Levine: The heart of a champion

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Levine: The heart of a champion

We spent a lot of time this season worrying about the Celtics' on-court chemistry.

We worried about health. We worried about depth. We worried they were too old, too small and just not good enough.

And last night, in Game 2 of Boston's first-round series against the Hawks the undisputed biggest game of the season every one of those fears became a reality.

The Celtics had no chemistry: They finished with only 14 assists (narrowly approaching the 14.8 that Rajon Rondo's averaged over the last 20 games) and 14 frustrating turnovers. On defense they were in tune (and then some), but their offense was in shambles. There was no rhythm. No familiarity. It led a brand of hero ball that typically drives Doc Rivers up a wall.

They werent healthy: I know some of these guys are old news, but Jeff Green, Jermaine ONeal, Chris Wilcox, Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo (mental health) were out. If youre counting, thats five of the top eight players from the start of the season. In the time since, those five players have been replaced by Mickael Pietrus, Sean Williams and Ryan Hollins.

Given that previous point, it should come as no surprise that the Celtics also had no depth last night in Atlanta: Their five bench players Keyon Dooling, Sasha Pavlovic, Greg Stiemsma, Marquis Daniels and Hollins averaged a combined 15.6 points in the regular season. By comparison, Atlantas five reserves averaged more than 35 a night, and even that's a little low by NBA playoffs standards.

They were too old:
Paul Pierce @paulpierce34 44 mins tonite to old for this I need a bed right now !!! 1 May 12 Reply Retweet Favorite
They were too small: Kevin Garnett was the only player taller than 6-8 to see more than 10 minutes.

And there were so many times over the course of that game when you just threw your hands up and said, Thats it! Theyre not good enough! Not tonight!

But for all we doubted, criticized and lamented about this team over the last four months, there were a few things that we never questioned.

Pride: In themselves. In the Celtics organization. In their coach.

Competitiveness: On another level. The kind of stuff that's left Ray Allen crawling out of his skin on the bench. That left Rondo sitting alone in his hotel room. That left Pierce and Garnett to pick up the pieces and both ready and willing to do so.

Resiliency: This is a team that was written off so many times. That watched two teammates undergo emergency heart surgery, and another dramatically taken off on a stretcher. That has been threw so much on a physical, emotional and spiritual level that in their minds there's nothing they can't do. To quote a guy: "Anythiiiing's possible."

Heart: This is so cliche it hurts, but it's true: Regardless where and when this season ends, these Celtics have the heart of champions.

But with everything else that was working against them last night in Atlanta, you wondered, even more, you doubted that this team's superior pride, competitiveness, resiliency and heart would be enough to rise above the Hawks and fight off death one more time.

But for one night, all that wasenough.

Well, all that and Paul Pierce. But we'll get to him in a second.

First, let's talk about

Keyon Dooling, whos been fantastic behind-the-scenes this year, but somewhere between non-existent and awful on the court. Last night, he played 21 minutes, which is more than he had in all but six games the entire season, and hit two huge three-pointers (one that cut the lead to six, another that cut it to eight) as the Celtics treaded water early in the second half. He also played great defense and (ironic, given his typically jittery disposition) brought a sense of composure off the bench.

Sasha Pavlovic, who was forced into action after Pietrus found foul trouble and took the court just dripping with that Sasha Swag. There's nothing spectacular (or even close) about Pavlovic's game, but he brings a subtle, stone cold consistency that can pay dividends in the playoffs. He is what he is, and that's what he'll always be. Thirteen minutes, four points, one steal, one assist, one rebound, no turnovers.

Ryan Hollins, who looked every bit the NBAs 11th dirtiest player. He was only out there for six minutes but made an impact. He grabbed TWO rebounds, delivered two solid fouls and helped chip away at the Hawks psyche. Hollins combined with Stiemsma (eight minutes, three rebounds, one block) to give Boston just enough complimentary size and strength to contend with Atlanta's equally diminished front court.

Marquis Daniels. Yup, Marquis Daniels. No, seriously, MARQUIS DANIELS. Who not only saw minutes (15) but also looked alive. Is this something andor someone the Celtics can count on moving forward? It's a little premature to say yes, given how long he's been a total non-factor, but there's no denying what we saw last night. We saw glimpses of the real Marquis Daniels. And thank God we did, because last night also brought a visit from inconsistent Mickael Pietrus. Sure, the foul trouble didn't help, but Pietrus was in another world. Moving forward, Doc Rivers can and should expect better.

Then there's Avery Bradley, who was a little shell-shocked in his first playoff game on Sunday but broke out last night with 14 points, 3 steals and 3 blocks. The kid continues to do and show more every time he takes the court, and with the series heading back to Boston (where he'll be more comfortable and resume his more effective role as Rondo's backcourt sidekick) there's even more reason for optimism about what Bradley will bring to the table. Especially if that corner three starts to drop.

Kevin Garnett, the heart and soul of a team that has so much of both. KG's clearly not quite at the physical peak he was in early April, but he continues to just grind out double-doubles, hold down the defensive fort and never let anyone on that court forget, even for a second, how much is on the line. In a recent interview, Dooling called Garnett "the best teammate in the history of the NBA," and in situations like last night, those qualities are on full display. These guys want to win for Garnett as much as they do for themselves.

And finally, Paul Pierce.

What can you say?

He gives the game what it needs.

HE GIVES THE GAME WHAT IT NEEDS.

That's what he's done for the last 14 years, and that's what he'll do for however long he sticks around. It's reached the point where Pierce has a game like he did last night, and you don't even need the details. All you have to say is: Paul Pierce went off. Paul Pierce took over. Paul Pierce threw the Celtics on his back and carried them to victory in the most Paul Pierciest of ways. Paul Pierce is a living legend.

And as a result, the Celtics with shaky on-court chemistry, limited health, shallow depth, questionable age and minimal size lived to see another day.

Once again, they've gone from dead to the driver's seat. And while's there's still so much work left in this series and beyond, these Celtics the core of Pierce, Garnett, (and even in their absence) Rondo and Allen reminded us once again of who they really are and, regardless of what happens from here on out, who they'll always be.

Champions.

Rich can be reached at rlevine@comcastsportsnet.com. Follow Rich on Twitter at http:twitter.comrich_levine

Bulpett: 'Now it's all on Danny Ainge' after making no trades

Bulpett: 'Now it's all on Danny Ainge' after making no trades

Steve Bulpett believes Danny Ainge needs to have a great draft, and sign great free agents this offseason in order for the Celtics to compete for a championship next year after making no trades.

Paul George on trade talks: 'Thought I’d be in the loop a little more'

Paul George on trade talks: 'Thought I’d be in the loop a little more'

After a lot of speculation ahead of the trade deadline, Paul George is still a member of the Indiana Pacers.

Meeting with the media at Thursday's practice, George addressed the rumors, but sounded a bit frustrated about not being “in the loop” in regards to trade talks. 

“I was kind of on the ropes just like you guys were on what was about to happen,” George told reporters, per Clark Wade of the Indianapolis Star. “It’s kind of a dark moment, a lot of uncertainty. That was the frustrating part. You want me to be your guy here, thought I’d be in the loop a little more.”

The Celtics were one of the teams who were reportedly interested in George, but on the CSN Trade Deadline Special, Chris Mannix said the C's “weren’t really close” to landing the All-Star.

George, 26, will be a free agent after the 2017-18 season.