The NBA playoffs begin a week from tomorrow and the Celtics are in no man’s land. Well, maybe.
The truth is, twe don’t really know where the Celtics are, or who the Celtics are, or whether to have great expectations, some expectations or no expectations at all. After more than five months of almost non-stop basketball, we may know less about this team right now than we have at any point since the season began. Can they survive long enough to see a Conference Finals rematch with Miami? Sure, why not. Is there a chance they finish the regular season below or right at .500 and get eliminated by the Knicks in five games? Sure, why not. Is there a chance Rondo shows up at the Garden one night and decides he’s going to play? Sure, hook him up with Metta World Peace’s doctor, and why not.
In a way, the uncertainty makes it a little more exciting. Celtics fans are like two expecting parents who decide to remain in the dark about their child’s gender — we’ll just see what happens and go with it! Then again, boy or girl, a baby is still a beautiful baby (at least according to the comments section on Facebook). On the other hand, there’s nothing beautiful about the wrong side of the Celtics potential. Just look at the last month.
Beginning with their March 10 loss in Oklahoma City, the Celtics have dropped 11 of their last 17 games. Their six wins have come against the Raptors, Bobcats, Cavaliers, Pistons, Wizards and Hawks. That’s five lottery teams and a sixth that has spent the second half of the season playing like one. Boston’s bad wins are out-shined only by their horrible losses — to Cleveland, Minnesota, New Orleans and Charlotte. In general, the last 30 days have been about as inspiring as a halftime speech by John Beilein (“Come on, guys! Think about all the great storylines!”) with the one glimmer of hope stemming from the past performance of two superstars who are unfortunately past their prime.
Of course, we’ve said that before with Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett and, whether it was 2010 playoffs, 2012 playoffs or even this past February, they’ve consistently proved us wrong. But the biggest difference between then and now is health.
In a perfect world, we’d look at the last month and this next week and fall back on “strategic rest.” But to use that phrase as it relates to this year’s team would be to ignore the fact that it’s false. As recently as last Wednesday, Doc Rivers said that he wants to play Pierce and KG these last four games — starting with tonight’s matchup in Miami. In terms of strategy, he thinks the Celtics are best suited to get a few more games under their belt with the new starting five, mainly so that Jeff Green can get a little more comfortable. But the reality is that Pierce and KG aren’t ready to go. When you see them on the sidelines (maybe?) tonight in Miami, it won’t be a matter of strategy but necessity. And while there’s no doubt that both superstars will be in uniform for Game 1 of the first round, the bigger concern is what they’ll look like and how they’ll be feeling when it’s time for Game 2 or Game 3 or the second round or, Jebus-willing, the Conference Finals.
Between the two, KG is obviously the bigger question mark — and that’s obviously bad news. Danny Ainge calls the fact that Garnett was wearing a walking boot after the game on Wednesday “precautionary”, but I don’t see how it qualifies as anything less than “terrifying.” You could understand if this is something that we’ve seen from Garnett before. You know, if every year around this time he stepped up his use of protective gear as a “precautionary” playoff measure. But players don’t rock a walking boot unless they need it. It’s a sign that his foot, ankle, and most importantly, bone spurs, will linger until KG can find some extended rest — more extended than the two weeks he already took this month.
Like I said, there’s no doubt that he will play through the pain; more pain than any mere mortal could likely handle. But if the Celtics have any chance to make legitimate noise in the playoffs, it will take more than playing through pain; Garnett will have to excel in spite of it. That’s where optimism starts to waver. And even then, even if Pierce and Garnett don their superstar capes one more time, it will take more than just the two of them for Boston to make it through the fire.
It will take Jeff Green and Avery Bradley performing at their absolute peak.
Green is the new Rajon Rondo. The player who, at his best, has the ability to affect and take over a game more than anyone on the roster. The player who we now say “The Celtics will only go as far as he takes them.” The player who Garnett and the rest of the organization talk up to ridiculous levels in the press (see: “I've always said J. Green is going to be one of the best players to ever play this game.” – KG) in the hope that something clicks and his full potential is realized before it’s too late.
All I know is that despite all that’s happened with Green this season, and his role within one of the most frustrating and insane narratives in recent Celtics history, his postseason performance will trump it all. Nothing will matter except for what he does when the playoffs get underway.
So, what’s more concerning on the verge of the NBA’s second season: Physical ailments like the ones haunting Pierce and KG, or the mental/confidence issues that lie ahead for Green?
In any case, Avery Bradley’s dealing with a bit of both. He’s got physical issues that stem from his recently injured collarbone as well as an assortment of other ailments that come with playing every minute of every game as if a loss will result in a date with a firing squad. He’s dealing with mental fatigue from his new role as point guard and the fact that he’s still only 22 years old — only six months older than his brother Jackie. Once the playoffs begin, much like with Pierce and KG, the concern with Bradley won’t be how he performs in Game 1, but more whether his mind and/or body will still be in one piece by Game 4 or 5. Anything less will result in an early exit for Boston.
And as we look ahead, an early exit — at least earlier than we’ve grown accustomed to over these last five years — certainly feels like more and more of a possibility. Ideally, this next week and these final four games might have a hand in changing that perception, but it’s far more likely that they’ll provide us with nothing. And instead, the Celtics will continue to float around in no man’s land, somewhere between who we think they can be and who they truly are. Just waiting for the playoffs to arrive — after five long months — and finally answering the question once and for all.