Welcome to Phase 3

Welcome to Phase 3
March 7, 2013, 1:15 pm
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It’s the same strategy that the Celtics have employed for the better part of 15 years, and there was no reason to believe that this time would be different.

Score tied. Boston ball. 24 seconds on the clock . . .

 . . . and here comes the clear out for Paul.

Admit it, that’s what you were thinking. That’s what I was thinking. That’s certainly what the Pacers were thinking. But instead of falling back on the stale, old isolation (aka “Automatic Overtime”), the Celtics called an audible.  Scratch that — they called an actual play!

After the inbounds, the ball went from Avery Bradley to Jeff Green, who fired a pass to KG at the top of the key. Once KG made the catch, Green cut to the hoop, used a back screen from Pierce and left David West in his dust.

At this point, KG turned and found a wide-open Green, now almost directly under the basket; Green made a nice grab, a better finish and the Celtics won the game. They came back from 10 points in the fourth quarter, on the road, on the second night of a back-to-back, against the consensus second-best team in the East. It was their fourth in a row, and their 13th in 17 tries since losing Rajon Rondo.

But Green’s last second basket did more than just mark the final step in a ridiculous comeback. It also hammered home a message that had only recently started to reveal itself, but was now clear for the world to see —

Phase 3 is under way.

Operation: Save the Hall of Famers

How did we get here?

Well, Phase 1 ran from October 29 – January 25, and while it never had an official name, let’s called it Operation: Rondo Torch.

And let’s agree that it was a train wreck.

Failed expectations. Uninspired play. Chemistry issues that were handled passive aggressively behind the scenes but tortured Boston on the court. From opening night in Miami through rock bottom in Atlanta, Phase 1 was one of the  most depressing stretches in the last six years of Celtics basketball. And they’ve had a few bad ones.

Anyway, on that awful night against the Hawks — as the Celtics blew a 27-point lead and their point guard blew out his ACL — Rondo Torch was laid to rest.

It left behind a 20-23 record. It left Boston as the eighth seed in the East — three games behind the seventh-seeded Bucks and only two games ahead of the ninth seeded-Sixers.

It left Celtics Nation in shambles.

Initiate Phase 2.

Let’s call this one Operation: Old Man Strength. And regardless of how the rest of the season plays out, let’s never forget this happened.

Let’s never forget what Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett did — in the face old bones and relentless trade rumors — to save this Celtics season.

First of all, because we’re way past the point of taking these guys for granted. Honestly, if you’re not already in the mindset of appreciating every opportunity to watch them play, then you should get there.

Second of all, because after Rondo (and eventually Sullinger) went down, the Celtics really were in total disarray. Pierce and KG looked old and on the verge of a breakdown. Bradley was playing through another injury. On a nightly basis, Brandon Bass, Jeff Green, Courtney Lee, Jason Terry and Chris Wilcox were all giant question marks. Not one of them had lived up to expectations.

Doc was getting heat, too.

Why couldn’t he motivate these guys?

No one had an answer, but it didn’t look good.

Finally, let’s never forget Operation: Old Man Strength because, all things considered, it was nothing short of legendary.

In the seven games after Rondo’s injury, 35-year-old Paul Pierce averaged 18.8 points, 10.1 rebounds and 7.3 assists a night, and posted two triple-doubles — his first in seven years! Meanwhile, 36-year-old Kevin Garnett averaged 17.9 points, 9.7 rebounds a game and (with some help from Avery Bradley) revitalized the Celtics defense.

The highlight of the streak was the seventh and final game; Boston’s triple-overtime win over the Nuggets. In that one, Garnett played a season-high 47 minutes and racked up 20 points, 18 rebounds, six assists, three blocks and two steals. Pierce played a CAREER high 54 minutes, scored 27 points, grabbed 14 boards and dished out 14 assists.

Look at those numbers again.

I remember walking out of the Garden after that game. I remember looking at the box score on my phone and shaking my head at those stat lines.

I remember thinking: How long can they keep this up?

Either way, one thing was clear: Pierce and Garnett had saved the Celtics season. They had put the franchise on its back. They had given a roster of disgruntled underachievers (and Avery Bradley, who is the exact opposite) something to believe in.

Initiate Phase 3.

Save the Hall of Famers

How long can they keep this up?

The answer was “not much longer.”

After the big win against Denver, the Celtics lost four of their next six games, and between the All-Star Break, a brutal west coast trip and one of the most draining trade deadlines in recent memory, Pierce and Garnett came back to Earth.

Their numbers didn’t suffer right away, but it wasn’t long before we started to hear more about the pinched nerve in Pierce’s neck, and were reminded of it at least once a game, as the camera’s caught him wincing in pain.

On February 21 in Phoenix (the night after being manhandled by Dwight Howard in LA), KG was given the night off, and shockingly, he just let it happen.

“He was fine with it, which told me that it was the right thing,” Doc Rivers said. “He didn’t put up a fight at all, that tells you we were probably a game or two too late. We should have done it a game earlier.”

Pierce saved the team one more time in Utah, but it was clear that he and KG needed a break. And when the Celtics arrived back in Boston, there had been an obvious shift in mentality.

Basically, with the team now securely in the playoffs, Doc Rivers had switched to playoff mode. He started throwing his veterans extra days off, and constantly reminded anyone who would listen that more strategic rest was on the way. In not so many words, it was an admission that Pierce and KG couldn’t carry this team anymore. Not in the regular season. Not if there was any chance of them being ready for the playoffs.

And with that, it was up to the rest of the Celtics to return the favor. It was up to Bradley, Bass, Green, Lee, Terry, Wilcox (and now Crawford) to step up their game and keep this train rolling while Pierce and KG were off in their hyperbaric chambers getting ready for prime time.

And over these four games — more specifically, these last two nights —we’ve seen Operation: Save the Hall of Famers reach new heights.

It’s obvious just watching them play. It’s obvious just seeing the smile on Paul Pierce’s face during and after last night’s comeback. It’s perhaps most telling in the Celtics recent fourth quarter numbers.

On Tuesday night in Philly, Avery Bradley paced the C’s early, and Boston took a five-point lead into the final frame. In the fourth quarter, Pierce only had three points; KG had four, but only two over the last nine minutes.

The Celtics won by eight.

Then last night in Indy, the Celtics trailed by 10 heading into the fourth. Once again, Pierce only scored three points down the stretch. KG had six but only two over the final 10 minutes.

The Celtics won by two.

Bottom line: Everyone is stepping up. And now, as Phase 3 hits its stride, the Celtics are 33-27, a half game behind the Bulls for the sixth seed. Only a game and a half back of Brooklyn for home court advantage in the first round. Meanwhile, with every passing game, Pierce and Garnett are being rewarded for everything they did in February. It’s as if every chance they get, the rest of this team takes a second to look up at their two Hall of Famers and let them know: “Don’t worry. You did your part. Now rest up and we’ll carrying the load.”

And that’s why plays like last night’s Jeff Green game-winner are so important. Because ultimately, the only way to convince Pierce and KG to give it a rest is to show them that other people are not only willing but able to step in. That if they aren’t feeling it on any given night, there are two or three guys ready to kill themselves to make up the difference.

That builds trust. That’s makes the Celtics a better team.

And as long as they get there in one piece, it will make Phase 4 all the more interesting.

Operation: Beat the Heat