Doc Eyes the Playoffs Next Year

April 19, 2007

The 2008 playoffs have already become a given, at least in the minds of the men in green.

``I think I should be,'' coach Doc Rivers said last night of whether he should be dismissed if the Celtics don't reach the postseason next year. ``But we're going to make the playoffs. We're set up to make a nice run.''

As if on cue, another hearty crowd showed up for the Celtics' season finale against a team that is not just going to the playoffs, but is expected to go deep - the Detroit Pistons.

Paul Pierce strode to midcourt with a microphone and also talked big, promising that at this time next year ``it won't be our last game.'' The crowd roared its love for the Celtics captain.

Though the fans have also booed at all the appropriate times in this train wreck of a season, there isn't a Celtic who can blame them.

Unlike in many NBA cities where losing teams, and even some that win, dwell, these fans continue to show up.

``Last year they did the same thing,'' Al Jefferson said. ``That's the thing I love about the true Boston fans. Some of them are negative, too, but good or bad they still come out to watch us play. I take my hat off to them.'' Perhaps the loyalty is there because the crowd can sense the same promise that the Celtics, despite the second-worst record in the NBA, claim they can feel.

The problem is that these glimmers came in fragments - Tony Allen's brilliant early January, Jefferson's stretch run when everyone else was hurt, Rajon Rondo's late development, that early December run when all of the best players were healthy.

When viewed separately, these moments were meaningless. Pieced together, they excite players like Delonte West.

``When you look at it like that, man, you can really see the upside to all of this,'' West said. ``I think we're going to have a heck of a core.''

The Celtics guard even has a reason for this boundless enthusiasm.

``It's about experience,'' he said. ``A lot of us were put into situations where we had to take a lot of pressure shots, and where we had to make plays late in games. All of our young guys had to evolve in those situations this year.

``Guys have a lot to prove now with all of the losing, because I think we still came out of this with a winning mentality,'' West added. ``We learned about what you need to bring every time out.''

So there's that improbable word again - playoffs.

``There's no doubt in my mind that we're going to be better next year,'' Jefferson said. ``And once we get to the playoffs, anything is possible.''

He then thought about a team that was still fighting for its life last night.

``I wish we were like the LA Clippers,'' said Jefferson, too young to understand the full implications of that statement. ``I wish we were playing even one last big game tonight that had everything riding on it. I wish we were in the playoff hunt.''

Those hopes reached far and connected with everyone who cared to show up for the most meaningless of meaningless games.

``We have the best fans in the world,'' Kendrick Perkins said. ``They see we have talent, and that's what keeps them coming back. It's good to see that we have a great fan base. You have to be grateful. A lot of teams in the league start losing, and then it's a wrap with the fans. Even the boos are just part of it. They care, and that's good.''

Maybe even as much as the players.

``They're disappointed by the losing, but they've stuck with us,'' West said. ``I think they find that our team is still fun to watch. They see something new from us each game.''

Maybe, in another year, even a game in May.

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