The fear is gone, but talent remains

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The fear is gone, but talent remains

One thing thats become increasingly evident over the course of this young NBA season and unfortunately so is that teams are no longer scared of the Boston Celtics. That the mystique and inherent intimidation that used to go hand-in-hand with facing off against Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and the mighty Green is gone. Banished to Serbia with Darko. Most likely never to be seen again.

Of course, this development didnt happen all at once. More so, its taken shape over the last few years, as the Celtics stars have grown older and slower and the rest of the league has grown stronger and more confident. A series of lackluster regular seasons haven't helped matters either. While the Celtics have consistently been able to turn on their charm once the playoffs roll around, the truth is that their consistent regular season struggles (and thats obviously a relative term) have at one time or another given every team a taste of what its like to get the best of Boston. This has chipped away at the Celtics air of superiority, and left them with the reality of the 2012-13 season.

The league no longer fears them. Opponents dont sit in the pre-game locker room at home or on the road and worry about what lies ahead. Instead, they look forward to it. They see a date with Boston as a potential victory, and to this point, have consistently carried that attitude onto the court.

This was apparent on opening night at the Garden, when the Bucks strolled in and embarrassed the Celtics on their home floor. It was re-iterated the following week, when Wizards rookie Bradley Beal who was all of two years old when KG made his NBA debut told reporters: We know (the Celtics) are vulnerable. We know that they are an aggressive team but they are a lot older than we are. So, we are going to try and wear them down. (Granted, this came shortly after the Celtics beat the Wiz in consecutive games, but in both those games Washington had pushed Boston to the brink, and had done so without the services of their two best players.)

Doc Rivers pretty much implied the same thing when he called out the C's for being soft in the aftermath of the Brooklyn brawl. Basically, that times have changed. The league has changed. Boston's reputation has changed.

But for whatever reason, this reality hasnt quite clicked with the Celtics. Night after night, especially at home, its as if they still expect teams to roll over. To see No. 5, No. 34 and No. 9 across the way and immediately soil themselves with awe. This mentality has resulted in a few bad losses and a handful of unnecessarily close games. More than anything, its led to a series of really slow starts.

Do you realize that the Celtics have trailed at halftime in 11 of 18 games this season? Even worse, they've trailed at the half in seven of their 10 games at the Garden. And last night was no exception. Last night, an undermanned Timberwolves team which boasted a starting line-up that prominently featured Luke Ridnour, Malcolm Lee and the ghost of Josh Howard took the parquet and somehow appeared to take the Celtics by surprise. They outworked Boston. They out-hustled Boston. Despite the fact that the Cs shot 59.1 percent in the first quarter, Minnesota led 30-27 after the opening frame. At the half, the Wolves were up 51-47.

In the third quarter, that obviously changed. Boston started the half on a 20-10 run; they held the Wolves without an offensive rebound until the four minute mark; they imposed their will and took control. I don't if something specific occurred over the break or it was just a coincidence, but the Celtics finally awoke to a separate and far more important reality. That is, that even if these teams don't fear them anymore, Boston still has enough talent to render that confidence useless. It may not be as easy as it once was, but it doesn't have to be that hard. On some nights, sure; that's the NBA. The schedule can be brutal and can certainly wreak havoc on a team that's built around a core that's as old as Boston's. But on nights like last night when the Celtics are coming off three days rest against a team that's been riddled by injury perception doesn't matter. Reality is enough. Even if the opponent doesn't necessarily believe that Boston is the better team, there's no question that they are.

It's just a matter of waking up and playing like it.

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

Opportunity knocked in Game 3, and Celtics answered

Opportunity knocked in Game 3, and Celtics answered

CLEVELAND -- Marcus Smart sat at his locker stall late Sunday night, soaking in the moment for all it was worth. 

The Celtics were just minutes removed from one of the biggest playoff upsets ever, knocking off Cleveland, 111-108, a game in which Boston was a 16.5-point underdog.
 
Smart’s play had a lot to do with the win as he scored a career-high 27 points, which included a career-best seven made 3-pointers.
 
But this win was about more than Smart having the game of his life.
 
It was about opportunity, an unspoken rallying cry that has galvanized this Celtics team through what has been a season in which they defied the odds and naysayers time and time again.
 
Boston was supposed to be pretty good this season, but no one predicted the C's would finish with the best record in the Eastern Conference.
 
Isaiah Thomas had a breakout year in 2015-16, but few anticipated he would be even better while putting up numbers that rank among the greatest single seasons in the storied franchise’s illustrious history.
 
Then Thomas goes down with a right hip injury that will keep him out of the remainder of the playoffs, and the Celtics hit the road while trailing the defending champion Cavaliers 2-0. 
 
So what do they do? Oh, not much. 

They just come up with the most epic playoff comeback win ever against a LeBron James-led team.
 
You can dissect what happened Sunday night all you want, but in the end, it came down to one thing: Opportunity.
 
Which is why Boston’s Game 3 win was so sweet. And for those of us who have followed the ups and downs of this team this season recognized it was another example of the Celtics making the most of their opportunity to shock the world.
 
Look no further than Smart, a gritty physical defender whose shot-making isn’t exactly top-10 worthy.
 
No, I’m not talking about top 10 in the NBA. I’m talking top 10 on his team.
 
And yet there he was, delivering his usual strong play defensively while channeling his inner Isaiah Thomas to get big-time buckets in the second half, which included 11 points during a 26-10 run to close out the third and bring Boston within 87-82 going into the fourth.
 
With the surge came more opportunities for other Celtics like Kelly Olynyk, who gets the superstar treatment in Cleveland with more boos than any other Boston player. (They have not forgotten about that Olynyk-Kevin Love incident a couple years ago, apparently.)
 
Olynyk soaked in the boos while coming off the bench to splash the Cavs defense for 15 points on 5-for-8 shooting.
 
“Keep fighting, keep fighting,” Olynyk told me when I asked him about what Game 3’s win says about this team. “You can knock us down but we’ll keep getting back up. That’s what we did out there.”
 
Opportunity.
  
The Celtics had their moment on Sunday night, reminding us just how tough-minded a bunch they can be when they are boxed in a corner and left with two choices: Fight or face inevitable elimination.
 
Because had they lost Game 3, they would have been down 3-0 in the series. And no one needs reminding that no NBA team has ever come back from an 0-3 playoff deficit.
 
Fortunately for them, that’s no longer an option.
 
Instead, they have a chance to even this series up and regain home court advantage if they can win Game 4, which, much like Game 3, seems a long shot.
 
They don’t care.
 
It has never been about being the favorite or underdog. It’s about the opportunity, something the Celtics gave themselves with Sunday’s win.