A week ago today, the Celtics beat the Mavericks in double overtime to improve their record to 12-9 and climb three games over .500 for the first time this season. Although things were far from perfect, with wins in three of their last four games, the Celtics looked ready to leave mediocrity in their dust and officially join the ranks of Eastern Conference contenders.
At the very least, they were improving. They were getting better. There was still a long way to go, but there was a renewed confidence in their ability to get there.
Anyway, heres what I wrote on the morning after that Mavericks game:
The Celtics now head out on the road for a three-game trip at Houston, at San Antonio, at Chicago with some serious momentum-building (or killing) potential. Of course, either way, its not the end of the world. The Celtics could lose all three or go 1-2 and (short of a horrific injury) there wont be any reason to panic. In the same breath, going 3-0 or 2-1 wont necessarily mean a thing. But it will keep this team trending in the right direction, and at this point, what else you can ask for?
So with that being re-said, it would be hypocritical to overreact to last nights loss in Chicago, or to the collective three-game stretch that took all of Boston's momentum and squashed it with the weight of 15 Thomas Hamiltons.
After all, they do this every year, right? The same way that the Patriots defense spends every fall driving people nuts, before turning it around down the stretch, the Celtics are the regular season slackers who wake up when it matters most.
They did it in 2010. They did it in 2012. In both cases, everyone swore that after this theyd never write the Celtics off again. That theyd never lose touch with the relative insignificance of the NBA regular season. But here we are again. Its almost Christmas and the Celtics are struggling. They're still looking for a rhythm, identity andor even the slightest sense of urgency.
AND EVERYONE'S STARTING TO PANIC.
OK, not really. But there's no doubt that the Banner 18 Bandwagon's losing steam. You look at this team right now, even with Avery Bradley, and it's hard to envision them running with the other contenders. Not Miami. Not OKC (yeah, I know). Certainly not the Spurs. The Celtics just aren't good enough. And we're all back in that same place we swore we'd never be again.
In an attempt to justify that, here are three reasons why this year is different from 2010 and 2012. So far, at least:
1. That one big stretch: In 2010, the Celtics started the season 23-5. Last year (even though they started 4-8 and eventually limped into the All Star break), Boston went on a mid-January tear that saw them win nine of 10 games. In both cases, they gave us an extended glimpse into their potential. They temporarily flexed their muscles to the fullest. And Doc always used that as a source of confidence in the face future failures. For the most part, he was always the calming force.
Doc's reaction after last night's game?
"This is not a good team right now."
And he's right. This particular team hasn't proved anything yet, and even though it's early, they've had plenty of opportunities. Their next chance? I'd say Christmas Day in Brooklyn. Between the two earlier losses, the fight at the Garden and the national spotlight, the Celtics can make a serious statement against the Nets.
After that, the rest of us will start believing as soon as Doc does.
2 . Too healthy: In 2010, the Celtics fought through nagging injuries to KG and Pierce, as well as Rasheed Wallace's beer belly. In 2012, they lost Jeff Green right off the bat, had Pierce start late and then watched the entire roster slowly disappear.
So far this year, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Rajon Rondo, Jason Terry, Brandon Bass, Jared Sullinger, Jeff Green and Courtney Lee have missed a combined ONE GAME due to injury.
Of course, the absence of Avery Bradley is a big one. Over the last few months, the Bradley narrative has gone from forgotten to underrated to overrated to so-overrated-that-I-think-he's-back-to-being-underrated. Does that sound right? Either way, I'm a huge Bradley guy. I think a lot of people are seriously underestimating his value to this team what his presence does for Rondo, how much his athleticism and cutting ability helps the offense, just how ridiculously dominant he is on the defensive end. I mean, in so many ways, Bradley's the Celtics best defensive player. How will his return to the starting line-up NOT make the C's better? That's exactly what happened last year. Why is this time different?
Anyway, my point is that even as important as Bradley is, the Celtics have been insanely, almost unbelievably fortunate on the injury front. And they don't have much to show for it.
3. Defense: The Celtics have given up 100 or more points in 11 of their first 24 games. Last season? That happened only nine times over the course of 66 games.
And while last year is skewed by the clunkiness of the post-Lockout regular season, and this year will improve with the return of Bradley, there's no question that this defense is still a work in progress. That it's not what it used to be.
Pierce has lost a step. KG's lost a step (even if he's still unbelievably effective). Rondo plays less defense than any perennial All-Defense guy in NBA history. Jason Terry's never been known for his defense. Neither has Chris Wilcox. Jeff Green still looks lost within the Celtics scheme, like he's out there deep in conversation with himself.
Courtney Lee is a solid, but he's probably Boston's best chance of acquiring a big man, and that's their BIGGEST NEED OF ALL, and . . . ah crap. I promised not to overreact. So let's wrap it up.
For now let's just keep in mind that even though they're in a bad place right now, the Celtics are still capable of doing great things. It sounds crazy to say that this morning, after three straight ugly losses and a generally depressing two months, but we've all been here before. We all know better than to assume too much before Christmas or at any point before April. Instead, all you can do is just hope Avery comes back without a hitch. That Rondo stays motivated. That everyone stays healthy. That Doc changes his tune. That the conversation in Green's head finally comes to an end. And finally, just remember that they're still only 12-12. It still could be a lot worse.
For instance, imagine if they were 12-12 heading into that Dallas game?
12-12 on 12-12-12?!
I feel like we all dodged a bullet.