Wednesday, April 16, 2008
Celtics Playoff Preview
I can't believe, I really can't believe, that I haven't done a proper post on the Celtics since before the season. VTK is usually a pretty accurate reflection of my interests and the goings on in and around my life and head. How could I have so neglected one of the main interests in my life over the last 8 months? I can't remember the last time I've enjoyed watching the Celtics so much. Twenty years ago? Even during the dynasty of the 80's, I didn't get to watch as many of those games as I would have liked due to a lack of cable. This season, I've watched at least 50 games so far. Consequently, I think I'm a pretty good judge of the quality of this team and I'm here to tell you that their 66 wins and number one seed in the East are no flukes. This is a very, very good basketball team. The best in the league. But of course, this isn't soccer; they don't just give you the championship trophy for having the most points. First, my C's will have to wade through what promises to be one of the most interesting playoffs in recent history. I'll lay out a brief playoff preview, but first I give you an appreciative role call of the players who won those 66 games and completed the biggest franchise turnaround in NBA history. Because I don't buy into the Big Three label (not until they hoist a trophy like the original Big Three, at least), I'm going to review the play of the starters in order of their position numbers, and then the bench players in order of their importance to the team.
1. The Point Guard - Rajon Rondo
I been trying to tell ya. I been saying. I'm not saying I told you so, but ... Rondo is the perfect point guard for this team. And his improvement over the course of the year has proved me right. When you have three 20 + ppg scoring all-stars on your team, you do not need your point guard to score 15 to 20 points a game. You need a classic point guard who knows how to handle the ball, run the offense, see the floor, penetrate and dish, pick and roll, rack up assists, not turn the ball over, play tough, scrappy defense, and get steals. That's rondo, rondo, rondo, rondo, rondo, rondo, rondo, rondo, and rondo. Add the serviceable outside (non-3 pointer) jumper he's developed and he's my point guard. He's in the running for Most Improved Player in the whole NBA. Would I take Chris Paul or Deron Williams over him (or Steve Nash for the next year or so)? Of course. But short of them, I'll take Rondo. I think he's the most underrated point guard in the league. And a top notch character to boot.
2. The Shooting Guard - Ray Allen
The least ballyhoed of the three all-stars, Ray's the one I want taking the shot at the buzzer. Jesus Shuttleworth has been a straight up assassin at the end of games. Despite some minor injuries throughout the year, he's held up well enough to be a major contributor to this season. He's also kept himself out of the limelight, leaving me without much else to say about him. So I'll just say that he has one of the prettiest jump shots I've ever seen.
3. The Small Forward - Paul Pierce
I wouldn't call it quite "love hate", but I've had a like dislike relationship with Paul over the years. It may sound blasphemous to say this about one of the greatest Celtics, and therefore one of the greatest players, of all time, but it's true. Before this year, he always seemed to have a selfish streak in him, possibly as a result of the various chips he's carried on his shoulder. At the beginning of his career, he was motivated by being selected 10th in the draft and sought to be better than all who were picked above him (with the debatable exception of Dirk Nowitzki, he's done that). In the middle of his career, it was being considered inferior to at least three players that played the same position as him (Kobe, McGrady, and Vince Carter) and being left off all but one international "Dream" teams. This led him to become one of the best offensive players the court has ever seen, but it also led him to demand the ball in every critical possession, despite the fact that everyone in the building knew that he'd be taking the shots. I don't know. I've just seen him miss a lot of triple teamed shots at the end of games. In fairness, he's made a few of those too. Maybe I just didn't like him pouting and criticizing his teammates (many of whom were young, likeable players) on those bad teams.
But whatever that selfish thing about him was that I disliked, he's completely shed it this year. I'm guessing that's the result of the influence of KG. Or he's in the last third of his career and he realized that this is his best chance at a title. Or it's the winning. Whatever it is, Pierce has been the consummate team player this year on both the offensive and the defensive sides of the ball. With his deep shot threats and his world class moves driving to the hoop, he's one of the best offensive player's in the game. But now he's one of the better defenders in the game as well. And the defense is really what's taken this team from good to very good (I'm reserving "great" for when I see some rings on their fingers). And I'm not exaggerating: this is the second best defense in the history of the league, according to Basketball Prospectus.
4. The Power Forward - Kevin Garnett
If you think I've been slipping into hyperbole too much so far, I'd suggest that you skip this next section, because it's about to get sloppy up in this VTK. When Danny Ainge pulled the trigger on The Trade, I had my doubts. Ultimately, I thought it was probably a good move, but I wasn't sure that we weren't going to regret giving up Big Al Jefferson and emptying our bench (leaving us shallow beyond the starting team). I figured that Big Al was going to put up comparable numbers to what KG would put up and he'd be doing it for 8 to 10 more years. Both likely true observations but irrelevant. I'd seen KG play, I knew what a great basketball player he was, and I knew that he would continue that level of play with the Celtics. What I really had no idea about was what a force of nature his personality is. I wasn't ignorant about it. I'd heard all about his otherworldly intensity before he came to Boston, but you just can't really understand it until you watch him and follow him as closely as I have this year. He's insane. He's incredible. He's like a coked up mental patient out there. He's like a wild animal. It's awesome. You kinda wonder how he can sustain it, how he can get away with it, and how his teammates and officials put up with it. But he can, he does, and they do. And it's focused fury. Otherwise, he wouldn't be a great basketball player. But he can cooly hit that outside jumper all day long, get into position and make a key block on defense, and pin point his passes. There are better players than him, but there is no overall experience, no basketball phenomenon like him. Ever. He'll win the Defensive Player of the Year unanimously and he's got a legitimate shot at the league MVP, though I think that's going to go to Kobe as a career achievement award (the way Barkley and Malone won MVP's over Jordan because he always won and they never had, despite Jordan being the real MVP both of those years). So, Kobe will win the award, and Chris Paul and LeBron James will get some deserved votes, but KG is the most valuable player to his team because he completely transformed the way basketball is played in Boston and more than anyone else is responsible for the biggest win/loss turnaround in NBA history. But the MVP award doesn't matter. The NBA Championship matters. And it's likely that the real debate will be settled in old school fashion: the Boston Celtics versus the Los Angeles Lakers for the trophy.
5. The Center - Kendrick Perkins
"Perk" has really matured into a fine player. He might have done so last year but was hobbled by plantar's fascitus all year (aka a bum foot). The most unheralded player on the team, Perk usually only gets mentioned after 3 or 4 of the bench players behind him, but he's played an important role. He's not going to score you a lot of buckets (except for that one first quarter against the Knicks when Isiah decided they didn't have to guard him and he burned them for 15 points in the quarter (and what better place to say goodbye and good riddance to one of the biggest pieces of crap in the game: Isiah Thomas. You were an asshole as a player; you were an asshole as a coach. And you sucked royally at the latter. Go fuck yourself.)) So. Anyways. Perk isn't going to score a lot, but he brings a great attitude to the team with his tough, banging style of play down low. He had the attitude BKG (Before KG), but it has only intensified in the last year. He's down there rebounding, defending the big bruisers, and blocking shots every game.
Good god, this is a long post. I'll try to zip through the bench, but I have to give them their due, because what most people thought was going to be the C's Achilles' Heel has turned into one of their biggest strengths. I mentioned that I thought The Trade (or the trades, really) were going to leave the bench way too shallow for the C's to compete for a Championship. Again, I have to give Danny credit because he foresaw that he would be able to use the additions of KG and Ray to entice other quality players to come to the C's as role players: first James Posey, Eddie House, and Scot Pollard, and then later PJ Brown and Sam Cassell. Add one steal of a draft pick in the late first round, Glen Davis, and put it all in the pot with returning role players, Leon Powe, Tony Allen, and Brian Scalabrine, and then round out the end of the bench with a handy little player in Gabe Pruitt. All this adds up to a great bench to rest our aging three all-stars. I've been hyping Leon Powe since the beginning of last year and I'm glad that he's been getting major minutes in the second half of the season after being limited to garbage time in the first half. I love Leon's game. Remember: this guy was a 20-10 guy in the Pac 10. He can ball. The good thing about his sitting in the first half of the year was that it gave Big Baby Glen Davis the chance to prove that he belongs in the League. And he does. James Posey has been a huge pick up for the C's on both sides of the ball. Tony Allen seems to have his game back after blowing out his knee last year. (His "game" = dazzling/infuriating. Tony has unbelievable athleticism but makes some of the stupidest plays seen on an NBA court. His talent outweighs his low basketball IQ though and he's a quality back-up. I'm just still mad at him for fouling Chauncey Billups with 0.2 seconds left on the clock in a tied game. Chauncey "90% FTP" Billups. Anyways, I'm letting it go. I'm letting it go.) Other props go to Eddie House and more recently to Sam Cassell for the roles they've played.
And I'm not jumping on the Doc Rivers for Coach of the Year bandwagon, but I'll give him credit for being a good captain of this ship. He may be just staying out of the way and focusing on keeping an even keel, but sometimes that's all it takes. And if that's all it takes, this is all he gets in VTK props.
OK. That's the review and the props for the C's magical regular season. Now starts the real season: the postseason. As Boston fans know all too well from recent sports history, it don't mean a thing if you don't get that ring. I'm giddy with excitement about this season's NBA playoffs (not just the Celtics) and I'm writing this during the first half of the first game of the 4 v 5 matchup in the East. What would normally be the least exciting series has been incredible, with Agent Zero and King James both living up to the hype. Agent Zero hitting 3's from near half court; King James dunking alley oops from up near the scoreboard. Trash talking, near fights, tied at 46 at the half. All in the first half of the first game in what would normally be an uninteresting match up. This is going to be great. Here's how I see it playing out:
1E Celtics v 8E Hawks - Hawks are a fun team to watch, but not in the same league. C's in 4.
2E Pistons v 7E Sixers - The Sixers are an even funner, scrappier team to watch, but still not in the same league. Pistons in 5.
3E Magic v 6E Raptors - The least interesting of the 8 first round match ups. Both good teams, but the Magic are still a notch below the Celtics/Pistons tier of the East. Will Dwight Howard or Chris Bosh have a breakout playoff performance to try to get some of the attention that will be on the other 7 matchups? Magic in 6.
4E Cavs v 5E Wizards - The aforementioned awesome match up between two of the most entertaining players in the NBA: LeBron King James and Gilbert Agent Zero Arenas. The Cavs were in the Finals last year and the Wizards' 43-39 record would suggest they are an unremarkable team. But I'm taking the Wizards in this one. They played most of the regular season without Arenas and he's back in peak form now and the Cavs aren't as good as they were last year. It's tough to pick against LeBron in the first round, but I'll take the Wiz in 7.
1W Lakers v 8W Nuggets - You've gotta love the Denver offense with AI, Melo, Camby, and JR Smith lighting it up, and Nene, K-Mart, and Najera rounding out the floor; they won 50 games and are probably one of the best 8 seeds ever. But their defense is shit and that shit won't hit the fan against Kobe and Gasol. Laker's in 5. Maybe 6. No, 5.
2W Hornets v 7W Mavs - With Dirk, Howard, Kidd, etc. and 51 wins in the West, the Mavs might be the best 7 seed ever. And who's better than Kidd at the point? Oh yeah, Chris Paul. Hornets in 7.
3W Spurs v 6W Suns - With Amare, Shaq, Nash, Barbosa, etc and 55 wins in the West, the Suns probably are the best 6 seen in NBA history. And the Spurs are a tad worse than they were last year. But the Spurs won the NBA Finals last year (easily), so a tad worse than that is pretty good. With Ginobli taking it to another level, I can't see them losing in the first round. Last year was Phoenix's year and a bullshit suspension decision robbed us of seeing them in the Finals. This will probably be the best first round match up and an all out war. Home court advantage tips it to San Antone. Spurs in 7.
4W Jazz v 5W Rockets - No Yao, no Pow. The Rockets are Paypah Tigers. Jazz are a great team. What should be an interesting series given the quality of the West, will probably disappoint (relatively speaking). Jazz in 5.
1E C's v 5E Wiz - The Wiz won 3 out of 4 this year against the Celtics and will be jacked up after beating the Cavs. But the Celtics are better. They'll contain Agent 0, Butler, and Jamison, and take the series in 6.
2E Pistons v 3E Magic - Cream of the Crop rises to the top. Pistons in 5.
1W Lakers v 4W Jazz - Wow, what a series. Like I said, Jazz are a great team. But Kobe and Gasol get it done again, barely. Lakers in 7. (side note: I'm still so pissed that the Jazz released Derek Fisher from his contract, got nothing for it, and now will have to face him on the Lakers (where he signed so his sick kid could be closer to better medical care). Hopefully karma will serve them well. So pissed Part 2: I can't believe Memphis gave the Lakers Gasol for absolute garbage in return. What bullshit. I hate (fear?) the Lakers.)
2W Hornets v 3W Spurs - Gotta take the Spurs' experience. Chandler is not handling Duncan down low. Spurs in 6.
1E C's v 2E Pistons - Celtics in 6.
1W Laker's v 3W Spurs - Kobe in 7.
The NBA Finals
2008 Boston Celtics v 2008 Los Angeles Lakers - The dream match up for the TV Networks, the pundits, and all basketball fans in the world. The dream/nightmare match up for VTK. Ultimate basketball dream = Celtics beat the Lakers in the NBA Finals. Ultimate basketball nightmare = Lakers beat the Celtics in the NBA Finals. I don't know if I can emotionally handle this potential series. I may have to leave the country and live in a cave for a year.
The pick: No pick. No way. I'm not touching it.
Enjoy the playoffs. This first game has been tremendous; hopefully the rest of them will follow suit.