Celtics' resurgence a sight to behold
There are so many components to the resurgence of the Boston Celtics worth celebrating, it's difficult narrowing it down to a Fave Five.
Of course, any conversation of this nature begins with the obvious - the almost surreal sight of Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett in Celtic green, a vision that, truthfully, I still have trouble believing is real.
It's like going to bed one night with the family minivan in the driveway, loaded with multiple car seats for the gaggle of youngsters who need to be transported along for the journey, then waking up the next morning with a Cadillac Seville and a shiny new Hummer at your disposal - and a host of drivers mature enough to trust behind the wheel.
It has been equally intriguing to watch Rajon Rondo transform the point guard position from a question mark into an exclamation point. Rondo has proven he has the tenacity and talent required to run this team of All-Stars with the authority of a player well beyond years.
Kind of nice to see him stroke that jumper, too, isn't it? In case you've forgotten, defenders ignored Rondo on the perimeter last season, and with legitimate reason. The kid couldn't bury it. He changed that by taking 750 shots a day last summer and discovering the difference between nailing the open look and having the presence of mind (as Frank Broyles likes to say) to know when to make the extra pass.
There have been other notable trends, like Kendrick Perkins establishing himself as a consistent shot-blocking presence and James Posey putting the clamps on various offensive threats, but of all the scenarios concerning this electric Celtics turnaround, the one that I've found most enjoyable is the way Paul Pierce has folded seamlessly into his new nucleus. Just the other day, Garnett lauded him as his league MVP, and while that has virtually no chance of happening, KG's sentiments were not misplaced.
All those doubters who wondered aloud if Pierce could share the ball, the minutes, and the limelight have been quieted. The critics who dogged his defense have had to eat some crow.
And, even with Garnett and Allen aboard, No. 34 still remains one of the most dangerous scorers - if not the most dangerous - on his team.
"Paul's not perfect," said Celtics boss Danny Ainge, "but the one thing I've always appreciated about him was he loves to play the game of basketball. He comes to play every night. Now, some nights he might have gotten frustrated, and he didn't always do the right thing, but I think people forget he had a great deal of responsibility and expectations placed on him, and sometimes that wasn't fair."
It has been a tumultuous ride for the captain, particularly when you consider the unforgettable playoff debacle against the Pacers was only three seasons ago. That was the seven-game series when the favored Celtics imploded, and Pierce was ejected in Game 6 after picking up two technicals, then ripping off his jersey and waving it at the Indianapolis fans. Later, in protest of what he felt was a non-call, he appeared at the postgame press conference performing his best Jacob Marley imitation with gauze wrapped around his jaw.
And that was after the Celtics won.
The fallout was immediate. Pierce was vilified for his sophomoric actions. His leadership and his value to the franchise were questioned. The Celtics seriously considered trading him.
"At the time, Paul was pretty disgruntled, too," Ainge said. "He felt the wrath of the city and the fans and the media. It bothered him. He felt bad about what he'd done, but he was also looking for an opportunity for a change."
On draft night in 2005, the Celtics prepared two advertisements to appear in the Boston Globe the following morning: one prominently featuring Pierce, and the other with Pierce conspicuously absent. The team haggled with the Portland Trail Blazers in the days leading up to the draft over a deal that would have shipped Pierce west and landed Boston the No. 3 pick and some contracts to make it work cap-wise.
"We were pretty close," Ainge said.
Instead, the Blazers ended up swapping the third pick to Utah for the sixth and 27th selections. The Jazz snapped up Deron Williams (the likely choice of Ainge, too, had he pulled the trigger on Pierce), and the Blazers used the sixth pick to tab Martell Webster.
Boston stood pat, drafted Gerald Green at No. 18, and went about mending fences with Pierce.
Pierce told the Celtics he wasn't sure how long he could hang in with a young, developing nucleus. They told him they needed him to make an honest commitment to the team, including tempering his nightlife. Neither side was particularly happy with where they stood.
Funny how Garnett and Allen cleared up so many issues for so many people.
Pierce has been consistent, unselfish, reliable, and positively buoyant this season. He sat for nearly 10 1/2 minutes in a tight game against Detroit March 5 without a complaint, then came in and nailed arguably the biggest shot of the night - a 3-pointer that pushed Boston ahead, 81-77. The Celtics won, 90-78. On Wednesday, after Pierce dumped in 14 points against Seattle in 26 minutes, coach Doc Rivers aptly termed him a "professional scorer."
As for his defense, the commitment has been there from the start. On the very first possession of this magical 2007-08 season against the Washington Wizards, Pierce, overplaying Caron Butler, deflected a pass, then clapped like an excited schoolboy when the ball grazed off Butler's fingers and out of bounds.
The new era of Celtics basketball was officially in motion. This season has been all about defense, because everyone knows that's how you win championships.
Pierce has maintained that's all he ever wanted - a shot to win it all. He is closer now than he's ever been. His life has slowed down. He's about to become a father. He has rededicated himself to conditioning, something he only did in spurts when he was younger. The influence of Allen, a fitness nut, is apparent.
"There was always that side of Paul," Ainge said. "He worked extremely hard, he just didn't do it every day."
Now, Ainge reports, on the offdays after back-to-back games, he can see Pierce from his office window doing sprints on the treadmill. In a recent conversation I had with Pierce, he told me he was so impressed with Allen's conditioning program he was going to implement it for himself this summer.
"You wait," he said, his eyes dancing, "I'm going to look like Ray someday."
That probably won't happen. But the fact Pierce wants it to is what counts.
The captain has grown up. And - finally - his teammates are grown-ups, too.