Planting a seed with the Celtics


Planting a seed with the Celtics

By Rich Levine

They say that if not for home-court advantage, the Celtics would be NBA champs.

They say, that if the Cs hadnt wasted the regular season fighting injury, apathy and losing 32 games, thered be another banner up in the rafters, and another ring on everyones finger.

If only Game Seven was at the Garden, they say, you know we would have won!

They are the Celtics, and as a result of that Game Seven loss in last years Finals, the team entered this season ready to take on the world.

This year, there are no let-downs. This year, there are 82 Game Sevens. This year, every game matters, because, in the end, home court is ALL that matters. It burned us before, and we cant let it burn us again.

And for the first few months, that mentality served them well.

Starting in October, into November and right up until Christmas, the Celtics wore the scars, fed off the motivation, and willed themselves into a juggernaut.

Kevin Garnett looked fresher than he had since 2008. Shaq had transported back to 2006. Rajon Rondo was an MVP candidate. Big Baby was a contender for Sixth Man. Paul Pierce and Ray Allen were being run ragged, but looked no worse for the wear. Jermaine ONeal was hurting but that kid from Turkey was suddenly a serviceable NBA talent. Marquis Daniels was making good on his second chance to make a first impression. Nate Robinson had bought into the system, and the benefits were obvious.

Along the way, a carousel of potential let downs against teams like the Nets, Wizards, Bobcats and Sixers games this team would have surrendered at will last winter were virtual speed bumps on the Bostons road to the No. 1 seed. Yeah, there were a few avoidable losses, like that second game of the season in Cleveland, or that crazy Sunday in Toronto, but it wasnt the end of the world; the losses never got them down. Instead, they only re-ignited the fire. After the loss to the Cavs, the Cs won five straight. After the loss at Toronto, they won 14.

As the season went on, every once in a random while, Game Seven would always find its way back into the conversation. Doc, Paul or KG would mention it in passing, and remind you that they still hadnt forgotten, still felt that pain, were still playing for home court and werent stopping any time soon.

And you know what? After the overload of negativity that cursed them last winter, the re-affirmation of the Celtics regular season pride was pretty great. It was really refreshing. It appeared as if that one horrible loss had provided the antidote to the NBA doldrums, and as the Heat struggled with chemistry, the Bulls fought with injury and the Magic hit the reset button, you had to wonder if maybe, just maybe, this newfound determination might actually propel the Cs into the playoffs as the Easts undisputed favorite; with Boston established as the formidable host city.

Ah, those were good times, werent they?

The fans were happy. The whole city was happy. The Celtics were just about the happiest team in the history of organized sports. And because of that over-riding happiness, there was one little detail that we all fans, writers, players, coaches sort of misremembered. One that, given Bostons recent slide, seems worth mentioning:

Detail: Home-court advantage wasnt the reason the Celtics lost Game Seven.

Would it have made their lives a little easier? Yeah, of course. Im not saying that home-court wasnt A reason, but its not even in the Top 3. Would home-court have made up for Perk? Would home-court have nursed Paul and KGs knees, Rasheeds stamina and Rondos entire body back to health? Even if the game was at home, would you have ever asked for a better situation than being up 13 points with 20 minutes left?

Or maybe it wasnt a matter of misrememberance, maybe we just conveniently ignored it, because the motivation seemed to be working and there was no need to burst the Celtics bubble. After all, Danny Ainge had already corrected most of the real problems in the off-season. He brought back the core, created a monster front court, bolstered the bench. So, if the Cs still needed that extra motivation, and wanted to pretend that this was all about home-court, then all the power to them especially when it was working so well.

But the truth is that, given the circumstances, its doesnt make sense to base your season around the premise that home-court was the difference in the 2010 NBA Finals. If we were talking about the 2008 team, then yeah, they dont lose Game Seven in Boston. But last year?

Starting with the Cleveland series, the Celtics were 6-4 at home, and 5-5 on the road. The Lakers had already won at the Garden earlier in the series. Perk was still hurt. And again, most of all, regardless of anything, the Celtics were up 13 points with 20 minutes left. I dont care if youre playing a game of water polo against a team of Great White sharks, you dont blow a lead like that with a title on the line. And the Staples Center was not the reason the Celtics actually did.

And while it was OK to pretend that was the case when that mindset was actually helping the Cs win games, now seems like a good time to stop.

Now, KGs on the shelf. Shaqs been warped into 2014. Rondos banged up. Big Babys overworked, and his consistencys suffered. Jermaine ONeal has a knee injury that Doc joked (maybe) will bother JO for the rest of his life. Semihs MIA. They lost confidence in Nate. People are begging for Rasheed!

The Celtics are losing games that they shouldnt, while the Heat, Magic and Bulls are all catching stride, and, as a result, the chances of Boston walking away with the No. 1 seed are suddenly dwindling. Theyve come down to the field, and some have grown worried. Even Doc Rivers showed a considerable amount of concern after the C's Monday night loss to Houston:

"Ive got to somehow figure out a way of getting them to see the urgency of the whole season and not the single game," he said. "And to me, you can see them thinking about the individual game and not the ramifications of the entire season.

Some see it as a sign of weakness or a harbinger of horrible things to come, but I just see it as reality.

This team wasnt built for 82 games; they were built for 16 wins, late April through June. And treating them otherwise is dangerous. Pacing yourself for the playoffs is still the priority, not seeding regardless of what happened over the final 20 minutes of last season.

I'm not saying it's just "get to the playoffs, and go on another magical run." It's definitely not that easy. But it's not otherwise impossible. And not worth the risk of pushing your already injured team any harder than they need to be.

Let's pretend for a second that the C's get the fourth seed. First of all, when it comes to home court, the Heat dont have one. You really think the Celtics would worry about that crowd? As for the Magic, the Cs still control Dwight Howard better than anyone in the league, at home or away. And proved last season that they can take this team in their own house even if they did recently upgrade. And as for Chicago, you know, I think they might present the toughest test for Boston if theyre forced to start out on the road. But either way, this isnt supposed to be easy, and when healthy, theres still no team in the league better suited for the playoffs than Boston.

And now, its just about getting there. The one seed would be nice, but making it one piece is better, because while a healthy Celtics team can win on the road, a beat-up one wont win anywhere.

Rich Levine's column runs each Monday, Wednesday and Friday on Rich can be reached at Follow Rich on Twitter at http:twitter.comrlevine33

Does uncertainty for Carson Smith mean Red Sox need bullpen help?

Does uncertainty for Carson Smith mean Red Sox need bullpen help?

BOSTON — Tyler Thornburg’s gone for the season and there’s really no telling when the other set-up man the Sox expected to help in 2017, Carson Smith, will be back.

The Sox have already made inroads, if minor ones, in bolstering their third-base situation and rotation. Smith’s situation leaves a question of whether the Sox will need to pursue help in the bullpen as well.

There's not an easy answer to settle on at this point.

For one, the timetable with the right-hander Smith — whose shoulder has bothered him on the way back from Tommy John surgery — isn’t clear.

“He's in a no-throw [time] through the weekend,” Sox manager John Farrell said Friday afternoon at Fenway Park. “He'll be reevaluated on Monday to hopefully initiate a throwing program. He's responding favorably to the treatment. He continues to rehab as he's been. We have not closed the book in a sense on anything Carson can contribute this year.”

What does this year mean, though? Will they be able to know by July, by the trade deadline?

“Still too early to tell,” Farrell said. “We thought he was days from starting his rehab assignment after his last live BP session in New York [on June 6]. Unfortunately, that was put on hold for the time being. To get into any kind of timeframes, timetables, I don't know that any of us can predict that right now.”

The Sox relievers have done extraordinarily well without either Thornburg or Smith. Can that continue without reinforcements? The bullpen’s ERA entering Friday was 2.94, the second best mark in the majors. Its innings total, 217, was the second. lowest in the majors. 

So it’s not like the entire group is about to collapse from fatigue. But a guy like Joe Kelly, for example, isn’t someone the Sox want to use back to back.

It’s a young group and ultimately an inexperienced group. But Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski has already fallen into the trap of trading for premium set-up men twice, and that’s a dangerous road to pursue again. Perhaps a smaller trade makes more sense.

“Well, at this point, we’re open minded to help,” Dombrowski said when asked if he was targeting either third-base or relief help. “I’m not going to get into specifics at this time on what else we’re looking for. Keep an open mind on a lot of ways on which we can improve. We have guys coming back and both the spots, I think Carson Smith is very important to us and our bullpen has pitched great. The other day, we struggled but that was one of the few times we really struggled all year. 

“I think Carson still has a chance to come back and help us this year.”

Blake Griffin opts out of Clippers contract, becoming free agent

Blake Griffin opts out of Clippers contract, becoming free agent

According to multiple reports, Blake Griffin has opted out of his contract with the Clippers, making him a free agent. 

Griffin is considered one of the top free agents in a class that will also include Utah’s Gordon Hayward. The Celtics have been reported as possible suitors for both players. 

The first overall pick in the 2009 draft, the 28-year-old Griffin is a five-time All-Star, though injuries have limited him over the last three seasons. 

Over 61 games, the 6-foot-10 power forward averaged 21.6 points, 8.1 rebounds and 4.9 assists per game last season. Between numerous injuries and a suspension for hitting a member of the Clippers’ equipment staff, Griffin was limited to just 31 games in the 2015-16 season. 

Adrian Wojnarowski said recently that Boston’s reception for Clippers teammate Paul Pierce made a very strong impression on Griffin. Though there might not necessarily be a connection between the two, Griffin said on Barstool Sports’ “Pardon My Take” that Boston is on his Mt. Rushmore of NBA cities.