa team led by three guys gearing up for likely the last legitimate title run of their careers, who have been through it before and hold an undoubted mental edge on the younger, less experienced Heat.
And if theres any team capable of imploding under that sort of pressure, its Miami.
But then again, what happens to Bostons mental edge if they drop those first two games? What if the Heat suddenly start to think: Hey, that win in late-April wasnt a fluke were just better than these guys now! They cant stop us!
Thats when the Heat stop fearing the Celtics. Thats when they get flashy and confident and start rolling out that ridiculous swagger. Thats when they stop thinking and just play. And thats when theyre at their most dangerous.
4. Did last time mean nothing to you?
The Celtics lost to the Heat on April 10. In the meantime, all Bostons really done since is beat a mediocre (even before falling apart) Knicks team four times in a row.
But somehow, it feels like they conquered the world.
All the awful feelings and crushed dreams that resulted from the 23-point loss in Miami have dissipated and now, its not just that people think that the Celtics can beat the Heat, but its once again the expectation. As it should be.
From a mental standpoint, the Celtics sure look like a different team than they were in April. Oh wait, its still April. A different than they were two weeks ago.
In reality, they probably only looked good in those two games in New York against Carmelo and half of Amar'e Stoudemire, but you know, maybe thats all it takes. Maybe thats all they needed to flip the switch, and get back to being the Celtics. Or Boston should hope, because the team that took the floor a few weeks back in Miami will not survive a seven game series.
5. Hey, lets switch guys for a little
When the Celtics beat Miami back on February 13, the game-changing run coincided with Rajon Rondos decision to guard LeBron James. He picked up LeBron full court, harassed him every step of the way, and definitely got in James head. It wasnt in the game plan, either, just a spurt of the moment move. And even though the switch didnt last very long, it caught the Heat off guard, energized the crowd and gave Boston a burst it need to turn a four-point halftime deficit into a 13-point lead after the three. They held on down the stretch and ultimately clinched their season series with Miami. A fact that seems unbelievably insignificant now.
Just like the idea of Rondo guarding LeBron.
Its not going to happen. Or if it does, you wont be as happy with the results.
When we guard our own guys were pretty good, Doc Rivers said at Thursdays practice. When we guard other guys, were pretty bad. Especially against (the Heat). Even though (those match-ups) may look good on paper and they may look good visually for two minutes, statistically, theyve been horrendous for us.
The Rondo on LeBron defense was good for one little stretch, but this series isnt going to come down to the Celtics employing funky, gimmicky defenses. It will be a matter of them doing exactly what they have been since 2008. Bearing down, talking their asses off, helping each other and playing the best team defense in the league. Regardless, of whom theyre playing.
6. You must resist the temptation to double team
Part of whats made these Celtics such a great defensive team over the years is that they always have each others backs. Not just in the rah-rah You mess my teammate you mess with me! mentality, but defensively. If someones out of position, someone else needs to be there to pick up the slack. Once that guy moves, another teammate must fill in the area he left. And so on. Every one is moving and working and helping. Theres nothing individual about it. Its five guys moving as one.
But while these guys are out there with a helping mentality, sometimes that can backfire a little. For instance, imagine youre playing your man, look over and see LeBron James with the ball in the post against Paul Pierce (or even worse, Jeff Green) or Dwyane Wade sizing up Ray Allen (or even worse, Jeff Green), if you see that, as a teammate, your first instinct is: Oh man, I better go help that guy. You probably think its in the best interest of the team to leave your man and force Wade or LeBron to give it up, because, after all, theyre Wade and LeBron.
We help a lot, but we dont over help, Rivers said. Any time weve over helped in any series, including New York. We tend to hurt ourselves instead of playing our solid one-on-one defense with support. I think Pauls a big guy. Hes not someone youre just going to push around.
So, despite every instinct they have to save a teammate, the Celtics need to train themselves to stand pat, and resist the temptation to double team on the block. That doesnt mean they cant help. Like Doc said, the system allows for you to support a guy in that situation, but once you commit too much and lose track of where youre supposed to be, thats when it start to fall apart, and guys like James Jones, Mike Bibby, Mario Chalmers (maybe even Mike Miller and Eddie House) can get lost and break open from beyond the arc.
7. Its getting late time to take care of business.
The Heat were 2-8 in games decided by three points or less. Surprisingly, the Celtics were only 8-8, but still, when it gets down to crunch time, youre going to be happy that Doc Rivers is holding the Celtics clipboard.
That still feels a little funny to say.
It wasnt too long ago that Doc was thought of as a lame duck coach in Boston. After the way things flamed out in Orlando, and with the inauspicious beginning to his tenure in Boston, you got the sense that he was a guy just better suited for TV. Nice guy, great guy just not a great coach.
When the Celtics made the trade and won the title, he got some credit, but mostly for his skills as a people person. For his ability to take all the egos in the Celtics locker room, balance them, play them off each other and come out on top. Tom Thibodeau was the Xs and Os guy in the locker room, Doc was like the team psychologist. At least that was the perception.
But now hes come full circle. Now, Rivers is looked upon as one of the most complete coaches in the league, and hammered that home with his undressing of Mike DAntoni in the first round. Now, when it gets down to crunch time, there are very few coaches youd rather have on your side.
Erik Spoelstra has his work cut out for him.
8. Youll be fine just throw some ice on it.
How bizarre that its only been a year since Jermaine ONeal played for these Miami Heat? OK fine, maybe not these Heat, but just in Miami. Doesnt that feel like seven years ago already? (Although it also feels like about 15 since Eddie House played in Boston, and that was only last year, too).
Anyway, on one hand, its scary to think about how much the Celtics are counting on ONeal moving forward, but that fear is somewhat quelled when you realize that with JO, its far less about what he does on the court than it is that hes actually out there at all. By that, I mean this:
In the first round, ONeal averaged 23 minutes, 5.5 points and four rebounds a game. He took zero foul shots. Not really the most inspiring stat line, eh? Yet that was enough. That was enough to turn an entire season of disappointment into a Nation of believers. Well, that and 10 blocked shots. And in the end, thats really all the Celtics need from JO. They need his body and interior presence far more than they do raw basketball skill. They just need him there. And they can survive on fewer than 25 minutes a night.
Still, you have to at least wonder if he can he give them that.
You ever take a road trip in a really run down car? I feel like everyones done it at some point in their lives. You have to get somewhere, but youre too broke to buy a plane ticket, so you jump in your buddys beat up whatever and pray you make it back and forth in one piece. Along the way there are at least 15 times when you think youre toast. Where little bumps, scrapes and bruises start to build up and youre absolutely sure the cars about to conk out in the middle of traffic. You know that if you can just make it home, you might never need this car again. For all the frustration, youll actually be proud of it. You guys will have formed a nice little bond. But until then, youre just doing anything you can to keep it alive, hoping the wheels dont fall of before you get home. Thats Jermaine.
9. Its better when youre unselfish
When the Celtics offense stalls theyre are usually two things to blame:
1. Rondos stopped pushing the ball and creating.
2. As a result, the rest of the team each starts taking it upon themselves to pick up the slack, and hero ball ensues.
Hero ball is the worst. Its the death of this team, and the source (again, after Rondo) of all their offensive woes. But then again, hero ball usually comes and goes in spurts, and each post season, the Celtics typically find away to exorcise those demons (Again, mostly because thats the time when Rondo decides to be Rondo). It should keep up against the Heat. When Boston is passing and trusting and taking advantage of all the fluidity and cohesion that theyve built over these past four years, theres still not better. Definitely not a team that's still figuring themselves out.
10. Is the King ready for his crown?
At some point, LeBron James will beat the Celtics in a playoff series. Not that it has to happen; you just imagine it will. And when it does well look back at LeBrons career well remember that moment like we do the first time the Pistons beat the Celtics back in the mid-80s or the first time Jordan beat the Pistons in the early 90s or the first time anyone beat Michaels Bulls in the no wait, that never happen (not counting 95). Like most great players that came before him, LeBron has that one team that he must beat before we truly recognize him as a great, or before he can really set off on that path to greatness. Real greatness. Not just MVPs and scoring titles. The Celtics are that team.
And heres the thing: You know he has the talent to do it. He always has. The issue now is the same as its always been. Its mental. Its focus. Its the ability to put all his fears and narcissistic sideshows aside and just be who he is. The most dynamic and talented player in the NBA.
Is this the year he does it?
Nah. Miami still needs one more year, and the Celtics might only have one year.
Theyll make the best of it.
Prediction: Celtics in 7.