By A. Sherrod Blakely
WALTHAM Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers loves Celtics Nation. Their passion, the fact that they want nothing but the best - and will let you know in emphatic fashion if you come up short - is exactly what makes this basketball-crazy region so unique.
Rivers understands all too well the second-guessing that has come about since the team traded away Kendrick Perkins, a deal that both Rivers and Danny Ainge, Boston's president of basketball operations, have said was difficult but necessary for them to move forward.
The only way to silence those critics is to go forth with a strong showing in the playoffs which begins Sunday night as the Celtics host Game 1 of their first-round matchup against the New York Knicks.
Boston has been on a roller coaster of sorts since the Feb. 24 trade, evident by their glass half emptyhalf full record of 15-12 in the post-Perkins era.
As much as the struggles have helped to bring a team together that's very much a work in progress, it has also served as a reminder for Rivers just how passionate fans are around here during the good and not-so-good times.
"I know the big picture," Rivers told CSNNE.com on Saturday. "And the fans are no different than me. I'm a fan of the Celtics in some ways, and I expect us to win. So when they're frustrated, I can guarantee you that there's no fan that can get more frustrated than I am already. I actually don't mind that. Even when we were bad, I said that. At least they care. I'd rather have that, then the apathy and the indifference and 'you suck,' and don't even come to games."
But there are some fans who have not quite let go of the team's decision to trade Perkins, a player who has been pivotal in the success of the Oklahoma City Thunder.
In a season that has been filled with its share of grey areas, support for the Celtics, in Rivers' mind, is a black and white issue.
"You're either a fan or not," he told reporters earlier this week. "I've always said that. There's nothing wrong with being disappointed in wins and losses."
That's a given in any professional sports market. But in New England, a market driven by some of the most passionate fans in sports, it's not that simple.
These fans are educated enough about their teams to know when they are playing at a level consistent with their talent.
And the Celtics know, based on their roster, they should have a better overall record than 56-26.
However, this season has been easily the most unique and to a large degree, most challenging of the Big Three era.
When Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen joined Paul Pierce in 2007, there really was only one way to go - up.
The only question at that time wasn't whether they would win a championship, but could they do it in their first season together.
After steamrolling through the regular season, the Celtics had the best overall record and were the odds-on favorite to win it all.
They lived up to the lofty expectations and brought home Banner 17.
And the fan's response?
Nice. Now go get Banner 18.
A knee injury to Kevin Garnett sidetracked their plans to repeat, and a Perkins injury weighed heavily in the C's Game 7 loss in the NBA Finals last year.
With the Celtics loading up on veteran talent this season, anything short of winning it all will again be a disappointment.
"That's what our fans have come to expect from us," Ainge told CSNNE.com. "And we expect that from ourselves. That's why you play the game, or you should play the game, to be a champion. We have a team full of guys who believe that."
But there are times throughout the season when the Celtics, like many NBA teams, seem to not play at a level consistent with what you need in order to win a championship.
He'll occasionally deliver the good-isn't-good-enough sermon. In case they don't get it, he has Celtics Nation coming in with the chorus.
However, intertwined within those goals is reality.
And for Rivers, that's where things get kind of tricky for fans.
They expect greatness, but don't necessarily factor in the ups and downs that go into it, and aren't always patient enough to see the process through to its end before judging a deal or a player rotation, a bust.
"We did make a lot of changes, and that takes time," Rivers said.
And for fans who don't understand that?
"If you don't get that, I can't help you," Rivers said. "If you want to jump (off the Celtics bandwagon), I'm not going to be there with you."