Lex's Season Preview
It's game 7 of the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals, and the Boston Celtics are fielding a line-up of 37-year-old Kevin Garnett, 35-year-old Paul Pierce, 35-year-old Jason Terry, 27-year-old Jeff Green, and 27-year-old Rajon Rondo. Is this enough talent to do the job against the Miami Heat? One answer seems obvious. No. It wasn't enough last year, and really, all you've done is replace Ray Allen with Jason Terry and Brandon Bass with Jeff Green. Worse, the Heat have added Ray Allen to their roster. Game. Set. Match. Heat.
We'll call this the prevailing view of how the East shakes down this year.
So there you have your season preview.
The Celtics will make it to the ECFs, push the Heat to 7 games once again, and then go down in flames, making Boston fans believe they've likely witnessed the end of an era for the second time in two years.
But just for fun, let's continue on with this season preview and see where it leads.
One conclusion to reach about the end of Celtics' season last year, the 2012 NBA season, is that the Celtics' simply didn't have the guns to get 'er done against the Heat. The Heat were younger, more talented, and more athletic than the Boston Celtics. Very few would disagree with you. The one thing that doesn't fit into this equation, however, is the fact that the Celtics won three straight games against the Heat, and had them down 3-2, heading into game 6. Indeed, the story gets even more interesting when one remembers that game 2 went down to the wire, the Celtics coming within a ball bounce or two of winning that one, too.
This is where an alternate view of the upcoming season comes into play, a view that forecasts a much happier ending for a campaign that begins on Tuesday, October 30th. This view starts with the premise that the Heat have no answer for Kevin Garnett or Rajon Rondo. It continues with the fact that Ray Allen was playing on one leg, and the Celtics had no bench. The starters all played heavy minutes in the 2012 ECFs, and this resulted in a very tired Celtics team come game 7. The bench consisted of players like Keyon Dooling, Greg Steimsa, Marquis Daniels, Ryan Hollins, and Mickaël Piétrus. These guys weren't good enough to rely on for more than a few minutes, and, when they did play, were likely facing an opposing line-up with much greater talent.
Think about it.
How many times have the Celtics lost a playoff series during the Garnett Era when the reason for loss the was lack of fire power on the bench, which led to increased minutes for the starters, who ultimately wore down in the end? The Celtics were up 3-2 against the Magic in 2009, 3-2 against the Lakers in 2010, and 3-2 against the Heat last year. So that leaves one year, 2011, when the Celtics were ousted from the playoffs for a reason other than lack of depth (this was the season Danny decided to blow up the team at the trade deadline, even though the Celtics had the best record in the East at the time of the trade). Put that season to one side, and it seems that Celtics main problem has been the lack of bench support, forcing the starters to play heavy minutes, something Pierce and Garnett can't do anymore, at least if Doc wants them to play at a high level in games 90 and beyond.
What are the chances that Doc is better able to manage the stars minutes this year so that they have gas left in the tank come May and June? Pretty damn good, I would say. Newcomers include 27-year-old Courtney Lee, who was originally billed as a three-ball shooter, but turns out can play a tenacious brand of defense against both 2s and 3s. Once Avery Bradley returns, imagine Lee guarding a three, Bradley guarding a 2, and Rondo guarding a 1. Add KG to the mix, and that unit has the opportunity to play some of the most hellacious defense we've seen since 2007-08.
Next we have Jason Terry, who, while 35, looks younger than Ray Allen did when he came to the Celtics. Though Allen was also 35 in his first season with the C's, #20 was coming off of double ankle surgery, and took forever to figure out how to get looks within the Celtics offensive scheme. If preseason is any guide, Terry won't face that problem this year.
Then we come to Jeff Green. Notwithstanding the comparisons to James Worthy, Green is not a go-to type of player you build a team around. But if you put him in a line-up with several other scorers, Green quickly becomes a guy you forget about at your own peril. He can run faster than most fours, step out behind the arc where most 4s dare not roam, and then take his man to the hoop where he's shown time and again the ability to finish with a flourish. More importantly, if Doc plays him on the second unit, regardless of position, I'm not sure who in the league will be able to keep up with him. Plus he's got the size and length to help guard the LeBrons of the world, something sorely missing last season.
Jared Sullinger is a nice addition who very well could start. He appears to have a decent game around the hoop, some passing ability that will open things up for his teammates, and a decent jumper that should keep defenses honest. Starting Jared Sullinger means sending Brandon Bass to the bench, where Bass will join the aforementioned Terry, Bradley, and Green. Compare the names Terry, Green, Bradley, and Bass to the names Daniels, Dooling, Steimsma, and Pietrus. There is no comparison. You've gone from four players only one of which could earn more than 20 MPGs last season under Doc to four players all of whom could probably earn starters minutes elsewhere in the league. Throw in Chris Wilcox, Jason Collins, Darko Milicic, Leandro Barbosa, and Kris Joseph and you start to see how even this year's third team is probably better than last year's second team.
Now let's return to our imagined end-of-season scenario. Celtics v. LeBron. Eastern Conference Finals. Celtics go down, right? Celtics can't overcome LBJ. Just too good. The number of folks sharing this opinion certainly has grown since the Heat won banner #2 last summer. One thing to note, however, is that the Celtics have already defeated The King in a playoff series not once but twice. You could argue that those two beatings delivered by Boston were the main reason James left Cleveland for Miami to join a team with a comparable number of stars.
The point here is that Doc Rivers has devised a system to handle a LeBron-James led team, and that system was effectively implemented by a Kevin-Garnett led defense. Sure that was a few years ago, and, yes, those LeBron teams were not as talented as the current group. But it remains to be seen whether the current Celtics team is more talented than any of the Celtics teams that beat King James. Let's leave that as an open question.
The other variable to note falls under the heading of "difference makers." When the offseason started for Boston in June, I had one question and one question only: could the Celtics add enough difference makers to the roster to change the balance of power in the East? A difference maker is different than a star. A difference maker is simply someone who makes a difference in the outcome of a game. A "star" of course is someone who is recognized as an All-Star caliber of player league wide. On the Heat, LeBron and D.Wade are stars, Shane Battier is a difference maker. Ray Allen is a former star who is now a sometimes difference maker.
What about the Celtics? This is where the plot thickens. The Celtics roster is now full of potential difference makers who didn't play against the Heat in last season's ECFs. Jason Terry, Courtney Lee, Jeff Green, Avery Bradley and Jared Sullinger all come to mind. You add one difference maker, and hope that he has enough opportunities to break through. You add five or more difference makers, and it's just a matter of time before they all start making a difference. For B-List difference makers, Darko Milicic, Chris Wilcox, and Leandro Barbosa aren't too shabby either. And, of course, you have the holdovers from last season, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and MVP candidate Rajon Rondo.
None of these guys needs to be on the floor in the final minutes to make a difference in the outcome. Scott Wedman, Jerry Sichting, and Bill Walton weren't usually on the floor at the end of games in the 1986 championship season, but no one doubted their ability to change the outcome of a game. Ditto for Leon Powe, Glen Davis, Eddie House, and James Posey in 2008 (and PJ Brown in the playoffs). The more difference makers you have, the better the chance is that their cumulative impact will change the course of a basketball game. This is something we need to consider when we think about Heat v. Celtics next May. It's not just about who is on the floor in the last five minutes.
Even if the games are decided in the last 5 minutes, this doesn't necessarily sink the Celtics' ship. Open questions include: How good will Rajon Rondo be this year? If he's playing at an MVP level, does that move the needle to the Celtics side of the court? If not, does that put Jason Terry on the floor as quarterback, and how does that change things? If D.Wade is a concern, does that mean Avery Bradley will be on the court, too, and, if so, will he be draining jumpers like he was in April? How good a rebounder is Jared Sullinger, and might that factor in decisively for the Celtics? Can Jeff Green guard LeBron effectively? Will KG and P-squared be fresh at the end of games, being spared heavy minutes by a deeper bench?
You see there are a lot of factors that may impact the outcome of a Celtics-Heat series, and it is not entirely clear that the factors all favor the Heat. If you are asking me to make a prediction, I will say the Celtics win and beat the Heat, 4 games to 2, assuming the C's stay healthy, because team ball on a roster filled with difference makers and coached by Doc Rivers is a more bankable asset than a team of two stars, one of whom doesn't seem to perform as well when guarded by a certain Celtic. This would make the Heat a team of just one star, and that's never been enough to beat anyone of note when the stakes are high.
- #05 (Walton)
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