By Rich Levine
They say that if not for home-court advantage, the Celtics would be NBA champs.
They say, that if the Cs hadnt wasted the regular season fighting injury, apathy and losing 32 games, thered be another banner up in the rafters, and another ring on everyones finger.
If only Game Seven was at the Garden, they say, you know we would have won!
They are the Celtics, and as a result of that Game Seven loss in last years Finals, the team entered this season ready to take on the world.
This year, there are no let-downs. This year, there are 82 Game Sevens. This year, every game matters, because, in the end, home court is ALL that matters. It burned us before, and we cant let it burn us again.
And for the first few months, that mentality served them well.
Starting in October, into November and right up until Christmas, the Celtics wore the scars, fed off the motivation, and willed themselves into a juggernaut.
Kevin Garnett looked fresher than he had since 2008. Shaq had transported back to 2006. Rajon Rondo was an MVP candidate. Big Baby was a contender for Sixth Man. Paul Pierce and Ray Allen were being run ragged, but looked no worse for the wear. Jermaine ONeal was hurting but that kid from Turkey was suddenly a serviceable NBA talent. Marquis Daniels was making good on his second chance to make a first impression. Nate Robinson had bought into the system, and the benefits were obvious.
Along the way, a carousel of potential let downs against teams like the Nets, Wizards, Bobcats and Sixers games this team would have surrendered at will last winter were virtual speed bumps on the Bostons road to the No. 1 seed. Yeah, there were a few avoidable losses, like that second game of the season in Cleveland, or that crazy Sunday in Toronto, but it wasnt the end of the world; the losses never got them down. Instead, they only re-ignited the fire. After the loss to the Cavs, the Cs won five straight. After the loss at Toronto, they won 14.
As the season went on, every once in a random while, Game Seven would always find its way back into the conversation. Doc, Paul or KG would mention it in passing, and remind you that they still hadnt forgotten, still felt that pain, were still playing for home court and werent stopping any time soon.
And you know what? After the overload of negativity that cursed them last winter, the re-affirmation of the Celtics regular season pride was pretty great. It was really refreshing. It appeared as if that one horrible loss had provided the antidote to the NBA doldrums, and as the Heat struggled with chemistry, the Bulls fought with injury and the Magic hit the reset button, you had to wonder if maybe, just maybe, this newfound determination might actually propel the Cs into the playoffs as the Easts undisputed favorite; with Boston established as the formidable host city.
Ah, those were good times, werent they?
The fans were happy. The whole city was happy. The Celtics were just about the happiest team in the history of organized sports. And because of that over-riding happiness, there was one little detail that we all fans, writers, players, coaches sort of misremembered. One that, given Bostons recent slide, seems worth mentioning:
Detail: Home-court advantage wasnt the reason the Celtics lost Game Seven.
Would it have made their lives a little easier? Yeah, of course. Im not saying that home-court wasnt A reason, but its not even in the Top 3. Would home-court have made up for Perk? Would home-court have nursed Paul and KGs knees, Rasheeds stamina and Rondos entire body back to health? Even if the game was at home, would you have ever asked for a better situation than being up 13 points with 20 minutes left?
Or maybe it wasnt a matter of misrememberance, maybe we just conveniently ignored it, because the motivation seemed to be working and there was no need to burst the Celtics bubble. After all, Danny Ainge had already corrected most of the real problems in the off-season. He brought back the core, created a monster front court, bolstered the bench. So, if the Cs still needed that extra motivation, and wanted to pretend that this was all about home-court, then all the power to them especially when it was working so well.
But the truth is that, given the circumstances, its doesnt make sense to base your season around the premise that home-court was the difference in the 2010 NBA Finals. If we were talking about the 2008 team, then yeah, they dont lose Game Seven in Boston. But last year?
Starting with the Cleveland series, the Celtics were 6-4 at home, and 5-5 on the road. The Lakers had already won at the Garden earlier in the series. Perk was still hurt. And again, most of all, regardless of anything, the Celtics were up 13 points with 20 minutes left. I dont care if youre playing a game of water polo against a team of Great White sharks, you dont blow a lead like that with a title on the line. And the Staples Center was not the reason the Celtics actually did.
And while it was OK to pretend that was the case when that mindset was actually helping the Cs win games, now seems like a good time to stop.
Now, KGs on the shelf. Shaqs been warped into 2014. Rondos banged up. Big Babys overworked, and his consistencys suffered. Jermaine ONeal has a knee injury that Doc joked (maybe) will bother JO for the rest of his life. Semihs MIA. They lost confidence in Nate. People are begging for Rasheed!
The Celtics are losing games that they shouldnt, while the Heat, Magic and Bulls are all catching stride, and, as a result, the chances of Boston walking away with the No. 1 seed are suddenly dwindling. Theyve come down to the field, and some have grown worried. Even Doc Rivers showed a considerable amount of concern after the C's Monday night loss to Houston:
"Ive got to somehow figure out a way of getting them to see the urgency of the whole season and not the single game," he said. "And to me, you can see them thinking about the individual game and not the ramifications of the entire season.
Some see it as a sign of weakness or a harbinger of horrible things to come, but I just see it as reality.
This team wasnt built for 82 games; they were built for 16 wins, late April through June. And treating them otherwise is dangerous. Pacing yourself for the playoffs is still the priority, not seeding regardless of what happened over the final 20 minutes of last season.
I'm not saying it's just "get to the playoffs, and go on another magical run." It's definitely not that easy. But it's not otherwise impossible. And not worth the risk of pushing your already injured team any harder than they need to be.
Let's pretend for a second that the C's get the fourth seed. First of all, when it comes to home court, the Heat dont have one. You really think the Celtics would worry about that crowd? As for the Magic, the Cs still control Dwight Howard better than anyone in the league, at home or away. And proved last season that they can take this team in their own house even if they did recently upgrade. And as for Chicago, you know, I think they might present the toughest test for Boston if theyre forced to start out on the road. But either way, this isnt supposed to be easy, and when healthy, theres still no team in the league better suited for the playoffs than Boston.
And now, its just about getting there. The one seed would be nice, but making it one piece is better, because while a healthy Celtics team can win on the road, a beat-up one wont win anywhere.