Struggling to assess the 2009-10 Celtics
Four days after the NBA season officially came to a close, I continue to have trouble leveling a final evaluation on this year’s ultimate runner-up, the Boston Celtics. Perhaps more pertinent than their status as Eastern Conference champs is the fact that this is my team, the group I live and die with all year every year, which may be part of why the Celtics confounded me at every turn this season and why I find it so difficult to draw conclusions as to the worth of this year’s campaign.
I don’t know how objective or rational I’m going to be able to be with this group. I don’t know how many blog posts it’s going to take to draw some semi-meaningful conclusion. But it seems worth taking a shot at exploring my ruminations on this team.
In the movie “Bulletproof,” Adam Sandler explains to Damon Wayans that while Wayans (and much of society) likes to see the world in black-and-white dichotomy, most of life is lived in the gray area. This Celtics team epitomized that rhetoric. Whereas the 24-win 2006-07 Celtics were out-and-out bad and the 66-win 2007-08 Celtics played championship-quality basketball through much of the season (albeit with a couple of hiccups in the early rounds of the playoffs), this year’s club had no discernible overriding theme or quality. This group never gave us a clue of what to expect on a nightly basis throughout the season and then morphed into an entirely different animal in the playoffs, albeit one that still possessed many of the flaws demonstrated all year.
Perhaps that what-to-expect issue is the key. As a stout believer in the idea that winning a championship is the ultimate end to justify all means as far as basketball operations are concerned (off-court misconduct excepted), I understand that in a vacuum, coming within one win of a title is a heckuva finish, no matter what came before it. In fact, if you told me at the start of the season that the Celtics would play a seventh game with the Lakers to decide to the 2010 Finals, I would have been just fine with that. It seemed reasonable to expect the Celtics, Lakers and Cavaliers to be the three teams with an inside track to the championship at the outset (that sound you hear is Magic fans mobilizing to storm my residence) and that with renewed health and reasonable handling of minutes, the Celtics would be right there at the end.
I couldn’t then definitively assert this crew to be better than either of the other two, and even if I could, the postseason is a test of small sample size. Anything can happen in a best-of-seven series, especially if the two teams involved are anywhere close to equally capable. In a league in which only one of 30 teams walks away a winner each season, fans are going to be awfully mopey a high percentage of the time if they treat any non-championship season as an abject failure. A Finals defeat wouldn’t have been what I wanted, but it would unquestionably have sufficed as an acceptable finish to the season for what I expected to be an excellent regular season team, likely winning somewhere between 55 and 65 games.
The Celtics further fueled expectations when they started talking about being one of the greatest teams of all time, led by new acquisition Rasheed Wallace’s predictions of a finish north of the 70-win mark. They opened the season with six wins out of the chute, including a victory in Cleveland followed by four straight double-digit wins, two of which came by margins greater than 30 points.
But as we would witness over the next five and a half months, despite a 23-5 start capped with a Christmas Day victory in Orlando, this was not an excellent regular season team. This was an average offensive team (finishing 15th in offensive efficiency), plagued by over-reliance on outside shooting and isolation sets, poor offensive rebounding (28th in offensive rebound rate) and an apparent inability to protect the basketball (tied for 26th in turnover percentage). At the other end, the Celtics remained one of the league’s best defensive teams but saw their defensive rating dive from first and second in 2008 and 2009 to fifth in 2010. The team rarely seemed to demonstrate that killer level of swarm-the-ball intensity that was on display defensively throughout the championship run two years ago.
More maddening than the deficiencies demonstrated by the statistics cited above was the night-to-night identity crisis the team displayed. While they were capable of beating anybody by double-digits on a given night, the Celtics also came out with a remarkable number of performances that varied from subpar to lackluster to outright listless, including home losses to Philadelphia, New Jersey, Memphis and Washington, the last two of which were memorably ugly and featured 20-plus-point deficits. They lost games on the road to the Clippers and Warriors and later found themselves destroyed by D-League call-up Earl Barron against the hated (and putrid) Knicks. The list goes on from there.
This sort of split personality manifested itself within single games as well. The team blew a dazzling array of double-digit leads after Christmas, prompting a miked Phil Jackson to tell his Lakers in the fourth quarter of Game 5 of the Finals, “This team has lost more games in the fourth quarter than anyone in the league, and they’re showing us why right now.” Ironically, that particular game happened to be the Celtics’ final victory of the season, but it was hard to play the disrespect card against with much heart against the Zen Antagonizer on that one. Truth stands up as a defense against slander claims.
The Celts led by nearly 20 points before folding in Orlando as Rashard Lewis blew by Kevin Garnett for the final bucket. They shot 3-for-21 and were outscored 35-14 in the fourth quarter by the Cavs to lose by 20 at home on a night when they led by double-digits early. They found every way imaginable to lose to the Hawks, dropping all four games to a younger, more athletic Atlanta team that would eventually top them by three games in the standings for the third spot in the East. Against Houston in April, they blew a six-point lead in the last three minutes of regulation, went 3-for-6 from the foul line in the final minute and allowed Aaron Brooks to hit a game-tying three-pointer before folding in overtime. Those are only a few of the more infuriating examples that come to mind quickly in glancing back at the year that was.
Yes, this team was far from perfectly healthy all season. Yes, in light of how 2008-09 turned out, it made sense to be as careful as possible with the health of the players, particularly the still-recovering Kevin Garnett. But that doesn’t change or excuse the fact that for so many stretches on so many different nights, the guys who were on the floor looked flat-out disinterested. Rasheed Wallace became the poster boy for it thanks to his reprehensible performance at both ends throughout the year, posting an awful 50.4 percent true shooting mark while making habit of arriving just in time on defensive rotations to half-heartedly slap at an opponent to grant him a foul shot on top of his lay-up. But Wallace was far from alone. Garnett and Kendrick Perkins often looked more interested in jabbering at opponents and referees than producing points and making stops. Rajon Rondo, the team’s best player on a lot of nights and most exciting asset every night, made first team All-Defense but still agitated observers with his insistence on gambling for steals at the expense of sliding his feet and keeping his man in front of him. At the other end, Rondo continued to struggle from the foul line and also commandeered an inordinate number of flabbergasting end-of-quarter possessions, too many of which seemed to end with him (the worst shooter on the floor) pounding the ball for several seconds and flinging a deep jumper at the buzzer. Rondo also did a lot of terrific things for this team, and I’m more than glad the Celts locked him up long-term. But the point is this: Nobody performed beyond reproach.
With each technical foul, with each they-didn’t-even-seem-to-care loss followed by lip service about how the players knew it was time to get their acts together followed by another they-didn’t-even-seem-to-care loss, rooting for this team became more of a chore than an enjoyable way to spend leisure time. On a personal level, I continued to appreciate sharing the season with my dad, with whom I chatted via phone after every game for the portion of the season when we were in different parts of the country and not watching together. I loved our lengthy post-game calls but began to grow somewhat weary with the two and a half hours I had to spend before them actually watching the team. Regardless of the result on a given night, this team wasn’t very likable.
By purely objective standards, 50 wins marks a season as good. In fact, the Celtics’ 50 wins made this one of their most successful regular seasons of the last two decades. But after the preseason talk, a 23-5 start and a 27-27 finish littered with unwatchable performances, it didn’t feel that way. I really like to think that I wasn’t spoiled by the championship in 2008, but it would be a lie to say I wasn’t immensely frustrated with this regular season. The way this team won its 50 games – or perhaps more significantly, lost 32 others – left so much to be desired. By the time mid-April rolled around, I felt ready for the season to end. The Celtics had to be good enough to pull it together enough to win a round before going out (right? right?), but after that, it looked bleak. Cleveland was better. Orlando was better. Atlanta was a match-up nightmare. For that matter, even a healthy Milwaukee team would have made me nervous. Thinking about the Western Conference at all seemed laughable.
Again, maybe it all comes down to the expectations issue. For a lot of teams, there’s nothing wrong with finishing in the top half of a conference, owning homecourt advantage in the first round of the playoffs and being ready to roll the dice as an underdog thereafter. This team gave us reasons to expect much more from it but failed to live up to those greater standards over the breadth of the regular season. At the start of the playoffs, it seemed only a championship could redeem the year, but while I’m all for faith as a fan (hey, the word is short for fanatic), I saw zero reason to believe such a result was in the realm of possibility.
That was my feeling two months ago. Since then, I’ve had the joy of witnessing a blissfully unexpected playoff run, watching this team rediscover shades of its old defensive intensity for key stretches, startlingly effective team offensive performances and a few tremendous individual efforts (Rajon Rondo’s historic triple-double in Game 4 of the semis comes to mind). After struggling in the first half of Game 1 against Miami, the Celtics woke up in the second half (keyed by Tony Allen, of all people) and only rarely looked back through the rest of the tournament, knocking out the teams with the two best regular season records (Cleveland and Orlando) and eliminating three of the game’s biggest stars (Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Dwight Howard) along the way.
The flaws didn’t magically disappear. Rondo’s play still alternated between brilliance and bewildering at times. Wallace didn’t turn into the playoff super-being some had hoped he would. The offense continued its trend of occasional long empty stretches. The technical fouls piled up. The 29-point home loss to Cleveland in Game 3 of the semis was an unmitigated disaster. A bizarre set of botched fourth-quarter executions cost the team Game 4 and a sweep of the Eastern Conference Finals against Orlando.
But the flaws did lessen. Wallace did submit a markedly better performance in the playoffs than he did in the regular season. Garnett experienced his share of struggles but also found shades of his old self, notably in the clincher against Cleveland. The defense played with ratcheted up intensity with considerably more consistency than we witnessed during the year. The team posted strong performances at home to finish off Miami, Cleveland and Orlando. I wasn’t ready to welcome Wallace back for the final two years of his contract, but I wasn’t as certain I had it right in my “Get him out of here at all costs!” April stance either. Nor was I sure if the future looked as bleak as I thought it did down the stretch in early spring. Most surprisingly and significantly, I believed again that this team could win a championship. I was far from alone.
So after all that, here we are: The Celtics came within one win of the 2010 championship. Five more points scored, five fewer points allowed, some combination thereof netting them at least a plus-5, that’s all it would have taken. They came thisclose.
To reiterated a point noted above, I felt before the playoffs that only a championship could justify the sort of regular season campaign we were subjected to from the Celtics all season. I also didn’t think the Celtics would get close enough for the gray area to become a factor.
I was wrong. They did.
I couldn’t be happier about that. The playoff run provided an incredible experience for the fans, and taken in a vacuum, I’m thrilled about how the last two months went. Of course, I would be that much more thrilled if it hadn’t ended with that loss in Los Angeles. But that doesn’t erase the three series and three wins in six games that preceded it.
But all of that also makes tougher to judge the team in the bigger picture. On one hand, I don’t feel unreasonable standing by my stance from the beginning of the playoffs. When you miss the mark so wildly through the course of the regular season, it seems fair that the bar rises significantly for the minimum playoff success required to salvage the year as a whole. But is it fair to say that five more points in one more game (a game in which they didn’t have their starting center due to injury, no less) justifies all the trials and tribulations of this season but coming just that short leaves all those overriding feelings of frustration about the 2009-10 campaign in place?
I don’t know.
That’s where I’m stuck right now. I don’t know how to articulate one uniform assessment of this Celtics team. I don’t even know why I feel so compelled to do so. Maybe I need to accept the principle atop this page, that this team can’t be defined with one black-or-white, good-or-bad label, that it lived in the gray area. Maybe I can remember the regular season angrily and the playoffs fondly.
I don’t know. Yet.
Since Thursday night, I’ve heard and read a lot from Celtics fans about how proud they are of this team, with some even going so far as to claim that it’s the proudest they have been of any Celtics team they have followed. I do know that I don’t share that sentiment, at least not to that extent (and that’s leaving aside for now the arguable silliness that accompanies the notion of taking pride in being a fan of a ball club of complete strangers). Without question, this team put on a show during the postseason that made me prouder to be a Celtics fan than I felt during the season. But I would be careful with the hyperbole beyond that.
For my part, I had more admiration for the 2008-09 club, just to name one, a team that began the season 44-12, finished it 18-8 even after Kevin Garnett’s devastating injury in Utah (though he did play limited in minutes in four of those games during a short-lived comeback attempt), won perhaps the most dramatic first-round series ever in seven grueling games against Chicago and then took eventual East champion Orlando to seven games despite Paul Pierce and Ray Allen running on fumes and the frontcourt being so depleted by injuries that Mikki Moore was expected to make key contributions. That was a team that earned our respect with its effort all season long and left everything and then some on the floor in the postseason before finally succumbing to elements too big for anyone to overcome. This year’s team put in some terrific work in a two-month burst at the very end, but much of the adversity it overcame was of its own creation. It finished with the better result, but I can’t say I loved the 2009-10 team quite the same way I did the 2008-09 group. Comparing this team to the 2007-08 group that treated every game like the seventh of the Finals would be an exercise in kidding ourselves.
I’m not sure how exactly this relates to the discussion in the body of the post above, but with all the pride rhetoric going around about this team’s playoff performance, I would have felt remiss not to bring it up.