Celtics Stirring Up High Hopes Again
MIAMI -- The Boston Celtics suddenly don't look so old and tired and beaten up anymore.
While the top-seeds in each conference -- Cavs and Lakers -- stumbled in their quest for a quick first-round series, the previously overlooked and over-aged Celtics may have found the magical elixir that could stir up the ghosts and dust off the banners of the NBA's most storied franchise.
It's the playoff fountain of youth.
The marathon regular season, that exposed them so badly they could have been left on the side of the road, has turned into a playoff adrenaline rush that has them believing one more push for a championship has begun.
"It is very realistic at this point. We feel like we are a championship team,'' said forward Paul Pierce after a meeting Saturday afternoon at the team hotel. "It's a great time of year to be finding the consistency, the momentum, that we struggled with the whole season. We're peaking at the right time. And if that happens, anything is possible.''
It was Pierce Friday night who put the dagger into the Miami Heat with his 21-foot, walk-off winning jumper, giving the Celtics a 3-0 series lead. They could finish the sweep Sunday afternoon, which would give them some real momentum heading into a second-round matchup, likely against the Cavaliers.
The Celtics, seeded No. 4 in the East, still have much the same team they had when they won the 2008 NBA title. The stars are a little older and worn down. Pierce, 32, Ray Allen, 34, and Kevin Garnett, 33, are no longer at their physical peaks. Yet their young supporting cast of Rajon Rondo, Kendrick Perkins and Big Baby Davis all are smarter and better than they were in that 2008 playoff run. They don't have journeymen James Posey and Leon Powe, who were key in that 2008 push, but they do have Rasheed Wallace and Michael Finley, with championship experience, in their place.
"I have no doubt that we can do it (win another title),'' said Celtics coach Doc Rivers Saturday. "That's what I've been saying all year. I think we can. It's something we'll have to find out.''
Two years ago, the Celtics won 66 regular season games, and carried the home-court advantage throughout their title run. This time, they won only 50 games, which means they likely would have to win the next three series without that same advantage, which could make the quest even more surprising.
"Stars are going to play like stars, home or on the road,'' Rivers said. "It's the role guys you worry about on the road. If they come through for you on the road, you've got a good chance to be successful. Rondo is light years ahead of where he once was.''
In 2008, Garnett, Pierce and Allen averaged 20.4, 19.7 and 15.6 pp, respectively, in the playoffs. In this first round series against Miami, the names have been shuffled, but the Big Three are averaging 20.3, 19.3 and 15.5 ppg. It's almost identical from two years ago. Instead of Garnett leading the charge, it's Pierce this time.
If the Celtics complete the sweep on Sunday, which they fully expect, they should get plenty of rest before the potential second-round matchup against the Cavs. In 2008, they had no series shorter than six games.
"We're capable of doing it again. We have the players, and the staff who have done it before,'' said Davis, a reserve forward averaging 11.7 points in this series. "Momentum in the playoffs can be a wonderful thing.''
Maybe the biggest factor in their favor today is their health. From start to finish in the regular season, the Celtics had injuries. Davis missed the first 27 games with a broken thumb. Garnett missed 10 games in the middle of the season with knee problems. Pierce missed games with knee, foot and ankle injuries.
"We're not here just to compete, to hang in there, or anything like that,'' Pierce said. "Almost everyone here has tasted a championship. They know what it takes. And there is no pressure on us now. People have counted us out.''
Pierce and Allen and Garnett have grown more accustomed to picking their spots, knowing they no longer can dominate games individually. In Game 3 Friday night, it was Garnett in the low post late. It was Allen from long-distance early. It was Pierce with the game-winner at the end.
"It's like running a marathon,'' said Allen Saturday. "You're not done until you cross the finish line. We have a finish line, and we have to cross it. We've been here before.''