By Rich Levine
Welcome to Part Two of "18 Questions on the Drive to 18."
Anyway, nine questions down. Nine questions to go.
18 Questions on the Drive to 18: Part One
The clock's ticking; it's almost time for tip-off!
10. How much more can they expect from KG?
First, there's the emotional side.
Kevin Garnett has the most contagious personality in the Celtics locker room, and most of the time that's for the best. But as we learned last regular season, it can also be a pretty big drag.
That's not to say Garnett was out there trying to bring anyone down last year. It's not like he was purposely doing anything to negatively affect the C's. It's just that with how much he struggled, and how tormented he became KG wasn't able to be as positive as he usually is. As he fought with his own demons, the team missed his relentless fire and inspiration, and fell into a collective rut. I'm not saying he was the cause of all the problems not by a long shot but a healthy KG (both mentally and physically) would have never let it get to that point.
Anyway, this year, things are so unbelievably different. He's laughing. He's smiling. He's energized. Every chance he gets, KG will make a reference to the positive vibe in the gym, and how much this season reminds him of 2007. And that's no doubt because Garnetts happier and healthier now than hes been at any point since 2007. That positive vibe can't exist unless KG himself emits it first.
As long as the knee's feeling right, KGs positivity won't be contained. It will take over the C's and bring them to greater heights, much the same way it did three seasons ago.
Will his on-court production throw back to 2007 as well? I doubt it. Of course, he'll obviously be better than he was last season. He already looks so much more fluid, confident and comfortable out there. There's no doubt he's going to be a more effective player. But everyone who gushes about the "return of the old KG" will be overstating it a little. The "old KG" was three years and one major surgery ago. He's not coming back. But that doesn't mean the guy we do have isn't still great, still focused, still willing to do anything for another ring and still capable of convincing the rest of his team to do the same.
11. Will anyone push the Celtics in the Atlantic?
The C's won the division by 25 games in 2008, 21 games in 2009 and by 10 games last season. The numbers suggest their Atlantic foes have begun to narrow the gap, but we know that's not true.
Sure, the Knicks, Nets and Sixers will all be better than they were last season. Especially the Knicks, who will probably return to the playoffs for the first time since 2004, and might register their first winning season since 2001. But compared to other divisions, the Atlantic's a joke. A fourth straight title is all but a formality for the C's, allowing them to focus on the three-team race for the Eastern Conference crown.
And it doesn't hurt that the other two teams are fighting for the same division title. Of course, this isn't MLB. There's no unbalanced schedule. The C's play the Heat four times, and the Magic three times (twice at the Garden). Meanwhile, the Heat and Magic only play each other four times, as well, so it's not like they'll be beating each other up while the C's feast repeatedly on the Raptors.
But there's some added pressure bestowed upon Miami and Orlando, thanks to what will be a season-long battle for the South. And let's not forget that Atlanta's in there, too. The Hawks aren't in the same league as the Magic and Heat, but are still far better than anything the Celtics have to deal with.
If the Knicks somehow bring Carmelo Antonhy or Chris Paul on board (although that might not even be enough), then maybe we'll have to update this conversation. But for now, you can queue up division title No. 28 for the C's.
12. What's going to happen with Perk?
There are two sub-questions to this one:
First and foremost: How quickly will Perk recover?
His surgery was in mid-July, and at the time, he claimed that he'd be back in five-six months. Thats not an unheard of timetable for the ACLPCL, but it's certainly the best-case scenario. And even then, that's best-case for when he'll be back on the court, not for when he'll be 100 percent.
A conservative estimate for Perk's return is probably sometime around the All-Star break, at which point, the second sub-question comes into play:
How much will the Celtics need him?
When the time comes, the team will obviously welcome Perk back into the fray. He's a capable seven-footer; you can never have too many of those. But what if the O'Neals stay healthy, develop a rhythm and keep the Celtics rolling into February? How willing would the C's be to break that up?
And what if they're still neck-and-neck (and neck) with Miami and Orlando for the No. 1 seed? It's not like Perk will just throw on his sneakers and morph back into his pre-injury self. It takes time, minutes and reps to work yourself back into NBA shape. Especially for a guy like Perk, whos struggled with timing and coordination for much of his career. He can't afford to be any slower and deliberate than he already was, and depending on how things play out over the next few months (or how long it takes for him to get back), the Celtics might not be able to afford to play him as much as he'd like. He could get lost in the shuffle.
Again, these are all "mights" and "maybes." Right now, there are too many variable to make legitimate guess. It's just speculation.
In an ideal world, Perk comes back in February healthy, in shape and ready to contribute and goes right back into the starting lineup. Meanwhile, either Shaq or Jermaine O'Neal gracefully take their demotion and bolster and even deadlier second unit.
That would be perfect. Don't forget, this starting five still hasn't lost a playoff series. Not to mention, this is a contract year for Perk. He deserves the chance to play, showcase his talents and make as much money as he can next year (or whenever they end up playing basketball again.
But a lot needs to fall into place for that perfect situation to exist.
13. Is Nate really under control?
One of the most popular storylines of the preseason was the growth (emotionally, of course) and maturity of Nate Robinson.
After riding the bench down the stretch last regular season, Robinson took the postseason to became an official member of the Celtics. He finally embraced the defensive culture, broke free from many of the awful habits he'd picked up in New York, and earned Doc Rivers' trust.
And now that he's back for another year, that trust hasn't waivered. It's blossomed. It really feels like Robinson's found peace in Boston. And best part about it is that he's done so without having to sacrifice who he is. Instead, he's just scaled himself back a little. He's learned to balance his unique personality with playing focused, winning basketball.
Or at least thats what Doc tells us, over and over and over. Sometimes I wonder if Doc doesnt keep giving those quotes to the media as a subtle reminder, for Nate, of what he has to do remain successful, but whatever the reason, the message is clear.
Rivers and the Celtics believe that Robinson's finally turned his career around, and theres no reason for us to reject that.
Will there be frustrating moments? You bet. But at the end of the day, the Celtics will be better for having Nate Robinson this season.
14. Is this the Marquis Daniels we've been waiting for?
I didn't think he'd be back. You didn't think hed be back. I'm not sure if Marquis Daniels even thought he'd be coming back. But . . .
But the Marquis Daniels who comes off the bench for these Boston Celtics is not the guy from last year's team. Hes quicker, more lively, aggressive, focused and intense. Hes everything that the Celtics thought they were getting last season, before things spiraled out of control.
Last year, the C's started the season playing Daniels out of position; they tried to make him a point guard, which seemed like a stretch at the time, and never panned out. But this year, they're just letting Quis be Quis, and, thankfully, he's finally ready to be Quis. Thats when he's at his best. Slashing, fighting, pestering, just hanging around; Daniels is the kind of guy you dont need to call any plays for on offense. You just throw him out there and somehow he'll make things happen. And if he can play even 80 percent of the one-on-one defense that Tony Allen did against guys like Kobe, Vince and Wade, then, for the veteran's minimum, Daniels could be one of the steals of the offseason.
15. How much healthier is Paul Pierce?
This is secretly my favorite story line of the entire season. OK, secret's out.
This is going to sound weird, but wasn't it refreshing to hear the details of how much pain Pierce was in during the playoffs last season?
(Yup, looks about as weird as I thought.)
But, seriously, as I read the details of all Pierce had to endure to make it through last season the pain, the frustration, the random knee leakage I actually felt relieved. Not for his hardships, but for the fact that there were actually hardships at all. That we finally had an explanation for the oddest, most disappointing Paul Pierce postseason since his 2005 freak out.
Paul's looked like a new man this season. Not an old man, but just an older version of his younger self. (Those two sentences are dedicated to the 25th anniversary of Back to the Future). After watching him labor through most of the playoffs (and most of last season in general) you forgot how much fun it is to watch him at his best.
This season hopefully serves as a year-long refresher course.
16. Can Ray rebound?
No, not rebound, rebound. I mean, rebound from what was his worst three-point shooting season since 1999. Obviously, you can do a lot worse than .363 from long range, but when you're talking about Ray Allen, you expect much better.
And as we were reminded during the Finals, and as you knew long before you ever read this, the C's are a very different team when Ray gets comfy behind the arc.
17. Is the apathy gone?
Without question. If there's one thing I'm NOT worried about this year, it's the Celtics once again taking the regular season for granted. The main reason, as I mentioned before, is the presence of a healthy KG. He won't let them lose that focus. Another reason is that, as you've heard so many times already, the Celtics haven't lost sight of the fact that their lack of home-court advantage may have cost them a ring last June. They believe, and rightfully so, that if they'd done their jobs in the regular season, Games Six and Seven would have been in Boston, and everything would have changed. I think that memory will drive them over the course of 82 games.
The final reason is Miami. I really think these guys hate Miami. I think they're offended by how easy the new Big Three thinks its going to be and certainly loathe how everyone has already handed the Heat the Eastern Conference crown.
That anger alone will keep this season from looking and feeling anything like the last.
18. Can they win it all?
Of course they can.
If KG stays healthy; if Rondo keeps improving; if Shaq or JO develops into a legitimate and reliable starting center; if Pierce and Ray can shoulder one more season of 33-plus a night; if Erden shocks the world; if Shrek and Donkey stay grounded; if Marquis stays awake; if injuries continue to plague the Lakers and Heat; if Kevin Durant doesn't transform into the love child of Jordan and Pippen; if a combination of any number of things play out over the course of these next six months, then yes, the Celtics definitely can win the title. And there are only about four or five teams in the league you can say that about.
But the real question is: Will they?
Gun to my head, I don't think so.
And not because of any glaring weakness or insurmountable shortcoming, but because Miami's a better team. Because I'm buying the Heat hype.
I think LeBron's been waiting his entire career to be part of a team, as opposed to being the team. He'll embrace his role as Wade's sidekick; as the facilitator; as the guy who shares the ball and makes everyone else happy, and will probably win another MVP in the process.
I think it's Heat vs. Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals, and they give us one of the most memorable and historically significant playoff series in quite some time, but I see the C's falling short.
Heres hoping I'll have a chance to write a column featuring at least 18 reasons why that prediction was wrong.