Garnett, Garnett, and More Garnett
After all the moves the Celtics made last summer, we all knew they were going to be better this year.
But this much better?
No one expected that.
But here they are at 53-13, the best record in the NBA.
Here they are already having clinched a playoff berth, even if it's only mid-March; here they are with a leg up on gaining home-court advantage throughout the playoffs. Here they are giving us back our basketball spring, when going deep into the playoffs was part of the schedule, a rite of spring.
And maybe the best thing about it?
The Celtics didn't even know what they had.
At least not last summer.
What they were trying to do then was to jump-start a situation that badly needed a transfusion. They were coming off a disastrous season, one in which they won only 18 games all year and finished with the worst record in the NBA, one of those years that imploded early and then got worse, an NBA version of nuclear winter.
How bad was it?
How about the fact that last year at this time the Celtics had 46 losses, were in the middle of a freefall.
That's how bad.
So how did they end up a year later with the best record in the NBA?
Kevin Garnett, that's how.
Much has been made of the new Big Three, this generation's version of Bird, McHale and Parish, and rightfully so. In a league where stars win and young players struggle, the Celtics have three bona fide stars. There's no overstating this. Go right down the rosters. The good teams have stars. The others do not. It's almost that simple. Great coaches may be able to influence college games. Great players influence NBA games.
The acquisition of Ray Allen on draft night instantly made the Celtics better, a quality veteran, another scorer to go along with Paul Pierce.
Then came the Garnett blockbuster.
What did this mean?
Maybe Larry Bird said it best. Asked earlier in the season who the MVP of the league was, Bird quipped, "Kevin McHale."
He knew that McHale's trading of Garnett to the Celtics had changed the equation.
But even the Celtics didn't realize what they were getting with Garnett. Oh, they knew he was a great player. Everyone in basketball knew that. What they didn't know was the kind of leader he was, how much he wanted to win.
For there was the suspicion last fall that Garnett might just be another disgruntled veteran, someone who wanted out of Minnesota. The league is full of them, stars who want a greener pasture to roam around in, stars who have become difficult to deal with.
Early in training camp, though, it was apparent that Garnett was different, that he was a leader as well as a great player. There was no overstating that, either, not on the Celtics, where Pierce, for all of his great ability, has never been a leader.
That's why he always liked having Antoine Walker around, for Walker had taken pressure off him.
So, from the beginning, this became Garnett's team. He was the one who brought energy and passion to practice every day. He was the one who brought a defensive presence. He was the one who not only wanted to win, but demanded it.
Garnett also was smart enough to always publicly stroke Pierce, to acquiesce to him in postgame press conferences, to make this about team, and not about the foolishness about who is the man, and who is not. Allen bought into this, too. The result was a team where the three stars not only got along, but reinforced each other. Maybe it's this simple: they are all at points in their careers where the only thing that mattered was winning, for none of them had ever really won before, not in ways that mattered.
That also set the tone for the younger players.
Younger players in the NBA are like little kids in a schoolyard: they will do what the big kids do.
The word was that one of the reasons why management had grown disenchanted with Ricky Davis and Gary Payton a few years ago was that they set a bad example for the younger players, that they were too much a part of the so-called NBA lifestyle. Put younger players on a bad team, and all they do is learn bad habits. The NBA is full of this, too.
The Big Three take all of the pressure off the younger players. They score most of the points. They take most of the big shots. That has allowed Rajon Rondo and Kendrick Perkins to develop at their own pace. They're not expected to be anything more than what they are - young players learning the NBA ropes, young players who have gotten better as the season has progressed.
So here it is mid-March, the playoffs still about a month away, and already this season is an incredible success.
How good can it be?
Conventional wisdom says that next year is when the Celtics should be at their best, the young players more experienced, maybe another veteran presence. Conventional wisdom says that none of this should be happening this soon.
It is, though. The record tells us that. The fact the Celtics already are in the playoffs tells us that. The fact that we're going to have a basketball spring tells us that.
And the best part?
The very best part?
No one could have expected this.
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